Tough fight remains to halt barbaric death penalty
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Tough fight remains to halt barbaric death penalty

The last time the death penalty was used in Australia was when Ronald Ryan was hanged in Pentridge prison in Victoria on February 3, 1967, for the murder of a prison officer during a daring escape with a fellow prisoner. I had got to know Ryan quite well when I was working in Pentridge as an education officer in the early 1960s and I had even met his wife and daughters at a public exhibition of products of prison education programs.

I was understandably distressed by the hanging even though I had not seen Ryan for some years. I also had some doubts as to whether or not he fired the shot that killed the prison officer. There was no doubt that he overpowered a prison officer on a guard tower in the course of the escape, but, in my view it was not conclusively proven that he fired the fatal shot. There is no doubt, however, that while committing a felony (the escape) the prison officer was killed and therefore Ryan and his accomplice were guilty of felony-murder, for which the penalty was death.

Ryan and his accomplice were on the run for several weeks before they were arrested in Sydney and later extradited back to Victoria. The story of the escape, search and trial made headlines around Australia for several weeks and when the hanging took place it made headlines around the world. Ryan's accomplice had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment, but Victorian premier Sir Henry Bolte was determined that Ryan should hang.

As I recall, public opinion on the death penalty in Victoria was evenly divided at the time, with only a very small number being undecided. This recollection is partially confirmed by public opinion polling on this issue from 1947 to 2009. Over this long period Roy Morgan periodically conducted a poll which asked respondents: ''In your opinion, should the penalty for murder be death or imprisonment?''

In August 1995, 53 per cent favoured death and 36 per cent imprisonment, but in November 2005, only 27 per cent favoured death and 66 per cent imprisonment.

The most recent Morgan poll, in December 2009, was even more emphatic in its rejection of the death penalty, with only 23 per cent supporting this option. At the same time, however, a separate Morgan poll found that 50 per cent of the public still favoured the death penalty for Australians found guilty of drug trafficking in Asian nations where the death penalty continues to be imposed.

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Despite this aberration, it seems safe to conclude that, apart from exceptional circumstances, the Australian public is fairly strongly opposed to the death penalty and there is no clamour for its return. At the time of the Ryan hanging every jurisdiction in Australia supported capital punishment, apart from Queensland where it was abolished in 1922.

In the following 18 years, however, hanging was abolished in every state and territory, the last to do so being NSW in 1985.

The death penalty is still widely used in at least 18 other countries, most notably China and the United States as well as our near neighbours, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. A much larger number retain the death penalty as a legal option but do not use it in practice. Moreover, the number of countries abolishing the death penalty each year seems to be increasing.

In those countries which still use the death penalty, the methods of execution vary widely and include beheading, shooting, electrocution, lethal injection, hanging and stoning, while in the past even more ingenious and revolting methods have been used. The highest number of executions each year in any country is in China (excluding Hong Kong and Macau which are separate legal jurisdictions), but on a per capita basis the rates of execution are higher in Singapore and Iran than they are in China.

The actual number of executions conducted in China is a state secret, but the annual total for 2009 was estimated by Amnesty International to be at least 1718, and some other estimates suggest that the totals have been decreasing in recent years. Other nations with high numbers of executions in 2010 are: Iran (252-plus), North Korea (60-plus), Yemen (53-plus), US (46-plus), Saudi Arabia (27-plus), Libya (18-plus) and Syria (17-plus). In the other nations which practised capital punishment, the totals were in single figures.

Capital punishment must be the most researched area of criminology or justice policy. So much information is available that humble self-employed researchers could easily feel that they are likely to drown in an ocean of statistics, charts and highly emotional accounts of specific executions, but the general picture becomes clear after several hours of study: more nations are abolishing the death penalty each year and, those that have not, seem to be using it less often. Nevertheless, it seems likely that it will take many decades, perhaps even centuries, before this barbaric practice is completely eliminated from all parts of the world.

To conclude on a happier note: in 2003 I visited the beautiful Himalayan nation of Bhutan and while I was there the Chief Justice of the Royal High Court asked me if I would read and comment on a draft criminal code which had been prepared as part of the move towards democracy. In undertaking this task I noticed that the statutory penalty for murder was death. I suggested among other reasons that this was inconsistent with the Buddhist religion which was the foundation of Bhutanese law. The Chief Justice agreed with me and a few months later a royal decree announced the abolition of capital punishment forthwith.

Just occasionally, major law reform is relatively easy.

  • David Biles is a Canberra-based consultant criminologist.