The return of capital punishment


The condemned man enjoyed a full moon. Image by prettysleepy2,

In February, my attention was caught by a bizarre story about the Sri Lankan government advertising for two public executioners of “strong moral character”.

I let it go at the time, as the topic seemed too morbid for FOMM readers. But that was before Donald Trump’s government last month re-introduced capital punishment in the US for Federal offences.

People in Trump’s government have been lobbying to reintroduce capital punishment, last used in 2003. The main target is drug traffickers, as the US battles to staunch its opioid crisis. Trump has also tweeted that the death sentence should apply to ‘mass shooters’. After this week’s racially-motivated shootings in the US, Trump is sticking to this line, resisting calls for firearm controls saying ‘hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun’.

The capital punishment debate should pique the curiosity of Australians born after 1967, because that was when the last person was executed in this country. Ronald Ryan had the dubious honour of being the last man to step up to the scaffold in February 1967. One of my former lecturers, the late Keith Willey, was the only journalist to attend the execution of Ryan in Pentridge Gaol.

Ryan, who had been founded guilty of killing a gaol warden, said to the hangman before the trapdoor opened: “God bless you – whatever you do, do it quickly.”

Actor Lewis Fitz-Gerald directed a 1993 documentary-drama based on the Ryan execution. Fitz-Gerald also played the part of his late uncle (Keith Willey).  The Last Man Hanged also starred Colin Friels as Ryan.

Keith Willey wrote at least eight books, including “You might as well laugh, mate’, published posthumously in 1984. Willey’s Walkley-award studded journalism career included covering wars in Israel, South Vietnam and Cambodia and racial massacres in Cyprus and Kuala Lumpur.

Ryan’s execution happened at a time of growing public dissent about capital punishment. There were demonstrations, vigils and petitions. The Federal government abolished capital punishment (including the ACT and NT) in 1973. Queensland had already abolished it (in 1922), NSW in 1939 and Tasmania in 1968. Other states lagged behind including Victoria (1975), South Australia (1976) and Western Australia (1984).

As you know, I delight in uncovering apparently little-known facts, this one being the derivation of ‘capital punishment’, which is from the Latin ‘caput’ literally taken to mean decapitation.

There are a few fundamental flaws with capital punishment, the main one being that it has been shown on many occasions that innocent men (and women) were executed by mistake.

Many books have been written on this subject and more than 50 mainstream movies made, including The Green Mile, Dead Man Walking, Monster’s Ball and 12 Angry Men. People have marched in the streets over this issue, just as they are doing now in Sri Lanka and Thailand.

Nonetheless, we find ourselves in an era where conservative/right wing governments prevail. For governments of this ilk, capital punishment appeals as a deterrent. It is also a symbol of the strong hand of populist government, getting tough on crime, when the real issues are racism, poverty and the control of wealth in the hands of a few.

I’ll get off my soapbox now, as there seems no need for it in a supposedly enlightened first world country that is highly unlikely to ever re-introduce capital punishment. Federal, Territory and State governments have enough on their plates with high rates of suicide and deaths in custody. There are also emotive cases where governments are called on to defend Australian citizens convicted of crimes in countries that do have the death penalty.

Diplomatic interventions and other legal challenges failed to save convicted drug traffickers Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. These two members of the now-infamous ‘Bali Nine’ were both executed by firing squad in April 2015. In the 1980s, convicted drug traffickers Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers were executed in Malaysia.

There have been others and there are certain to me more, given the human potential for risk-taking.

Amnesty International says there were at least 690 executions, in 20 countries, in 2018, a decrease of 31% compared to 2017 (at least 993). This figure represents the lowest number of executions that Amnesty International has recorded in the past decade. There are 106 countries where use of the death penalty is not allowed by law, including Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the UK and South Africa. However 56 countries, most in Asia and the Middle East, still retain the death penalty. Amnesty says that just four countries accounted for 84% of the executions (Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia). This does not include China which keeps its statistics secret. Amnesty estimates China executes thousands every year.

Twenty-nine of America’s 50 states hand down and carry out death sentences, even though authorities have admitted that 10 people who died were ‘probably’ innocent. More worryingly, 140 people who were on death row were subsequently exonerated.

Now here is something all Australians need to know (whether you agree or disagree). Twenty Australian political parties were asked before the 2019 election about their political stance on the death penalty – yes or no. Three parties – One Nation, United Australia Party and Shooters, Fishers and Farmers – answered yes. The three major parties answered no and 11 parties did not respond to the survey.  

The death penalty is a subject that is always up for debate,. From an ethical and moral standpoint it is indefensible. It can also be argued that by using capital punishment as a deterrent (which it isn’t), the countries who use it are clinging to concepts dreamt up in much less enlightened times.

Some of you may have seen the ABC’s Australian Story interview with former state executioner for Virginia, Jerry Givens. Givens says he is on a mission to highlight the decline in capital punishment in the US (executions fell from 98 in 1999 to a low of 20 in 2016 (25 in 2018).

This is long and far from cheery, but it is intriguing to read about capital punishment from the perspective of the ultimate insider. Givens legally executed 62 people from 1982 until forced to resign in 1999 over criminal charges which saw him serve a stint in prison.

State executioners are almost always sworn to secrecy so their place in society is rarely known about or discussed. Givens said even his wife did not know until it came to light in reports of his own brush with the law.

All up, 15,760 people have been executed in the US since 1700, with lethal injection now preferred over past methods including electrocution, hanging, gassing, firing squad and burning. It does make you think about the men and women involved in carrying out their official duties.

“So, Grandad, what did you really do at the Correctional Centre?”

Australia’s record looks comparatively benign, although executions were commonplace in the early days of settlement.

An Institute of Criminology report states that in 19th century Australia, as many as 80 persons were hanged each year. The crimes included murder, manslaughter, burglary, sheep stealing, forgery and sexual assault.  Since Federation (1901), only 114 persons have been legally executed in Australia.

Maybe so, but that’s too many to have on our collective conscience.


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