"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." - Oscar Wilde

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Remembering the trauma of Australia's last execution

Ronald Ryan
Ronald Ryan
Fifty years ago this week, Ronald Ryan was the last man hanged under the death penalty – it’s a reminder of why we should never entertain its return

Fifty years ago, Jan, Wendy and Pip Ryan huddled in the lounge room of their Hawthorn home and waited for the state of Victoria to kill their father. Their mother, Dorothy, had turned off the radio and TV. “Mum had everything dead quiet,” Wendy told the Age in 2007. It was an effort to strip away all the scrutiny that had marked the high-profile case of her condemned husband, Ronald Ryan. They held each other and wept.

Ronald Ryan was the last person executed in Australia. What made his case extraordinary was Victorian premier Henry Bolte’s determination to see him hang, the protests that erupted across a nation turning away from capital punishment, and the role of the media in campaigning for Ryan’s life.

A recent Melbourne Herald Sun article about the Ryan case quoted Bolte’s notorious response to a journalist who had asked what the premier was doing when the execution took place at 8am half a century ago: “One of the ‘S’s’, I suppose,” said Bolte. “A shit, a shave or a shower.”

Comments at the bottom of the article cheered for Bolte and for the return of the death penalty. That’s no surprise. Populist measures for dealing with crime and national security have been gaining traction for more than a decade.

It’s easy to call for the reinstatement of capital punishment when you think about it in the abstract. As time passes and memories fade we lose sight of the trauma the death penalty causes for all involved. We forget the flaws, political point-scoring and arbitrariness that characterises its implementation, and we avoid confronting the immensity of the act of taking another’s life.

In 1965, Ryan was serving time for a string of petty thefts. He was desperate to save his relationship with his wife and to see his young daughters. He devised a plan with fellow inmate Peter Walker to break out. During the escape, prison guard George Hodson was shot and killed. People were shocked by the crime and fearful during Ryan’s 19 days on the run with Walker.

The trial evidence presented by the Crown was weak, and the question of who fired the fatal shot remains contested.

The case divided public opinion. When the jury found Ryan guilty, Justice John Starke imposed the mandatory sentence of death. Many, including jury members, expected the state government to commute his sentence to a prison term. Judicial executions had become rare and public support for capital punishment was in decline. Since 1951, all thirty-five capital cases in Victoria had been commuted.

Tensions escalated when Bolte announced his resolve to hang Ryan. Melbourne newspapers, universities, churches and some lawyers, campaigned against Bolte’s position. Some speculated he wanted to look strong on law and order for upcoming elections. Barry Jones, leader of the Victorian Anti-Hanging Committee said: “I doubt that Ryan had any intention to kill, but I am certain that Bolte did.”

Click here to read the full article

Source: The Guardian, Cameron Muir, February 4, 2017

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