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Capital punishment was last used in Australia in 1967, when Ronald Ryan was hanged in Victoria. Ryan was the last of 114 people executed in the 20th century and prior to his execution Queensland and New South Wales had already abolished the death penalty for murder. It was removed as a punishment for murder in all states by 1984 when the state of Western Australia abolished the death penalty for all crimes, and the next year NSW removed death as a possible punishment for treason, piracy and arson of naval dockyards.

Between Ryan's execution and 1980[citation needed], occasional death sentences were passed in Victoria, South Australia, and Western Australia, but were commuted to life imprisonment.


Public opinion

Australia banned capital punishment on a state-by-state basis through the 20th century, and today, the practice is widely condemned by most Australians. [1]

However, there have been recent cases where Australians contradicted this, such as the case of the Bali bombers, in which then Prime Minister of Australia John Howard, (correctly or not) stated Australians expected their execution by Indonesia. [2]

There are however no plans to restore capital punishment in Australia, and this can be considered an emotional reaction to a crime against the Australian people rather than an actual desire to do away with their anti-death penalty standard.


Death sentences were carried out under Aboriginal customary law, either directly or through sorcery. In some cases the condemned could be denied mortuary rites[3]. The first executions carried out under European law in Australia took place in Western Australia in 1629, when Dutch authorities hanged the mutineers of the Batavia.

Capital punishment had been part of the legal system of Australia since British settlement and during the 19th century, crimes that could carry a death sentence included burglary, sheep stealing, forgery, sexual assaults, murder and manslaughter and there is one reported case of someone being executed for "being illegally at large" and during the 19th century, these crimes saw about 80 people hanged each year throughout Australia.

Before and after federation, each state made its own criminal laws and punishments.



In 1973 the 'Death Penalty Abolition Act 1973[1] of the Commonwealth abolished the death penalty for federal offences . It provided in Section 3 that the Act applied to any offence against a law of the Commonwealth, the Territories or under an Imperial Act, and in s. 4 that "[a] person is not liable to the punishment of death for any offence".

No executions were carried out under the bridge of the federal government and the passage of the Death Penalty Abolition Act 1973[2] saw the death penalty replaced with life imprisonment as their maximum punishment. Since the Commonwealth effects of utilizing this Act no more individuals have been exposed to the death penalty and it is now replaced with life imprisonment.

On 11 March 2010 Federal Parliament passed laws that ensure the death penalty can never be reintroduced by any state or territory in Australia.[4]


No executions were carried out in the Australian Capital Territory, where federal legislation abolished capital punishment in 1973.

New South Wales

The last execution in NSW was carried out on August 24, 1939, when John Trevor Kelly was hanged at Sydney's Long Bay Correctional Centre for the murder of Marjorie Constance Sommarlad and capital punishment was abolished for murder in 1955 and for all crimes in 1984.

Northern Territory

Aborigines who lived in the Northern Territory came under the European law of Australia even though they did not have any contact with the government.

There were several outcries over Aborigines receiving mandatory death sentences for murder, leading to the passage of the Crimes Ordinance 1934 which allowed for discretionary sentences when both the accused and the victim were Aboriginal.

The last execution was a double hanging in 1952, and the death penalty was abolished 1973.


Queensland was the first state to abolish the death penalty in 1922. This came nearly a decade after Ernest Austin was hanged for the rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl.

Only one woman was hanged, Ellen Thompson, who was convicted of murdering her husband with the help of her lover.

South Australia

The Adelaide Gaol was the site of 50 hangings from Pitti Miltinda on 7 June 1861 to Glen Sabre Valance, murderer and rapist, on 24 November 1964 and 3 executions also occurred at Mount Gambier Gaol.

Only one woman was hanged: Elizabeth Woolcock on 30 December 1873 and her body was not released to the family and was buried between the inner and outer walls of the prison, identified by a number and the date of the execution.

In 1976, the Criminal Law Consolidation Act was modified so that the death sentence was changed to life imprisonment.


In the early days of colonial rule, Tasmania was known as Van Diemen's Land and was the site of penal transports. Mary McLauchlan was convicted in 1830 for infanticide, she was sentenced to both death and dissection[5]. She was the first and only woman to be hanged in Tasmania.

The last execution was in 1946, that of serial murderer and rapist Frederick Thompson.

The death penalty was abolished in 1968.

  • Trevor McClaughlin (1998). Irish Women in Colonial Australia. Allen & Unwin. ISBN 978-1-86448-715-2. 



Victoria was the site of the last judicial execution in Australia, when Ronald Ryan was hanged on 3 February 1967 after a prison guard had been shot while Ryan and fellow inmate Peter Walker escaped from Pentridge Prison on 19 December 1965. The two were recaptured on 6 January 1967, by which time they had already robbed a bank.

Despite a total lack of scientific forensic ballistic evidence, various missing pieces of evidence that would have cleared Ryan, and dire inconsistencies of eyewitnesses evidence, Ryan was found guilty of murder solely based on unsigned alleged verbals and unsigned alleged confessions said to have been made by Ryan to police. [7] [8]

Ronald Ryan was convicted of the murder and appeals to the Supreme Court of Victoria, the High Court of Australia were denied. Ryan made a final appeal to the Privy Council but was hanged seven days before a final decision was made by Her Majesty. [9]

Victoria abolished capital punishment in 1975. Ryan was the last of 186 executed felons. The number includes the triple murderer Edward Leonski, executed by the U.S. Army.

Western Australia

In Western Australia, between 1829 and 1855, hangings were performed at a variety of places, even the site of the offence and this changed in 1856, with the construction of the Perth Gaol, which became the main execution site in the state. The last change in site was in 1888, when what had been the Imperial Convict Establishment at Fremantle was first used for hangings. It had been renamed the Fremantle Prison in 1886 and handed over to the colonial government to be a major high security prison; 43 men (and 1 woman, Martha Rendell) were to be hanged there.

Hangings would take place at 8 a.m. on Monday mornings. The condemned would be woken at 5:30 a.m., showered, transferred to the condemned cell, given the services of a spiritual adviser, and offered a glass of whiskey. On leaving the condemned cell they would be taken to the gallows; usually only 60 seconds elapsed before the trap was pulled.

The last execution was that of Eric Edgar Cooke on 26 October 1964 at Fremantle Prison. Cooke had been convicted on one count of murder, but evidence and his confessions suggested he had committed many more.

Capital punishment was removed from the statutes of the state with the passage of the Acts Amendment (Abolition of Capital Punishment) Act 1984.


  1. ^ australia's policy on the death penalty - Australia's Position on the Death Penalty, Michael Walton, March 2003 This is a modified version of an article first published in the Human Rights Defender., New South Wales Council for Civil Liberties
  2. ^ Australians expect Bali bomber executions, says PMBy Sarah Smiles Canberra and Mark Forbes, October 13, 2007, Brisbane Times.
  3. ^ Traditional Aboriginal Law and Punishment - Part V – Aboriginal Customary Law and the Criminal Justice System, Law Reform Commission of Western Australia – Aboriginal Customary Laws Discussion Paper
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ Template:Cited book
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