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Capital punishment in New Zealand first appeared in a codified form when New Zealand became a British territory in 1840, and was first employed in 1842. It was last used in 1957, abolished for murder in 1961, and abolished altogether, including for treason, in 1989. During that period that it was in effect, 85 people were executed.
The method of execution was by hanging. At first, there were many possible execution sites all around the country, but later, the only two cities where hangings were carried out were Wellington (the capital) and Auckland (now the largest city). Initially, there was no professional hangman employed—the executioner was simply chosen from among any who were deemed qualified. On occasion, convicted criminals were employed as hangmen, often in exchange for reduced sentences or monetary reward. In 1877, the sheriff of Blenheim recommended that a professional executioner be hired. Tom Long, an Irishman who claimed to have been an executioner in Australia, was hired as the first official hangman. He was the only official hangman to be publicly known; others remained anonymous.
The first person to be sentenced to death was a Māori youth named Kihi, who was found guilty of murdering a white shepherd. However, he died of dysentery before the sentence could be carried out. The first person to be executed was Wiremu Kingi Maketu, who was found guilty of murdering five people on Motuarohia Island, in the Bay of Islands. The people killed were Thomas Bull, employed by Elisabeth Roberton, who was also murdered along with her son aged eight, her daughter of two, and a girl of nearly three named Isabella Brind, the natural daughter of one Captain Brind by a Maori woman, the daughter of Rewa, chief of Ngapuhi in that area. Mrs Roberton's husband, Captain John Roberton, had drowned prior in Paroa Bay, just opposite the island. Thomas Bull had a reputation for strength and brutality. He seemed at all times to have made a set at Maketu and had on several occasions struck, thrown, or otherwise maltreated him. Maketu, was unable to defend himself against such an opponent; nor indeed did it conform with his notions of dignity to do so, he being by virtue of his chiefly rank above combat with one who was a servant and whom he therefore regarded on the same plane as a slave. Maketu, therefore, bided his time for revenge. Maketu then killed Thomas Bull in the night with an axe; he then brutally murdered Mrs Roberton, who was shouting abuse at him and then went to murder the two girls (ransacking the house and then burning Mrs Roberton and the two children within it). The boy ran up Pa Hill, where Maketu chased him and threw him off the 200ft cliff. He was sentenced to death by an all-white jury (his defence had wanted a half-white, half-Māori jury) in an Auckland court, and executed in March 1842.
All the people executed were men, except Minnie Dean, found guilty of infanticide in 1895, and all were convicted of murder, except for Hamiora Pere, convicted of treason. The last person to be executed was Walter James Bolton, for poisoning his wife, on February 18, 1957.
When the Labour Party formed its first government following the 1935 general election, it commuted all death sentences to life imprisonment. In 1941, the Crimes Amendment Act changed the penalty for murder from death to life imprisonment with hard labour. The only crimes for which the death penalty still applied were treason and piracy.
The Labour Party lost power to the more conservative National Party, which had pledged to reintroduce capital punishment. During the time that the National Party was in office, 36 people were convicted of murder, and 22 of those were sentenced to death. The final decision on executions rested with Cabinet, and only eight of the condemned were executed.
According to Department of Justice historian Pauline Engel, the British Royal Commission on Capital Punishment (1953) may have heavily influenced the rise of abolitionism, as did the controversies that surrounded the executions of Harry Whiteland and Edward Te Whiu, which raised questions about post-war trauma, intellectual and developmental disability as factors for leniency. A National Committee for Abolition of the Death Penalty was formed in November 1956, with branches in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin.
Engel and Maureen Goring have drawn attention to the involvement of Protestant Christian opposition to capital punishment. In 1941 and 1951, the Christian Social Justice League, Christchurch Anglican Diocesan Synod and Methodist Public Questions Committee supported abolition, as did individual Catholics, although their hierarchy remained neutral in this debate. The New Zealand Theosophical Society also opposed capital punishment, and the Churches of Christ and Baptist Union declared its opposition in the late fifties. As religious opposition grew, it provided opponents of capital punishment with an organisational base that was used to good effect.
In 1956, a proposal for a referendum on capital punishment was put forward by the Minister of Justice, Jack Marshall. This referendum was to be voted on during the 1957 general election, but the proposal was defeated. The election saw a short-lived Labour government elected, but no changes were made before the National Party regained power in the 1960 election.
In 1961, the National Party reaffirmed its support for the death penalty, although restricted its use to premeditated murders, and those committed during another crime or during an escape from custody. The issue of capital punishment generated debate within the National Party—the Minister of Justice in the Second National Government, who was responsible for introducing the Crimes Bill, Ralph Hanan, was an opponent of the death penalty, while Jack Marshall, the Deputy Prime Minister, was a strong supporter.
The issue came to a conscience vote in Parliament, and ten National MPs crossed the floor to vote with the Labour Party. The result was a majority of 11 against capital punishment, 41 to 30. The ten National MPs were Rev. Ernest Aderman, Gordon Grieve, Ralph Hanan, Duncan MacIntyre, Robert Muldoon, Herbert Pickering, Logan Sloane, Brian Talboys, Mrs Esme Tombleson and Herbert John Walker. The death penalty was thereby abolished for murder, being retained only for treason and other similar acts.
These last remnants of the death penalty were abolished under a Labour government in 1989 without any further executions having taken place. Occasional calls still surface for it to be reintroduced, but no major political party has made capital punishment part of its manifesto. While the now-defunct fundamentalist Christian Heritage New Zealand party did so, it only commanded one to two percentage points of public support in most opinion polls until its dissolution in 2006. Evangelical Christians disagreed profoundly about capital punishment amongst one another, as The Kiwi Party (formerly Future New Zealand), did support restoration of capital punishment. Many otherwise conservative Catholics also opposed restoration.