Capital punishment in Australia

Capital punishment in Australia

Capital punishment was last used in Australia in 1967, when Ronald Ryan was hanged in Victoria, he was the last of 114 people executed in the 20th century and previous 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 totally when NSW removed death as a possible punishment for treason, piracy and arson of naval dockyards.

Executions in Australia were carried out by hanging.

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

The death penalty does not apply to any offence within the Commonwealth of Australia and the "Death Penalty Abolition Act 1973"ref|DPAA of the Commonwealth provides the legislative basis for its abolition, with Section 4 stating "A person is not liable to the punishment of death for any offence".



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.


No executions were carried out under the jurisdiction of the federal government and the passage of the Death Penalty Abolition Act 1973ref|DPAA saw the death penalty replaced with life imprisonment as their maximum punishment. Since the Commonwealth effects of utlizing this Act no more individuals have exposed to the death penalty and now is replaced to life imprisonment with a 20 year sentence with a standard non-parole period.


No executions were carried out in the Australian Capital Territory, which 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 1985 except for treason in the time of war and piracy (basically murder on the high seas).

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.

outh Australia

The Adelaide Gaol was the site of 50 hangings from Pitti Miltinda on 7 June 1861 to Glen Valance, murderer and rapist, on 24 November 1964 and a number of executions also occurred at Mount Gambier Gaol and Port Lincoln Prison at various times throughout the 1800s.

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 and Mary MacLaughlan was hanged in 1830, the last woman hanged in Tasmania.

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

The death penalty was abolished in 1968.

*cite book | author=Trevor McClaughlin | title=Irish Women in Colonial Australia | publisher=Allen & Unwin | year=1998 | id=ISBN 978-1-86448-715-2


Victoria was the site of the last judicial execution in Australia and Ronald Ryan was hanged on 3 February 1967 after a prison guard had been shot while Ryan and another man escaped from Pentridge Prison on 19 December 1965 and the two were not recaptured until January 1966, by which time they had already robbed a bank.

During his trial, the defence pointed out that the guard supposedly shot by Ryan was much taller than him, but the bullet trajectory was downwards, indicating it had been shot from above and a prison guard even admitted to firing a shot in the general direction of Ryan and the guard to prevent the escape. Ronald Ryan was convicted of the murder and when appeals to the Supreme Court of Victoria, the High Court of Australia and the Privy Council were denied, he was hanged.

Victoria abolished capital punishment in 1975.

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) would be hanged there.

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


* [ "Death Penalty Abolition Act 1973"]
* [ Capital Punishment] from the Fremantle Prison site
* [ Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice No. 3: Capital punishment] from the Australian Institute of Criminology
* [ Dhakiyarr Wirrpanda - Appeal for Justice]
* [ "Capital Punishment"] speech by The Ian Callinan, Justice of the High Court of Australia
* [ The History of Correctional Services in South Australia]

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