Capital Punishment Laws

Jul 20, 2018 0 comments
Queensland was a part of New South Wales until 1859, and subject to the laws of that colony until that time.

When the First Fleet arrived in New South Wales, there were over 200 capital crimes under British Law. The first colonial hanging of a convict - for stealing food - took place just one month later. 

The bodies of executed murderers were dissected afterwards, a requirement under the Murder Act 1752, a law designed to make the punishment for that crime worse than it was for people who were hanged for lesser crimes.

Hanging in Chains - the punishment of placing the dead bodies of executed prisoners in cages suspended on the side of roads - was abolished in New South Wales in 1837.

Public Hanging hanging was abolished in New South Wales in 1855, with new legislation requiring hanging to be conducted within prison grounds. The amount of privacy this afforded was dependent upon the height of the prison walls. Authorities sometimes had to drape the gallows in black cloth to prevent people watching from beyond the walls.

By 1900 the list of capital crimes in Queensland had been reduced to just four - treason, rape, murder and attempted murder.
The Abolition of Hanging in Queensland
Political and public support for the abolition of the death penalty grew throughout Queensland during the early 1900s. This was due to various reasons, including the controversial executions of convicted murderers Patrick Kenniff (1903) and Arthur Ross (1909) - both of whom had strong public sympathy - and the rising strength of socialist elements within the Queensland Labor Party. The abolition of capital punishment had official Labor Party support from 1910, and after the party won power in 1915 it introduced an abolition Bill.

The main arguments put forward against capital punishment at this time were:

  • Religious: Prisoners would be deprived of their full time for repentance. 
  • Medical: Criminals sometimes had ‘mental disease’. 
  • Utilitarian: Hanging failed to act as a deterrent. 
  • Legal: Sentences were irrevocable even though mistakes had been made in the past. 
  • Moral: The punishment did not fit the case nor effect the reformation of the offender. 
The arguments for retaining it included:

  • The government had more pressing concerns at that time (World War 1) 
  • Capital punishment was a deterrent to crime. 
  • The absence of the death penalty would result in the rise of ‘lynch law’. 
Although the Bill failed, all death sentences after this time were commuted. Overall, there were 118 commuted death sentences during the Boggo Road era. In 1922 the Labor-controlled parliament successfully passed a Bill abolishing capital punishment, by a vote of 33 to 30. Queensland had become the first part of the British Empire to abolish the death sentence, but the event passed without fanfare in the press.

Tasmania abolished the death penalty in 1968, and the federal government did so in 1973 (which also applied to the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory), followed by Victoria (1975), South Australia (1976), Western Australia (1984), and New South Wales (1985). Federal legislation passed in 2010 prohibited the reintroduction of capital punishment by any state or territory.

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