Monday, 5 February 2007

Ronald Ryan forty years on

Key people involved in the trial and execution of Ronald Ryan last weekend commemorated the fortieth anniversary of his death - the last judicial hanging in Australia.

Ryan was hanged at 8am on 3 February 1967, in Melbourne's Pentridge Prison.

He was sentenced to death for the murder of prison officer George Hodson, who was shot during a prison escape by Ryan and Peter Walker in December 1965.

The escape sparked "the biggest police manhunt in the state's history," according to Mike Richards, Ryan's biographer.

Over 17 days on the run, they held up a bank at gunpoint and Walker killed an associate, fearing he would give them up to police.

Richards said there was "widespread and genuine fear [of the two men] in the Melbourne community", accompanied by "saturation media coverage" until they were recaptured.

Ryan, a long-term petty criminal before the prison escape, was given a mandatory death sentence following his conviction for murder.

Defence counsel Dr Philip Opas has always argued Ryan was innocent, pointing to inconsistent witness statements and confusion over whether his gun could be proven to have killed the prison officer.

But his biographer accepted his guilt, and last weekend Richards wrote that Ryan confessed to Pentridge prison governor Ian Grindlay the night before he was hanged.

He said Ryan had fired so Hodson would not recapture Walker, and quoted Ryan as saying: "I did shoot him. But I didn't mean to kill him . . . only to stop him."

Protest at 'political hanging'

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, most death sentences in Victoria were routinely commuted to life imprisonment.

In the summer of 1966-67, lawyers, students and church leaders organised an extraordinary campaign for clemency, but Liberal premier Henry Bolte appeared determined to prove his credentials on crime by insisting on Ryan's execution.

Pleas for mercy from key community leaders were concealed from Bolte's cabinet colleagues, and the premier ignored requests from Dr Opas to address cabinet. Members of Ryan's jury, who had not believed the death sentence would ever be carried out, also petitioned the state governor.

On the morning of the execution, thousands joined protests outside Pentridge Prison.

"Ryan was hanged for political reasons and I don't believe those kind of reasons have changed anywhere in the world where people are executed," Dr Opus said last week. "Bolte said 'nothing transcends politics'."

Former Anglican bishop Tom Frame noted the day before the anniversary that: "At the Victorian state elections held 85 days after the execution, Bolte increased his party's primary vote and parliamentary majority."

Ryan's other legacy: Abolition
The controversy surrounding Ryan's hanging generated widespread revulsion at the use of the death penalty - and its politicisation - and created the momentum for eventual abolition across Australia.

According to biographer Mike Richards, who led student protests in the months before the execution, "it marks the event that prompted state governments still retaining the death penalty to cut the crimson thread running through Australia's history and abolish capital punishment".

"It ensured that no government anywhere in the country would politically risk imposing the death penalty again," Richards wrote.

Over the next 18 years, capital punishment was abolished under Commonwealth law and in seven states and territories. By 1985, the country was completely abolitionist.


Anonymous said...

Read what Ronald Ryan's defence lawyer has to say regarding "allegations" that Ryan was guilty. Then allow the public to make up their own minds whether Ryan was guilty or innocent.

Anonymous said...

Why don't you ask for Dr Philip Opas QC (Ronald Ryan's defence attorney) for his comments. Opas is in a better position than Richards to speak about Ryan's case. Furthermore, Opas isn't trying to sell a book based on false assertions.

Asia Death Penalty said...

Thanks Anon, and perfectly happy for people to make up their own minds.