Capital punishment – or the death penalty – was practiced in all Australian states from the beginning of European settlement until well into the twentieth century. The death sentence was applied for a variety of crimes, including sheep stealing, forgery, rape, burglary as well as manslaughter and murder.
Up until the 1850’s some of these legal executions were carried out in public, with the hanging of John Knatchbull in front of Darlinghurst Gaol in Sydney, carried out before a crowd of some 5000 people.
Capital punishment was abolished at different times from state to state with the earliest abolition occurring in Queensland back in 1922 – making Queensland also the first part of the British Commonwealth to abolish hanging.
This was well ahead of the rest of Australia – the next state to follow this example was Tasmania, 46 years later in 1968.
The impetus for abolition came through he Queensland Labor Government, under the Premier Edward Theodore, that introduced an abolition bill in 1915 with the main arguments against capital punishment at the time being:
- Prisoners could not fully repent of their crime if executed
- Many prisoners were mentally ill
- There was no evidence that capital punishment acted as a deterrent
- There was the possibility that innocent people could be executed
The “pro” campaigners argued that:
- There were more important issues at the time – the First World War
- Capital punishmentwas in fact a deterrent to crime.
- The absence of the death penalty would result in the rise of public vigilantism.
The Bill was rejected but was again brought before Queensland Parliament in modified form in 1922. This time, the Criminal Code Amendment Act was passed and this provided that:
‘The sentence of punishment by death shall no longer be pronounced or recorded, and the punishment of death shall no longer be inflicted.’
Capital punishment was formally abolished in Queensland from 3 July 1922.
Image: The Boggo Road Gaol was where 42 people were put to death by hanging. It was also the jail where Ernest Austin was executed in 1913, the last such execution in Queensland. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.