• cvanderhoven

100 YEARS SINCE THE ABOLITION OF DEATH PENALTY IN QUEENSLAND


On 31 July 1922, Queensland became the first state in Australia and the Commonwealth to abolish the death penalty, the laws ultimate sanction, with the Criminal Code Amendment Act 1922 receiving narrow assent, 33-30, and became law on 1 August 1922.


Before the abolition, the death penalty was in force for 83 years, legally putting to death 91 men and one woman for a multitude of brutal and heinous crimes.

Although the penalty was abolished in 1922, the last execution was performed on 22 September 1913 at Boggo Road Gaol, with Ernest Austin sentenced to death for the murder of 11-year old Ivy Mitchell.


The Process of Sentencing to Death


Capital offences were heard in the Supreme Court, before a jury of twelve. If the jury delivered a verdict of guilty, the Judge would place a square of black silk on his wig and would state that he now had to pass the sentence of the law.


‘...which upon you will be returned to your former custody and that, at a time appointed by the Governor-in Council, you will be hanged by the neck until you are dead. And may God have mercy upon your soul’.


The individual was then returned to their cell to await execution or a last effort bid of prerogative mercy. In a Memorandum issued to the Colonies, dated 27 June 1880, it was requested that execution take place on the first Monday proceeding three Sunday’s after the sentence was handed down. This generally held true, with the majority of executions in Queensland taking place on a Monday morning at 8:00am.


In 1901 the Criminal Code was enacted, and rape and robbery under arms ceased to be capital offences. In 1922, the offences punishable by death were:


  • Treason;

  • murder;

  • wilful murder;

  • piracy and attempted piracy;

  • assault; and

  • danger to life.


A medical officer was required at each execution to pronounce death after one hour had elapsed. One hour was selected as, if the neck was not broken during the hanging, the heart could continue beating for up to twenty minutes, making the death slow and painful and the prisoner would eventually die from strangulation. All witnesses were required to remain, until the individual was pronounced deceased.


The Abolition


The road to abolition was gradual and ignited much debate. The act of hanging was considered inhumane, disgraceful and old fashioned. It was deemed that criminals deserved a chance to be reformed and a second chance to prove their innocence and the way to do this was through imprisonment. Although others still believed that such offenders were beyond reform and deserved severance through capital punishment.


The petitioning for abolition began in the late 1800s and early 1900s, including from the controversial executions of convicted murders Patrick Kennif (1903) and Arthur Ross (1909), both of whom had public sympathy and an increasing strength of socialist elements within the Queensland Labour Party.


Reflecting on the application of the sanction, it has been revealed that the sanction was not applied evenly and irrespective of race. Aboriginals, South Sea Islanders and the Chinese were disproportionately represented in the number of executions and Aboriginals convicted of rape were more likely to be hung, then their European counterparts. In some cases, an individual’s race was taken into consideration by the Executive Council when deciding whether the case was appropriate for prerogative mercy.