Vol 11, Issue 1
On the morning of February 3 1967, 5000 people gathered outside Pentridge prison in a silent vigil as Ronald Ryan was hanged. On February 3 2017 a small group of people stood in silence to remember the last ever execution in Australia.
These people, like those who opposed Ryan’s hanging most vehemently, came from all sections of Victorian society; trade unionists, church groups, lawyers, enterprising socialists never willing to pass up the opportunity to make a quick buck selling the Green Left weekly, students and passers by. They stood in silence in memory of a brutal act of political opportunism by Victoria’s longest serving Premier.
There is significant doubt over whether he actually committed the crime he ultimately hanged for, the murder of prison warder George Hodgson. The angle of Hodgson’s wound allegedly could not have been caused by somebody standing in Ryan’s position; leading modern observers to suggest that Hodgson was accidentally killed by another warder standing in a Pentridge watchtower shooting at the escaping Ryan. Moreover he was convicted on the basis of two unsigned convictions at a time when Police forces across Australia had a habit of extracting convictions that nobody else could ever recall.
Nevertheless Ronald Ryan was not a person greatly deserving of sympathy. He was a career criminal who had broken out of prison and gone on a crime spree of a year that the press had labelled a ‘reign of terror’. He had committed numerous burglaries, held up a bank only a year earlier and was an accessory to murder. Had Ryan spent the rest of his life in gaol, it would not have been a huge injustice. Ryan did not deserve to be hanged, nobody does. His life ended because the Premier of Victoria, Sir Henry Bolte, saw a political opportunity in inflicting the ultimate act of violence upon one of its citizens.
Bolte was angry that his once loyal allies in the press box tried to persuade him into commuting Ryan’s sentence, Bolte decided that it was worth sending a man to death so that he could stick it to the press. Bolte saw an electoral opportunity in running a ‘tough on crime’ agenda, so he decided that Ryan had to die. Bolte used Ryan’s life as a pawn in a political game, a game he won, retiring as Victoria’s longest serving Premier.
At 8 am 2017 the Pentridge bells rung 12 times to commemorate Ryan’s last moments 50 years earlier. Those in attendance remarked with some relief that capital punishment is no longer practised in many countries. Yet is one which is still disturbingly popular in some places and is all too often called to be reimplemented.
Duncan Willis is a second-year JD Student and the Online Editor of De Minimis. This article was written in his personal capacity.
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