In Australia in the nineteenth century as many as 80 persons were hanged per year for crimes such as burglary, sheep stealing, forgery, sexual assaults and even, in one case, 'being illegally at large', as well as for murder and manslaughter. This was at a time when the population was counted in the hundreds of thousands rather than millions. Since Federation (1901), only 114 persons have been legally executed in Australia. Incidentally this figure of 114 happens to coincide with the total number of persons said to have been executed in South Africa in 1984. Australia, in common with most Western countries has abolished capital punishment, yet debate on this topic has not abated. The last person to be executed in Australia was Ronald Ryan. Ryan was 'hanged by the neck until he was dead' at Pentridge Prison, Victoria in 1967. Now the sentence of life imprisonment (in some states ‘penal servitude for life’, ‘strict security life imprisonment', or ‘for the term of his natural life’ has become the most severe sanction authorised by Australian law. The criminal justice system is not noted for its infallibility and the modern history of the death penalty is full with examples where sentences of death have been commuted to less severe forms of punishment, indicating a reluctance to impose the ultimate sanction even when available.
Public Opinion Polls
Although Australia has abandoned capital punishment, it does not follow that it could never be reintroduced. Nor does it mean that it cannot be imposed on Australians traveling overseas, as illustrated by the double execution of Barlow and Chambers who were hanged in Malaysia on 7 July 1986 for drug trafficking. The issue of capital punishment is most often raised in respect of sex-murder cases, acts of wanton terrorism, or the killing of police or prison officers.In various occasions, the media and public express support for Capital Punishment for the most heinous of crimes committed against humanity including mass murder such as in the cases of Backpacker Murders and the Port Arthur massacre. Both the Milat Backpacker murders and the Bryant Port Arthur massacre killed a combined 42 people and stirred strong emotions as to whether or not to reintroduce the Death Penalty. However, no person of significant stature or influence has advocated the Death Penalty for quite some time since the last execution in 1967.
Over recent years, a number of opinion polls have been carried out to determine the public's attitude to capital punishment. Results vary because of differences in the wording of the questions, and in the type and timing of the surveys. A phone-in poll conducted in January 1986 by a Sydney TV station shortly after a particularly gruesome sex-murder received over 48 000 calls. On this occasion 95 per cent of the respondents were in favor of the reintroduction of capital punishment.
More reliable surveys, such as those run by Australian Public Opinion Polls or Morgan Gallup Polls, have elicited pro-capital punishment results ranging from 70 per cent in response to a question which specifically related to crimes such as child murder, rape-murder or gang war murder to only 43 per cent,where an almost equal percentage voted for life imprisonment when asked to decide the appropriate penalty for murder.
A national survey was commissioned in May,