Hanging in the Balance: A History of the Abolition of Capital Punishment in Britain

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For example, as recently as October the 30 member council of the Police Federation of Australia voted unanimously to press State and Federal Governments to hold a referendum upon the reintroduction of capital punishment. 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. 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 by a Sydney TV station shortly after a particularly gruesome sex-murder received over 48 calls. On this occasion 95 per cent of the respondents were in favour 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 7 to only 43 per cent where an almost equal percentage voted for life imprisonment when asked to decide the appropriate penalty for murder.

See Table 3. A national survey was commissioned in May, by the Australian Institute of Criminology and involved respondents over the age of 14 years. It revealed that only 26 per cent of respondents felt that the death penalty was appropriate for a person who had stabbed a victim to death, and only 17 per cent favoured capital punishment in respect of a person convicted of serious drug trafficking.

Although media reports may suggest homicide rates are forever increasing, statistics show that on a per capita basis the incidence of these crimes is relatively constant.

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Trends in Australia over the last 20 years demonstrate an increasing number of homicide cases excluding driving causing death being reported to the police, but since the figures are rising more slowly than the population, the homicide rate has actually fallen over this period , from nearly six per hundred thousand to less than 4. The relevant data, incorporating murder statistics between and are set out in figures 1 and 2.

Figure 2 : Reported homicide and murder rates per persons aged 10 and over - Australia Source: Mukherjee et al. The argument for capital punishment usually hinges on the fear of increasing murder rates. Yet in Queensland, for example, in the decade prior to the abolition of capital punishment , there were murders, whereas in the decade following abolition there were murders.

These data are not conclusive but suggest that abolition does not lead to an increase in the incidence of this offence. Table 4 shows that of the major Australian states, only South Australia experienced any sudden increase in murder or manslaughter convictions in the five years after abolition compared to the five years before, yet a detailed report on homicide published in by the South Australian Office of Crime Statistics showed that abolition of the death penalty had no effect on homicide trends in that state.

Experience overseas supports this Australian evidence. For example, when statistical material from various countries is considered, the presence or absence of the death penalty does not appear to indicate any significant influence upon the rates of murder and homicide 12 and the preponderance of evidence suggests that the abolition of capital punishment has not resulted in any significant increase in the murder rates.

The 'before' and 'after' data in Table 4 on the percentages of manslaughter verdicts tend to support, albeit weakly, the theory that juries are reluctant to convict for capital offences , and will either acquit or convict on a manslaughter charge, which does not carry the death penalty. In Victoria and Queensland the proportion of manslaughter convictions was higher when capital punishment was available than after abolition.

Unfortunately, data are not available in sufficient detail to show if similar trends occurred in other states.

An earlier study Johnston, , however, found quite convincing evidence which indicated that convictions for murder were less likely in jurisdictions where there was a possibility that the offenders would be hanged. As the author explained, 'Juries, not always ready to trust the government, commit a pious perjury, and bring in fewer verdicts of the capital crime, murder, under a conservative government than under a Labour government'.

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The availability of capital punishment also appears to attract a significantly higher incidence of insanity verdicts. The effect of such a verdict is that it results in a direction that the prisoner be detained 'at the Governor's Pleasure', an indeterminate form of disposition and again this avoids the death penalty. Victorian data for the five years prior to abolition show that there were 30 convicted murderers and 24 persons acquitted on account of insanity total 54 whereas in the five years after abolition there were 43 convicted murderers but only 13 persons acquitted on account of insanity total A substantial portion of all homicides in Australia are the results of domestic disputes.

Research from New South Wales has shown that four out of five homicide victims knew their attacker, and often their relationship was an intimate one. The courts sometimes categorise homicides arising out of matrimonial discord as manslaughter, and take mitigating circumstances into account at the sentencing stage. Very short prison sentences , or even non-custodial sanctions, are occasionally handed down in such cases. With the exclusion of deaths by driving, the balance of homicides in Australia are typically connected to criminal underworld in fighting, or associated with other offences such as rape and robbery, terrorist attacks, or hijackings.


In such cases the offender is more clearly deserving of severe punishment - particularly, as in the latter cases, where the victim is often an innocent bystander. Print copies also available See below. Type Book Author s Brian P. Library availability.

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Capital Punishment: The end of the death penalty

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