February 3rd is the 40th anniversary of the hanging of Ronald Ryan at Pentridge prison in Melbourne. He was the last man to be executed in Australia. On this significant occasion to mark a turning point in the legislative history of a modern nation Lex Lasry, one of Australia's most prominent attorneys, writes of his personal memories and reflections from the time, and the legacy of a powerful capital punishment abolition movement that couldn't save Ronald Ryan, but kept fighting until the laws were changed in every state of the nation.
Lex Lasry argues that it is not enough to remove the death penalty from the books. If a country is serious about its opposition to capital punishment it has an obligation under international covenants to agitate for it's allies and neighbours to do the same.
Our country learned from the deliberate brutality of Ronald Ryan's hanging that it was time to move away from such grotesque criminal punishment. We learned what had become obvious — when the state kills a citizen, no matter what they have done, the community is diminished by the killing. We also learned that we are not protected by executions but instead they enhance fundamental notions of vengeance, brutality and violence.
Ryan was the last man hanged in Australia.
In 1973 the Commonwealth Parliament passed one of the shortest
acts in the history of the Parliament — the Death Penalty Abolition Act. Section 4 of that act provides: "A person is not liable to the punishment of death for any offence."