50 years since abolition of capital punishment for murder
Abolition of capital punishment for murder became an issue in the 1930s, but it was not until 1962 that the law was finally changed. Achieving this outcome involved complicated parliamentary and political processes.
In the nineteenth century there were 57 executions by hanging. In the twentieth century to 1935, of the 56 people convicted of murder 20 were hanged. The remainder had their sentence commuted to life imprisonment.
In the 1930s the New Zealand Labour Party included abolition in its election manifesto and when elected to Government in 1935 it commuted all death sentences. In 1941 Labour abolished capital punishment for murder in law through an amendment to the Crimes Act.
During WWII there was a surge in the number of murders, and after the war there was a campaign to reintroduce capital punishment. In 1948 an Imprest Supply debate was surprisingly interrupted when a National member of Parliament (MP) began a debate on the issue. (Imprest Supply Bills give the Government interim finance. Such debates are frequently used by Opposition parties to attack Government policy, since the usual constraints on relevance are lacking, but they do not usually raise such morally charged issues.)
The New Zealand National Party pledged to reintroduce the death penalty. It was elected to office in 1949. Capital punishment was reintroduced in 1950 after a conscience (free) vote on the Capital Punishment Bill produced a majority of 9 (37 to 28) with the vote along party lines. National MP Ralph Hanan crossed the floor.
Conscience votes allow MPs choice in voting, rather than necessarily following the party line, on matters such as liquor, gambling, abortion and other issues of morality. Under the two-party system they were quite rare.
Between 1951 and 1957 there were another eight hangings following murder convictions. The election of Labour to Government in 1957 resulted once more in the commutation of all death sentences, but its wafer-thin majority made the Government unenthusiastic to legislate to abolish capital punishment.
When National returned to power in 1960, a majority of the party’s MPs still favoured the death penalty, as did a large sector of public opinion. Ralph Hanan, the Minister of Justice, was one of a handful who did not. The issue remained very much in the balance. In 1961 Hanan drafted a new Crimes Bill that, apart from ‘aggravated murder’, abolished capital punishment for murder. Interestingly, Hanan as the Minister introducing the bill made it plain that he did not favour the compromise involving aggravated murder. The matter was a conscience vote in the House.
With the House in Committee a National MP introduced a clause that abolished capital punishment for murder outright. Some 10 National MPs, including Hanan and future Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, along with the entire Labour caucus, voted for the amendment. It was passed 41 to 30. Capital punishment for murder had been abolished and remains so to this day.
Capital punishment remained on the statute book for treason, however. This was finally removed in 1989.