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‘Goodbye, my darlings’ – remembering the trauma of Australia’s last execution

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Fifty years ago, Jan, Wendy and Pip Ryan huddled in the lounge room of their Hawthorn home and waited for the state of Victoria to kill their father. Their mother, Dorothy, had turned off the radio and TV. “Mum had everything dead quiet,” Wendy told the Age in 2007. It was an effort to strip away all the scrutiny that had marked the high-profile case of her condemned husband, Ronald Ryan. They held each other and wept.

Ronald Ryan was the last person executed in Australia. What made his case extraordinary was Victorian premier Henry Bolte’s determination to see him hang, the protests that erupted across a nation turning away from capital punishment, and the role of the media in campaigning for Ryan’s life.

A recent Melbourne Herald Sun article about the Ryan case quoted Bolte’s notorious response to a journalist who had asked what the premier was doing when the execution took place at 8am half a century ago: “One of the ‘S’s’, I suppose,” said Bolte. “A shit, a shave or a shower.”

Comments at the bottom of the article cheered for Bolte and for the return of the death penalty. That’s no surprise. Populist measures for dealing with crime and national security have been gaining traction for more than a decade.

It’s easy to call for the reinstatement of capital punishment when you think about it in the abstract. As time passes and memories fade we lose sight of the trauma the death penalty causes for all involved. We forget the flaws, political point-scoring and arbitrariness that characterises its implementation, and we avoid confronting the immensity of the act of taking another’s life.

Read the rest at The Guardian