The hanging of Ronald Ryan polarised Victoria and focussed national attention on the issue of capital punishment.
For anyone 50 years or older the broad outline of the case is still familiar. Ronald Ryan and Peter Walker, both small-time criminals, broke out of Pentridge Gaol in December 1965. During the escape, Warder George Hodson was killed. It was widely believed that Ryan had fired the fatal shot, with an M1 carbine he had taken in the course of the break-out.
A huge manhunt began. Ryan and Walker were recaptured in Sydney and arrived back in Pentridge 19 days after their escape. Whilst at large they had held up a branch of the ANZ Bank, and Walker had shot a man dead in an execution-style killing in a toilet block.
The trial before Starke J began on 15 March 1966. Tony Murray SG QC, with Geoff Byrne, prosecuted. Ryan was defended by Phil Opas QC and Brian Bourke; Jack Lazarus appeared for Walker.
The trial turned largely on whether the fatal shot had been fired by Ryan or by Prison Warder Paterson. Eleven eyewitnesses said that they had heard only one shot fired. They said that they saw Ryan fire the shot. When interviewed immediately after the shooting, Paterson had said he heard no shot other than the one he fired himself. However in his second statement, a few weeks later, he said he did hear a shot before he fired. He repeated this at the inquest and at the trial.
Paterson gave evidence that he had taken aim at Ryan and had taken first pressure on the trigger when, as he said, a woman walked into his sights and he fired into the air to avoid hitting her. Ryan’s Counsel had already satisfied themselves that the M1 carbine had no first pressure on the trigger; and no witness had heard more than a single shot.
Nevertheless, Paterson gave evidence at the trial that he had heard another shot before he fired. His various statements show significant differences in several important respects, and bring to mind the changing evidence of Constable McIntyre at Ned Kelly’s trial.
Ryan gave evidence. He swore that he did not fire at Hodson. He denied firing a shot at all. He denied the so-called confessions said to have been made by him.
But the jury convicted him of murder and, after coming back to ask a question about acting in concert, convicted Walker of manslaughter.
Mr Justice Starke pronounced the death sentence. It must have been a hard moment for him: he had been a lifelong opponent of capital punishment.
Then followed an intense political struggle in which the prize was Ryan’s life. Many present and former members of the Victorian Bar distinguished themselves in the struggle to save Ryan from the gallows: Opas Q.C. and Brian Bourke appealed to the court of Criminal appeal and then unsuccessfully sought leave to appeal to the High Court. Later, Opas Q.C. and Allayne Kiddle appeared in the Privy Council on Ryan’s application for leave to appeal. Ralph Freadman, and his then junior solicitor Paul Guest, came across new evidence and worked furiously to get it before Starke J just hours before Ryan was due to be executed. This resulted in a last minute stay of execution
Meanwhile, the anti-hanging committee, led by Barry Jones, had enlisted the help of church leaders and the Labor Party in an attempt to pressure the Government to commute Ryan’s sentence. The committee included Maurice Ashkenasy QC, Zelman Cowen and Richard McGarvie QC.
The Government had commuted every death sentence passed since 1951 when Jean Lee, Norman Andrews and Robert Clayton had been executed for the murder of Pop Kent. The Cabinet was not unified on whether Ryan should hang. At least four Cabinet members strongly opposed capital punishment. But the Premier, Henry Bolte, wanted to hang Ryan in order to reassert his leadership: just a few years earlier he had been prevented from hanging Peter Tait in the dramatic circumstances recorded at 108 CLR 620.
The press was largely against Bolte. The Age, the Herald and the Sun all ran strong campaigns against executing Ryan. Bolte went so far as to put pressure on the Chairman of David Syme Limited to have its editorial line softened. To their great credit, Ranald McDonald and Graham Perkin resisted the pressure. Sir Frank Packer was more obliging: he recalled and pulped the issue of the Bulletin due to be published on 31 January 1967. This drastic step was taken because of a cartoon by Les Tanner and an editorial on capital punishment. Packer also interfered at GTV-9: he forced the last minute withdrawal of a widely publicised BBC documentary on capital punishment.
Ultimately the struggle to save Ronald Ryan was to no avail. Through all of the legal and political skirmishing, Ryan remained stoical. At the final hour he admitted having fired his carbine, but denied intending to kill Hodson. He remained calm while the Sheriff who read the death warrant faltered and broke down.
Bruce Dawe wrote a fine poem about the execution (“A Victorian hangman tells his love”):
“…the journalists are ready with the flash-bulbs of their eyes
raised to the simple altar, the doctor twitches like a stethoscope
– you have been given a clean bill of health, like any
With this spring of mine
from the trap, hitting the door lever, you will go forth
into a new life which I, alas, am not yet fit to share.
Be assured, you will sink into the generous pool of public feeling
as gently as a leaf – accept your role, feel chosen…”
Four minutes after the hangman (faceless, anonymous for the shame of it) pulled the lever, Ryan’s heart stopped beating. With that last heartbeat, capital punishment ended in Australia. It was abolished progressively in each of the States over the next 17 years, but no-one was executed during that time.
Ryan’s conviction, we now know, was right; his death was wrong. But the controversy sparked by his sentence and execution brought an end to capital punishment in Australia. His life and death were a tragedy in miniature but he achieved a far greater good than he had ever intended or dreamed of.