The only crime punishable by death in New Zealand is treason, the death penalty for murder and piracy having been abolished in 1961.
As far as is known, there have been no executions in this country except for murder. Originally, however, death was the prescribed punishment for a number of crimes, and until 1867 the death penalty theoretically applied to certain types of arson, certain acts done with intent to murder, buggery, and robbery with violence. Before 1862 executions were in public; since then they have taken place within prison walls, the only persons entitled to be present, apart from those officiating, being Justices of the Peace and up to 10 adult male spectators at the sheriff's discretion. The method of execution has always been hanging.
The first execution in New Zealand was that of a Maori named Maketu, convicted at Auckland in 1842. This was said to have much impressed the natives of that area with the effectiveness, impartiality, and fearlessness of British justice. But the circumstances which permitted Maketu's trial were exceptional, and for many years afterwards, because of the uncertain nature of British control over native territory, Maori murderers outside the settled areas had to fear only the possible vengeance of their fellows.
Figures for the period before the seventies are not readily obtainable, but murders and executions seem to have been much more numerous proportionately than in this century. In the eighties there were 12 executions, in the nineties seven, and from 1900 to 1909 there were three executions out of 15 murder convictions. From these figures it must have seemed that capital punishment was gradually falling into disuse, but after 1920 there was a regression to a harsher policy. Between 1920 and 1935 there were 26 convictions and 13 executions.
The abolition of capital punishment had long been the policy of the Labour Party, and after it took office in 1935 all death sentences were commuted. This policy was confirmed by the abolition of the death penalty for murder in 1941. In 1950 the National Party, then in power, restored it, and from 1951 to 1957 there were 18 convictions for murder and eight executions. From 1958 to 1960 the death penalty was again made inoperative by a Labour Government through the automatic exercise of the royal prerogative of mercy. Finally, in 1961, a free vote of Parliament, in which 10 members of the National Government voted with the opposition, removed capital punishment from the statute book except for treason.
The arguments of supporters and opponents of capital punishment are variants of a few basic ones. Some who favour it rely on the claim that it is a more effective deterrent. Others assert that, deterrent or not, execution is the only fitting punishment for some murders. These have their counterpart in the abolitionists who claim that the death penalty is never justifiable. Most opponents of capital punishment, however, either deny that it is necessary to protect society, or stress the danger of innocent persons being executed.
In New Zealand the battle has been waged at public level principally on the issue of deterrence. Both sides have valid points to make. There is evidence that in certain cases the death penalty can deter, although the New Zealand instances most quoted are unconvincing. On the other hand, statistics show that the form of punishment has no detectable effect on the number of murders. What probably did more than anything else to secure abolition in New Zealand was a growing belief that the situation whereby the fate of a convicted murderer depended not on his crime but on the political colour of the Government in power was intolerable. This undoubtedly influenced many whom the arguments of abolitionists had failed to convince.
by Bruce James Cameron, B.A., LL.M., Legal Adviser, Department of Justice, Wellington.