Edward Thomas Te Whiu was one of the last four people to be hanged for murder in New Zealand, and his 1955 execution was to give impetus to the campaign to abolish capital punishment. He was born at Waipapakauri, Northland, on 27 February 1935, the seventh of twelve children of Thomas (Tāme) Te Whiu, a labourer, and his wife, Sarah (Hera), both of Ngāpuhi. The family were poor and as a child Edward stole food to feed himself and his younger siblings; the four youngest children were later taken into state care. By the time he left school at 14 an elder brother had taught him how to forge and cash cheques. He was a keen boxer who also enjoyed playing billiards and betting on the outcome. By 1955, at the age of 20, he was on probation for cashing a forged cheque.
Te Whiu was then living in the Catholic youth hostel at Herne Bay, Auckland. At Easter he stole money and clothes from the hostel before going to Ōmanaia, where he stayed until Anzac Day. Told that some people were enquiring about him, he was given money and went to Whāngārei, where he lost the money playing billiards. He then went to Ngāraratunua, near Kamo, where he slept in cars for two nights and hid in a hedge during the day. By the night of 28 April he was cold and hungry.
He knew that Florence Smith, a 75-year-old widow, lived alone on a small dairy property nearby. Arriving at her cottage, he waited until about 30 minutes after all the lights had been turned off, then used a spade to open a kitchen window. Inside, he felt his way around in the dark before being discovered by Smith, who turned the light on while still in bed. Te Whiu attacked and disabled her, leaving her on the bed. He washed his hands to get rid of blood on them, boiled two eggs in an electric jug, ate some bread and cakes, and drank a cup of tea. He wrote out two cheques. Aware that Smith was dead, he left the house about 5.45 a.m. and walked to Kamo, before getting a bus to Whāngārei.
Te Whiu cashed one of the cheques for £22. 8s. 6d at the ANZ Bank, then caught a bus to Auckland, unsuccessfully attempting to cash a second cheque for £11 at Wellsford en route. He subsequently went to Hamilton. On 1 May, Smith’s body was discovered by neighbours. Pathologist Desmond Doyle reported that death had been caused by ‘strangulation by force applied to the neck following a series of blows causing extensive injuries to the face’. Police, led by Auckland Detective Inspector Frank Aplin, were told about the cashed cheque and Te Whiu was arrested on a warrant for breach of probation on 12 May. He confessed to killing Smith.
Edward Te Whiu was tried for murder at the Supreme Court, Auckland, on 25 July 1955 before Justice Joseph Stanton. The Crown prosecutors were G. S. Meredith and G. D. Speight, while Te Whiu was represented by L. P. Leary and D. S. Beattie. Leary described Te Whiu as a good-looking youth with a friendly smile and good manners. The defence counsel argued that he had panicked and had not intended to harm the victim. However, the definition of murder included the provision that where a person meant to inflict grievous bodily injury to facilitate a robbery or to facilitate flight from the scene afterwards, or if the breath of somebody was wilfully stopped for this purpose, and the victim died, murder had been committed. The jury found him guilty. After he was sentenced to death, examining psychiatrists reported that Te Whiu was ‘rather less responsible for his conduct than would be the average young man of his years’, and pointed to his deprived background.
Nevertheless, the Executive Council approved the execution, which was carried out at Mount Eden prison on 18 August. His family was well known at the prison (where several of his siblings had served time), and his parents visited to show their opposition to the decision and their sorrow for their son. Te Whiu’s youth, fragile mental state and deprived social background led many to question whether the death penalty was justified. Poet James K. Baxter wrote ‘A rope for Harry Fat’ about this and other executions in 1955, a year in which four people were hanged.
Edward Te Whiu’s execution, along with the others that year, was a major catalyst in the establishment of the Committee for the Abolition of Capital Punishment in October 1955. The death penalty had been abolished by the Labour government in 1941 and restored by National in 1950. Te Whiu was the fifth of eight men to be hanged between 1950 and 1957. A re-elected Labour government then commuted all death sentences until late 1960. After the election of a new National government, the death penalty for murder was abolished in a free vote of Parliament in 1961.