Story: Violent crime

Murders, rapes and assaults dominate newspaper headlines and outrage the public – but violent crime is only 18% of recorded offences. However, rates of all types of violent crime have increased since the Second World War.

Story by Greg Newbold
Main image: Protest against family violence

Story Summary

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Violent crime includes murder and manslaughter, robbery, assault, sexual assault and domestic violence. While violent crime gets a lot of media and public attention, it was only 18% of recorded offences in 2014. However, rates of violent crime have increased since the 1940s.


Prison sentences for violent crimes are harsher than for other crimes, and have increased since the mid-1980s. The public often wants longer sentences and longer non-parole periods (the period during which an offender cannot apply to be released from prison).

Murder and manslaughter

Murder is when a person kills someone deliberately, or by acting recklessly, knowing that death is likely. Manslaughter is an accidental killing resulting from an unlawful act or failure to act.

Most people convicted of murder are sentenced to life imprisonment. New Zealand imposed the death penalty for murder until 1941, and again from 1950 till 1961. A total of 85 people were executed.

Controversial murder trials

Controversial trials have included:

  • Minnie Dean (1895), who murdered at least two babies, and was the only woman to be executed in New Zealand
  • Lionel Terry (1905), who shot a Chinese man, Joe Kum Yung, to protest against non-Europeans immigrating to New Zealand
  • Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme (1954), two teenage girls who killed Pauline’s mother Honora
  • Arthur Allan Thomas (1971), who was wrongly convicted of murdering his neighbours, Harvey and Jeanette Crewe, and spent nine years in prison before being pardoned
  • Clayton Robert Weatherston (2008) who killed his former girlfriend, Sophie Elliott, in Dunedin and whose trial led to the NZ Government abolishing the partial defence of provocation in cases of murder.

Mass murders

Mass murders, where four or more people are killed at one time, have been rare in New Zealand. Cases include:

  • Stan Graham (1941), a West Coast farmer who shot and killed seven people, mostly policemen
  • David Gray (1990), who killed 13 people in the small settlement of Aramoana
  • David Bain (1994), who was convicted of killing five members of his family, but was released from prison after a retrial in 2009 which found him not guilty.

Robbery and assault

Since the 1950s the rate of robberies has grown. In the 21st century there are fewer big robberies, but robberies have become more violent.

The number of assaults and their seriousness has also increased significantly over time.

Sexual assault

The number of rapes reported to the police has grown since the 1950s. In 1985, after public pressure, rape within marriage became a crime, and other types of sexual violence were taken more seriously.

How to cite this page:

Greg Newbold, 'Violent crime', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 July 2018)

Story by Greg Newbold, published 5 May 2011, updated 1 Aug 2017