Story: Violent crime

Page 2. Murder and manslaughter

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Types of homicide

There are two main categories of culpable homicide (the illegal killing of one person by another) – murder and manslaughter. Murder is when one person kills another deliberately or while acting recklessly, knowing that death is likely. Manslaughter generally refers to a homicide arising from an unlawful act or failure to act, where death could not reasonably be expected to result.

Murder and manslaughter rates

Rates of reported murder and manslaughter (culpable homicides) increased from an annual average of 18 in the 1950s to 43 in the 1970s. They reached a peak of more than 90 per year in the early 1990s. Between 2000 and 2015, reported homicides stabilised at an average of 66 per year. Between 2007 and 2020 there were an average of 49 murders a year (excluding the 51 at two Christchurch mosques in 2019). 

Between 2007 and 2020, 65% of homicide victims were male and 10% were children under the age of five. Māori (15% of the population) were 32% of the victims of murder. Weapons were used in 60% of homicides, but firearms were used in only 17% of cases. In about 40% of cases where the victim–offender relationship was known, the offender was a member of the victim’s family. About 16% of homicide victims between 2007 and 2020 were killed by their partner.

Reasons for increases

There are two possible reasons for the increased number of murders and manslaughters in the 1990s.

  • Several high-profile multiple killings increased the homicide rate.
  • An increase in unemployment, which peaked in 1991 at 11% of the workforce, coincided with increased rates of homicide. As unemployment fell, there was a drop in recorded violence, including homicide.

Reasons for decreases

Several factors may have contributed to the decreases in the murder and manslaughter rates in the early 21st century.

  • Toughened gun control laws after the Aramoana massacre of 1990 and the Christchurch massacre of 2019 restricted legal access to firearms, which were used in about 25% of all murders prior to 1990.
  • The expansion of women’s refuges and the full implementation of presumptive arrest in domestic-violence cases in the 1990s reduced the number of domestic homicides (which account for 40% of all murders).
  • Improvements in medical technology have reduced the number of deaths resulting from trauma.

Penalties for homicide


In nearly all cases of murder, life imprisonment is mandatory. This usually means a non-parole period of at least 10 years. If aggravating features are present – for instance, more than one person is killed, or the crime involves extreme cruelty – the automatic minimum non-parole period is 17 years.

First and last executions

The first person judicially executed in New Zealand was Maketū Wharetōtara, the son of the Ngāpuhi chief Ruhe of Waimate (North). Aged about 16, he was publicly hanged in Auckland in 1842 after being convicted of killing five people on Motuarohia (Roberton) Island in the Bay of Islands. The last person hanged was Walter Bolton, a 68-year-old Whanganui farm manager who was executed in 1957 for fatally poisoning his wife, Beatrice. The Crown alleged that Bolton had regularly put small amounts of powdered sheep dip (containing arsenic) into her tea. Between 1842 and 1957, 85 people were executed for murder in New Zealand.

In cases of manslaughter, a judge has discretion to impose any penalty up to life imprisonment.

A sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole has been imposed only once in New Zealand. This sentence was given to Brenton Tarrant for carrying out the Christchurch mosque shootings on 15 March 2019. Prior to this, the longest non-parole period ever given in New Zealand was 30 years, to William Bell for murdering three people at the Mt Wellington–Panmure RSA club in 2001 while he was on parole for aggravated robbery.

Capital punishment

Until 1941 hanging was mandatory for murder, although many death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment. 77 people were executed between the time New Zealand became a Crown colony in 1840 and the abolition of the death penalty in 1941.

In 1950 capital punishment resumed as a result of public pressure, and eight more men were hanged before it was finally abolished in 1961. Only one woman was executed in New Zealand – Williamina (Minnie) Dean was hanged at Invercargill in 1895 for the murder of a baby.

How to cite this page:

Greg Newbold, 'Violent crime - Murder and manslaughter', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 May 2024)

Story by Greg Newbold, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 3 May 2024 with assistance from Greg Newbold