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Remembering Ronald Ryan

Remembering Ronald Ryan

By Kathy Laster

Human Rights Justice Punishment Sentencing 

Through his death, the last man executed in Australia provided the impetus for the end of the death penalty. It is the 50th anniversary of the execution of Ronald Ryan in HM Pentridge Prison on 3 February 1967. Had Ryan avoided the noose and survived, he would now be an old man of 91 – most likely having served around 15 years “inside” for the crime that cost him his life. There are many reasons for us to remember Ronald Ryan, the last man executed in Australia, who through his death provided the impetus for the abolition of the death penalty in Australia. The crime While serving an eight-year prison sentence for robbery (his third incarceration), Ryan, in concert with another inmate, Peter John Walker, orchestrated a daring escape from Pentridge Prison while the guards were enjoying their Christmas party. The pair planned to flee to Brazil. Instead, the escape went horribly wrong. Fighting their way out of the prison gates and attempting to hijack a get-away car in Sydney Road, Ryan aimed his stolen rifle at warder George Hodson, who died at the scene. Ryan and Walker were on the run for 19 days, committing various crimes including robbing a bank in North Road, Ormond. The escapees excited the biggest man hunt Victoria had ever seen with more than 1000 police involved in trying to recapture the “desperate and dangerous” “thugs”, “terrifying the people of Melbourne” living under “a reign of terror”. For a short time, the escapees moved with seeming impunity between safe houses across the city. They thumbed their noses at the police, mingling and drinking freely with the crowd in the public bar at the Prince of Wales Hotel in St Kilda. After a tip-off, police eventually ambushed and recaptured the duo in Sydney. Defiant after his capture, Ryan refused to tell the police where they had been and who had helped them, cheekily claiming, “We did spend time in the Strezleckis. I found some gold. I intend to stake a claim when I get out”. The case After a three-week trial, based on the evidence of eyewitnesses, but without ballistics or other corroborating scientific evidence, Ryan was found guilty of the murder of George Hodson. Other damning evidence at the trial was Ryan’s unrecorded and unsigned admissions to others that he had shot Hodson. Ryan denied that he had made any admissions, alleging that he had been “verballed” by police. The “rule in Ryan and Walker” remains the leading authority for the escape/murder basis of felony murder where a death occurs as a consequence of an escape from custody. Felony murder has now been abolished but is largely codified in s3A of the Crimes Act which remains jurisprudentially controversial because it defies the long established common law requirement of a specific intent for murder. The key question of fact then, and which lingers still, is did Ryan fire the shot that killed warden Hodson? Ryan’s defence counsel Phil Opas QC maintained till the end of his days that the ballistics did not add up. The gun cartridge was never found. For Opas and others, there is reasonable doubt about Ryan’s guilt because another warder could have discharged the fatal bullet from the watchtower while trying to foil the escape. It is one of the most terrible legal ironies that the trial judge was Sir John Starke, a staunch opponent of capital punishment who had defended both Rupert Maxwell Stuart in 1958 in South Australia and Robert Tait in Victoria in 1961. Both his clients had avoided the noose. Yet, in spite of his personal views, Justice Starke did his duty, cautioning the jury, “You and I don’t make the laws here, gentlemen, we live under them”. The Supreme Court of Criminal Appeal of Victoria rejected the appeal and the High Court dismissed an application for special leave. An application to the Privy Council in London was also unsuccessful. The government rejected all pleas for clemency despite a very vigorous public campaign to have Ryan’s death sentence commuted to life imprisonment. The campaign The battle to save the life of Ronald Ryan was hard fought by a coalition of unlikely bedfellows: university students and academics, civil rights groups, media, medical professionals, trade unionists, women’s groups and church leaders. But Victoria’s longest serving premier Sir Henry Bolte was adamant – Ryan deserved to hang and he would not be dictated to by the press, the “parsons” and the “bullfrogs” at the university. Bolte was unmoved by the hanging, where even the sheriff cried, and seemingly callously indifferent to Ryan’s fate. Asked by the press what he was doing at the time of the execution, Bolte responded “one of the three Ss I suppose”, elaborating further, “A shit, a shave or a shower”. Despite his long period in office, Sir Henry is now remembered as the man who hanged Ronald Ryan. He would be disappointed at his historical epitaph. For the generation that lived through it, the Ryan campaign and the execution were a kind of political consciousness raising. Former Victorian premier Sir Rupert “Dick” Hamer, a junior minister in Bolte’s cabinet at the time, sponsored the private member’s bill when he was premier which abolished the death penalty in this state in 1975. Other politicians, such as former Labor premiers, Steve Bracks in Victoria and Jim Bacon, later premier of Tasmania, recall the campaign as their formative early political experience. Older politicians, who were actively involved in the campaign, such as former Victorian and federal minister Barry Jones, profess to still bear the scars of their failure to change the outcome. “If I had only worked harder, networked more effectively, thought more strategically . . .” If people can remember what they were doing when JF Kennedy was assassinated, in Victoria people also recall the hot February morning when Ronald Ryan went to the gallows. The man Ryan was slightly built, short and looked young for his age. On the scaffold, although he was almost 42, he appeared youthful. He had always been a snappy dresser and was regarded as a wit. Ryan’s counsel Phil Opas couldn’t help but like him after Ryan quipped at their first meeting that his mother was more interested “in saving my soul than my neck. I hope you’re not like that”. Even at the end, leaving the prison after her last visit with her son, his mother observed, “Ronnie’s still got a joke or two left in him”. The Ryan charm won the heart of his well to do bride from Brighton, Dorothy, who defied her parents to marry the big talking little battler. They had three daughters together. Ryan is said to have devised the escape because his long suffering wife was planning to divorce him. Unquestionably, Ryan grew up in straightened circumstances and spent some of his teenage years in a reform school in Sunbury – from where he also escaped. Various jobs followed with Ryan trying hard in his early 20s to work at various labouring jobs to support his mother and sisters. He just couldn’t make it via honest work. But crime didn’t pay either. He started to specialise in robbery, especially from butchers’ shops, and was serving an eight-year prison sentence when he staged his final escape. The legend The parallels between Ronald Ryan and Ned Kelly make him an easy fit with Australian masculinist convict mythology. Both men, of Irish extraction, are the personification of the larrikin, the anti-authoritarian, courageous law breakers who attempt to defy the odds. Both self-consciously represented themselves as victims of a corrupt system that never gave them a chance. Reminiscent of Kelly’s famous Jerilderie letter, Ryan wrote an extended diatribe published only in the tabloid daily, the Truth, critical of the corrupt police and decrying the evils of the criminal justice system with “soul destroying” prisons which brutalise rather than rehabilitate inmates. Like Kelly, Ryan also railed against perceived social inequality, passionately opining, “we refuse to accept the present social pattern and its inherent lack of fairness and chances of equality in the sense of just reward. The worker does not get a fair share of production and, consequently, is condemned, along with his family, to a life of glorified slavedom. I, as the last of the Ryans, on the male side, intend to put a stop to this”. Of course, Ryan, like Kelly, was a more grandiose orator than effective social reformer. But he had courage, and that is something Australians demand of their folk heroes. In the end, Ryan walked to the scaffold “steady on his feet, erect, shoulders squared”. Witnesses maintained that the condemned man died well, “’like a Kelly as they say”. The legacy From time to time horrendous crimes do reawaken the capital punishment debate. But with the signing in 1992 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by the Keating government, Australia is now committed to the protocol which prohibits any Australian jurisdiction from reinstating the death penalty. But there is also a more indirect legacy in the change to our political culture. It would now be unthinkable for a politician to ride roughshod on public opinion on issues which so clearly divide the community. The old school style of “hard man” politics where even Bolte’s detractors admired his tenacious authoritarian style would probably no longer be acceptable to the electorate. At the same time, Bolte style law and order politics continues to win elections – his government was returned to power with an increased majority only 85 days after Ryan’s execution. We do well to remember, and to strategically invoke, the ghost of Ronald Ryan at a time when the Victorian prison population has grown by 8 per cent in the last year and by 50 per cent in the past 10 years. Kathy Laster, professor and director of the Sir Zelman Cowen Centre, Victoria University. *From 3 February 2017, the Supreme Court library will host an exhibition marking the anniversary of Ronald Ryan’s death 50 years ago. The exhibition will also examine other capital cases from the 19th and 20th centuries.

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