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A Review of Historical Texts on the Death Penalty and How They Shaped My Opinion on Capital Punishment

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Noose: True Stories of Australians Who Died at the Gallows written by Xavier Duff is a brief history of some of Australia’s most infamous capital punishment cases. The book opens with the Mile Creek massacre, which was one of the first times recorded in Australian history where white Australians were trialed and found guilty of the murder of indigenous Australians. Duff’s collection of stories also follows cases of mental illness and outright injustice where innocent people were hanged and later acquitted.


A poignant example of the confusion that can surround capital punishment cases is the example of Louisa Collins, who was the last woman hanged in Australia after it was deemed too brutal a punishment for women. She was accused of killing her husband by poisoning. She was tried three times (talk about triple jeopardy!) until she was convicted and hanged for her ‘crimes’.

The last execution in Australia was carried out in 1967 in Victoria. It would take until 1984 before all states in Australia would ban capital punishment, with Western Australia being the last to follow suit and New South Wales to be the first in 1955. In Australia’s early European settler period, which I would roughly put at around 1820 to 1910, hangings were much more common than in the latter 1900s. In fact between 1940 to 1990 there were only 21 executions in the whole of Australia, whereas between 1820-1829 there were 360 in Victoria and New South Wales alone.

Many people fall on two sides of the debate around capital punishment; those for and those apposed. In the Netflix series, I Am A Killer, where inmates who are facing death row for various crimes talk about their convictions, ideas of death, innocence, law, and life are explored. In episode two of series one, Kenneth Foster explains how he and his friend Mauricio Brown were convicted of the murder of Michael LaHood. Mauricio was sentenced to death and killed in 2007, and hours before Kenneth was supposed to be executed he was given life in prison because people protested his death sentence as evidence had shown that Kenneth was in the car far away from where Michael was shot (Texas has a law that means people near the crime or strongly associated with the prime suspect can face the same charges as the prime suspect). Nico LaHood, Michael’s brother, says in the series that people who don’t believe in the death penalty have never had a loved one murdered, which is one of the ways that loss, grief, justice, and the law mix together to create complex emotions surrounding capital punishment.

I, for one, am glad that Australia has removed the death penalty. Whilst I do not believe every person can be redeemed from their sins, this does not mean and should not mean death. There are several reasons why I feel so strongly about this. Firstly, from a pure capitalist money making standpoint it costs a lot of kill people. In California alone, “If the governor commuted the sentences of those remaining on death row to life without parole, it would result in an immediate savings of 170 million USD per year with a savings of 5 billion over the next 20 years” ( I used the state of California as an example, but my research seems to show that this would be true for any state in the U.S.A.. So contrary to popular belief, killing people is much more expensive than keeping them alive behind bars for life. Secondly, it is hard to find exact numbers, but innocent people are executed all around the world and have been executed for hundreds of years. Very few have been exonerated after their deaths, probably because of the politically-charged ramifications if law makers started listing all the innocent people who died on death row. The fact that one innocent person is being killed is enough for me to assume that we as humans are not capable of wielding life and death as a punishment. Thirdly, there has been a lot of research done about how death row affects those who are awaiting their death sentences, however, there has been little research done on how death row affects the people who work there, the people who essentially kill criminals. From the U.S. with lethal injection or to Indonesia with firing squads, the business of death must be tough. M.J. and H.L. Osofsky in their research paper on “The Psychological Experience of Security Officers Who Work With Execution” talk about many death row workers having conflicted feelings. Many workers rely heavily on religious beliefs and support from colleagues, however, there is also a silence around the work for protection which in turn is isolating for workers on death row. Furthermore, Osofsky and Osofky both observed moral disengagements from the people they interviewed, which I can only imagine as a difficult battle of moral and religious beliefs and emotional gymnastics and compartmentalisation. Whether there are people who work on death row who love their job or not, I cannot believe that everyone who works or has worked death row has not been deeply affected by it. Killing people cannot make you feel good about yourself. Lastly, reading Duff’s Noose and Caroline Overington’s Last Woman Hanged, I cannot help but think that executions should be a thing of the past. Reading the stories of those both innocent and truly guilty, I could not help but feel that their was any justice given at the end. The horrific murders of the indigenous Australians at Mile Creek were not reversed when some of the men responsible were executed. When a clearly mentally ill father was publicly hanged after he killed his daughters because they faced poverty and eviction from their home after the children’s mother had died, there was no justice. Even if you cut to contemporary times when Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were executed by firing squad in Bali, justice was not won. Or even more concerning, the execution of Brazilian Rodrigo Gularte, who was executed alongside Chan and Sukumaran who was mentally ill and did not even understand his sentencing or impending death. Joko Widodo, the leader of Indonesia, has a hard line when it comes to drugs saying that the death penalty is “important shock therapy” and to “gun them [drug dealers and users] down. Give no mercy.” Yet a simple Google search will reveal countless studies showing that the death penalty is not a deterrent for crime. It is all these reasons and many more, that I cannot stand for capital punishment.

So why a book review about capital punishment? It seems like maybe an odd approach for an article, but if you have followed me for a while you know that I love to write about what I am passionate about. I love to find interesting ways to talk about and review books that are not just a play-by-play synopsis. I hope that my reviews can give insight not just into the books that I am reviewing, but also into other social insights. I think it is extremely important to understand history and see how we can use it in a way to better ourselves and society at large. When I started to read Noose I had to have a break after the first chapter, because the Mile Creek Massacre was just too heartbreaking. When I read Louisa Collins’ story and trial, I also felt overcome with sadness. Whether or not she killed her husband is pretty hard to determine, but regardless of her guilt or innocence a life for a life is no way forward.

“An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” (Unknown)

A death for a death is not the scales with which I want my justice to be measured.

Have you read any historical texts around capital punishment either from Australia or around the world? How has it changed or shaped your understanding of the death penalty? Do you live in a country where the death penalty is legal and how does this make you feel? As always, share the reading love.