With the exception for treason, which stayed on the books until 1989, New Zealand left the death penalty behind in 1961, after hanging 85 people, the vast majority of whom were murderers.
The death penalty has actually been abolished twice, though. The first time was in 1941, but it was voted back in 1949 after Catherine Cranston’s horrific murder sparked a public outcry in 1948. Although eight people were executed during this period, her killer Edward Horton was not among them.
The Howard League was at the forefront of campaigning against the death penalty, and in this we have fallen on the right side of history. Although the majority of nations have abolished it, more than 60% of the global population lives in countries have death as a sanction for certain, and often a wide variety, of crimes.
Few people call for its return in New Zealand, but most people believe violent crime and murder is on the rise in this country. That’s not actually true.
Last year 47 people were murdered in New Zealand. At almost one a week sounds like a lot, but it’s only 11 per million head of population, slightly below the decade average, which is 11.6. This is an increase from pre-1970s New Zealand, where the rate hovered at around six per million, but from the start of the 1970s the rate increased steadily to a peak of 21 per million in the late 80s and early 90s, and has been steadily declining ever since.
Furthermore, the death penalty is not particularly effective. In short, it wouldn’t make us safer.
In the vast majority of cases the murderer is identified almost immediately, and there is rarely any protracted effort required to prove it. That’s why we don’t hear much about most of them – they tend to follow the same patterns and involve people that know each other well. The idea of a maniac killer creeping in a window or lurking in a dark alley is what keeps us up at night, but like so many other crimes, it’s largely a fantasy. Far from the goat-headed gangsters and cannibal masterminds that we like to imagine, murders generally happen spontaneously, brought on by personal conflict getting out of hand. Murderers tend to be ordinary idiots acting in the heat of the moment. Not people who take the time to think about the consequences.
All the rational, clear-headed people out there are already deterred from murder. A life sentence is a hell of a thing, even if it doesn’t actually mean you spend the rest of your life in jail.
Murder, like crime generally, is created by often complex social phenomena, and such will defy simple solutions. The death penalty appeals to some, but on emotional and not logical grounds.
If you missed The Trouble with Murder, you can watch all three episodes online here. It’s well worth a look.