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Capital punishment

Page 1 – Introduction

The first execution in New Zealand was that of Maketu, a young Maori man convicted at Auckland in 1842. Walter Bolton became the last to be executed when he was hanged at Mount Eden prison in 1957.

In total there were 83 verified executions for murder and one for treason in New Zealand between these dates. Only one woman was hanged – Minnie Dean, in 1895 – although several others were sentenced to death.

The method of execution has always been hanging. The official method of execution was outlined in an 1880 'Memorandum upon the Execution of Prisoners by Hanging with a Long Drop'. Before 1862, executions were conducted in public. Colour Sergeant James Collins of the 65th Regiment was the first to be executed out of public view at Wellington in January 1862.

The offences that carried the death penalty in New Zealand were, in accordance with English common law, murder, treason and piracy. After taking office in 1935 the first Labour government commuted all death sentences to life in prison. This policy was confirmed by the abolition of the death penalty for murder in 1941. The National government restored it in 1950, and from 1951 to 1957 there were 18 convictions for murder and eight executions. Labour returned to office in 1960, and in the following year it made the penalty inoperative.

With the matter seemingly decided on the whim of the party in office, the issue was put to a conscience vote in 1961. MPs did not have to vote according to party policy. Ten members of the National government voted with the opposition and capital punishment was removed from the statute book except for treason. Treason, mutiny and treachery in the armed forces were no longer punishable by death under the terms of the Abolition of the Death Penalty Act 1989.

In times of perceived increases in violent crime or when there has been a particularly high-profile murder, the debate about tougher punishment comes up. Some people believe tougher punishments will deter people from committing crime. The ultimate in tougher penalties is the death penalty. In 2005, TVOne's Close Up show asked viewers whether they supported the reintroduction of the death penalty (capital punishment) in New Zealand. Over 9600 viewers responded, with the overwhelming majority (7063) answering yes.

Capital punishment around the world

Around 124 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. Some notable exceptions include China, Iran, the United States and Vietnam, which accounted for 97% of the executions recorded by Amnesty International in 2004. Between 1976 and 2005, 1004 people were executed in the United States, and over 3000 prisoners were awaiting execution on what is known as death row. In China in 2001 alone, a government crackdown on crime led to the execution of at least 1781 people in about four months.

Some suggested activities

A highly controversial and potentially emotional topic like this requires some boundaries and ground rules for discussion so that the views of students are respected. Some students might try to shock others, so you may need to remind them of the need to approach the work in a sensible manner.

  1. Divide the class into groups of four, and ask each group to draw up a list of three arguments for and three arguments against the use of the death penalty for murder.
  2. As a whole class, compile a list of the arguments that each group came up with. As a wider discussion you might want to consider things like the most common arguments.
  3. Ask your students why they believe some people support the reintroduction of the death penalty as a punishment.
  4. You could now use this discussion to hold your own class poll on the matter. You may wish to conduct the poll in a way where responses are anonymous. Ask the same question as that asked by TVOne: Do you support the reintroduction of the death penalty (capital punishment) in New Zealand? It could be interesting not to reveal the results of the TV poll until after you have published the class results to ensure your students are not unduly influenced. You could display your class results in some way, perhaps as a graph.
  5. Individual responses: students can write their own views on the matter either as a piece of personal writing, as a letter to the editor or as a letter to a politician. You may wish to give students an opportunity to read their response to the class.
  6. Static images: opposition to the death penalty has taken many forms and has involved personal protest and statements as well as opposition on an organised scale. Get your class to design posters that might be the type used by an organisation to oppose the death penalty and its possible reintroduction.
How to cite this page

Capital punishment, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated