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Remembering a hanging


On the morning of Saturday, 3rd February, an assortment of people will gather outside the front entrance of the former Pentridge Prison to remember a hanging.

Forty years ago, on that very morning, Ronald Ryan had a noose put around his neck by the prison hangman. With the authority of the Victorian State Government, its then Premier, Henry Bolte, and the Victorian Supreme Court he was killed.

Ryan was the last man hanged in Australia, and many believe he will always retain that infamous privilege.

While popular press surveys, usually conducted after some horrendous crime, often find that Australians divide equally in their support for or opposition to capital punishment, there has been no reputable or respected Australian political leaders in recent decades who has publicly supported its re-introduction.

Reasoned argument instead suggests that it is hard for a civilized society to support the taking of the life of one its citizens in order to uphold the value of human life.

Such argument in Australia, of course, will not prevent other countries continuing the practice - some, such as China and Singapore, continue to practice it with great enthusiasm.

It is just over twelve months since an Australian citizen, twenty-five year old Van Nguyen, was hanged on the gallows in Singapore. At the present time, six young Australians are awaiting death from a firing squad in Bali, as a result of the decision of the Indonesian courts.

But the Australians concerned with preventing further executions do not limit themselves to the protection of the lives of Australian citizens living abroad. Around the world, thousands of people are executed each year.

According to Amnesty International’s annual report on official judicial execution in 2004, there were 3,797 confirmed executions in 25 countries. Nine out of every ten executions took place in China. Singapore has the fourth highest rate of executions per year of any country in the world, after Kuwait, China and Iran, at a rate seven times that of the United States.

The need to spread what he called 'The Culture of Life' as opposed to 'The Culture of Death' was proclaimed by John Paul II in 1995. He adopted a position that was identical with that of the late Cardinal Bernadin, Archbishop of Chicago – namely the 'consistent ethic of life'.

The clear message of this teaching is that all attacks on life are to be resisted, whether they come from nuclear warfare, the practice of abortion, euthanasia, suicide, ethnic conflicts, unethical genetic practices, or capital punishment.

The recent execution of Saddam Hussein and his compatriots presented a challenge to those who uphold this ethical or moral position. But those who oppose capital punishment according to these moral principles are not influenced by the guilt or innocence of the party concerned.

The critical issue is the commitment to the value and dignity of all human life.

When Ronald Ryan's former defence counsels, Phil Opas and Brian Bourke, gather with other friends and colleagues outside the walls of Pentridge Prison at 10am next Saturday morning, the memory of Ryan’s execution, and the meeting of those who opposed it at the time will reflect values that uphold human dignity.

So too will the gathering of his family members and others at the midday memorial service at St Ignatius Church in Richmond on that day.

Richmond was where Ryan’s family lived at the time of his execution.

As Ryan explained, his 'return to the faith' at the time was from conviction, not convenience. It was because of a saintly Good Shepherd Sister, Margaret Kingston, and a knockabout priest, John Brosnan, who were living witnesses to these gospel values.



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Existing comments

Why was Ronald Ryan executed? What was his crime?

Alice Warwick | 30 January 2007  

He was alleged to have shot a prison guard when escaping Pentridge.

Going by the angle of entry of the bullet that killed the guard, his defence asserted that he would have had to have been 8 foot 2 inches tall. He was 5 for 9 inches tall, and the dead guard 6 foot 1 inch.

Furthermore, 15 witnesses testified that one shot was fired, and a prison guard maintained he had fired a shot. therefore, one could conclude that it was impossible for Ryan to have been the killer.

James Massola | 30 January 2007  

My own memories of that sad day when the Bolte Government judicially murdered Ronald Ryan are recorded in the book "Guts and Pity" by Barry Dickins, who wrote a fine play about Ryan and his hanging. I will be present in spirit with Peter Norden and others at the commemoration outide Pentridge. Incidentally, congratulations to Peter on his well merited Australia Day Honour.

Nothing could have confirmed the barbarity of the death penalty, as an act of savage vengeance, than the recent executions in Bagdhad, received with such equanimity and even a kind of applause by Government leaders in Australia and the USA.(Footnote: The correct spelling of the late, great Cardinal Archbishop of Chicago's name is Bernardin, not Bernadin - an error which Michael Gilchrist also makes in his lamentable book "Lost".)

Michael Costigan | 30 January 2007  

We have indeed come a ong way when you consider that it is only around 4000 years since miscreants' heads were displayed on spikes on bridges or city gates, usually after the person in question had been hanged, drawn and quartered. But the bloodthirsty and vengeful side of us is still often only just below the surface at times, even today... We need, now more than ever, to work together for the Culture of Life proposed by JPII - his 'Civilisation of Love'.

(Fr) Tim Cahill | 30 January 2007  

As an American citizen I believe in capital punishment. There are in plain simple terms evil people walking the streets and when they commit a particularly heinous crime, death is what they deserve. However that is not to say I am 100% for summary executions because they can lead to an innocent person going to the electric chair.

However I am sick and tired of hearing and seeing vigils for serial murderers and child murderers. They murdered in cold blood and showed no mercy to their victim.

Do the crime then pay the price.

Andres Munoz | 31 January 2007  

I clearly remember the case and the hanging. I was then a silly 17-year-old on remand in D-Division at Pentridge. A week prior to the hanging the inmates could hear people practising on the gallows. The inmates were locked in their cells at the time of the hanging. A loud crash-like sound echoed throughout the prison complex. It sent a cold chill through the inmates and there was silent anger, hatred and outrage for the authorities. I firmly believe the evil hanging of Ronald Ryan actually created more violence within society.

A must-see documentary film 'The Last Man Hanged' is based on meticulous research into the case and the film will leave everyone wondering if Ryan was really guilty.

The public do not want to believe that every so often innocent people are falsely found guilty. For example; in the last thirty years more than 122 death row inmates have been exonerated in the USA after evidence emerged of their innocence.

Tony | 31 January 2007  

Yes the death penalty is wrong but do not cloud the sentence with the guilt or innocenct of the person. A jury of 12 people all agreed that Ryan was guilty of murder. Has anyone thought of the prison officers family and how Ryan's actions changed their lives forever.

Carole | 31 January 2007  

Most people like to visit the cemetery where the deceased has been laid to rest. The Management of Pentridge Estate has refused the public to visit Pentridge Cemetery on the basis of "Occupational Health and Safety". Furthermore, news is that a bronze plaque placed on the grave site in memory of those hanged anf buried in quicklime in unmarked graves, has been stolen/gone missing.
What a cold-blooded outright scandal!

Jason | 01 February 2007  

To Carole:
No criminal justice system in the world is perfect. Therefore, sometimes people are wrongly convicted. The jurors verdict is not always correct. Jury members can and do make mistakes.

A civilised society should not execute a person based on the jurors verdict.

And, have you thought of Ronald Ryan's family and how the vengeful actions of the State Government changed their lives forever?

Cindy Bell | 02 February 2007  

In an article by Ryan's defense attorney, Philip Opas QC, the rifle stolen by Ryan during the escape was not scientifically examined by forensics. Why? That means there was no proof that Ryan's rifle had fired.


The whole case was full of inconsistencies and many questions concerning Ryan's guilt cannot be ignored.

Tammy | 03 February 2007  

I still remember the feeling in my gut that day and thinking all is not well with our world. Father Brosnan was a friend of my uncle and I remember so vividly his passion.

susan seaton | 05 February 2007  

God forgive us all. I was 14 in '67 & I remember it was a very hot day. I got up early to keep vigil. I didn't believe it would happen, as I had been told at school that executions & torture only happened in Nazi Germany, Pacific Jap areas & Communist countries (hence the Iron Curtain). My Dad was a County Court judge & Mr Justice Starke was his best mate. Starkie was an active lifelong opponent of capital punishment. When QC's were offered appointment to the Supreme Court, they often refused because they were afraid they might hang an accused, but were always assured by the Attorney General that all such sentences would be commuted to life by Cabinet. How cruel. I grew up a lot that day. I have never trusted anything a "grownup" tells me since, even tho' I am 55. Thank God this will never happen in Australia again. But we still have a struggle to pursue regarding the death penalty in third world countries. I never again want to see what I saw on the faces of the congregation at St Ignatious last year or hear the terrible scream, that initially I could not source and then realized it was my own, when the first bell rang for Van Nguyen. May the souls of all those murdered by State Governments, as Our Lord was, Rest In Peace.

Alison Somerville LL.B. | 09 February 2007  

I am beyond shock that 40 years on, ONE of many authors of books and documentary films is now making allegations that Ryan "verbally" confessed to shooting the prison warder?

I find it disgusting that there are people who will make allegations, in an effort to gain publicity, against infamous dead people who cannot defend themselves.

Geoff | 10 February 2007  

The controversy surrounding Ryan's conviction and hanging still has a bad smell about it. The alleged verbal confessions by Ryan (if true) does not prove he was guilty. There must be proof beyond all shadow of a doubt. Alas, in Ryan's case, there were many inconsistencies in evidence.

If the death penalty had still been a sentencing option under Australian law the following people would, in all probability, have been executed for murder.

New South Wales, 1947.
Frederick McDermott was convicted of murder. He served seven years before a Royal Commission established his innocence. He was released from prison and granted a pardon for wrongful imprisonment.

South Australia, 1978.
Edward Charles Splatt was convicted of murder. He served six years before a Royal Commission established his innocence. He was released from prison and granted a pardon for wrongful imprisonment.

New South Wales, 1979.
Three men known as the Ananda Marga Trio - Paul Alister, Ross Dunn and Timothy Anderson were convicted of conspiracy to murder. They served seven years before a judicial inquiry into their convictions, conducted by Mr Justice Wood in 1985 concluded they were innocent. They were released from prison and granted unconditional pardons.

New South Wales, 1980.
Douglas Harry Rendall was convicted of murder. Rendall served nine years before a judicial inquiry into his conviction concluded he was innocent. Rendall was released from prison and granted an unconditional pardon.

Northern Territory, 1982.
Lindy Chamberlain was convicted of murder. Served four years before a Royal Commission of Inquiry headed by Mr Justice Trevor Morling concluded she was innocent. Lindy Chamberlain was released from prison, compensated for wrongful imprisonment and granted an unconditional pardon.

Queensland, 1983.
Barry Mannix was accused of murdering his father at Surfers Paradise. After allegations Queensland police fabricated Mannix's confession to the murder, three other men were arrested and confessed to the crime. Barry Mannix was immediately released from prison.

Queensland, 1984.
Kelvin Condren was convicted of murder. He served six years before the High Court of Australia and the Queensland Court of Criminal Appeal cast serious doubts on the conviction and his alleged confession. After examining the evidence, Queensland Attorney-General Deane Wells recommended Condren's release from prison. Condren was set free in 1990.
NSW, 1990. Roger Graham Bawden, surrendered himself to Queanbeyan police and confessed to a murder he committed in 1973. Another man, Johann Ernst Siegfried (Ziggy) Pohl, had been convicted of the murder and had already served over ten years in prison. The murder of Kum Yee "Joyce" Pohl at Queanbeyan became the subject of a special judicial inquiry which cleared Ziggy Pohl of the murder. Pohl was freed from prison and granted an unconditional pardon.

Bernie | 26 February 2007  

I am beyond shock to read the daughter of the murdered prison warder, Carol Hodson Price, recently visited Ryan's unmarked grave and danced and jumped on it.


I would like to visit Ryan's unmarked grave to place flowers on it, because I am not convinced Ryan fired the fatal shot that killed the prison warder.

J. Natoli | 30 October 2007  

Carole comments that a jury of 12 men found Ryan guilty. Yes and a jury of 12 men also found Colin Campbell Ross guilty. Alas, 86 years after Ross was hanged for the rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl, he has been officially pardoned by the State of Victoria. It's much too late to pardon a corpse.

The pseudo-science of microscopic hair comparison sent Ross to the gallows, despite his claim of innocence. However, recent tests of the victim's hairs found at Ross's home have proven they were not that of Alma Tirtschke.

I ask, how and why was Ronald Ryan found guilty if the rifle in Ryan's possession was never scientifically examined to prove it had fired a shot? Please explain?

Leisha Atkins | 18 June 2008  

Australia is CALLED a democracy...so, as such, Australia should hold a referendum on all main issues that affect citizens. For a referendum on a subject such as, capital punishment the majority would rule as a real democratic society. Bleeding hearts on all sides cannot dispute the outcome because its by majority.

Unfortunately here in Australia political parties across the board DO NOT represent the majority. This is why they have the two party preferred system. The system is setup as to allow your vote to be passed on to someone who you don't want to vote in.

Peter Mace | 08 February 2009  

Peter Mace, what you are proposing is not only barbaric, but the most sadistic form of human cruelty. There is no evidence, anywhere around the world, that the use of capital punishment deters crime. Politicians are supposed to uphold human rights, morals and values, by not subjecting a society to stoop to the level of blood-thirsty barbarians.

Lorene Burrows | 21 March 2009  

Lorene, how can saying let's have DEMOCRACY by way of having a referendum on the subject of capital punishment be barbaric, sadistic human cruelty??

Peter Mace | 24 March 2009  

Just remember that directly OR indirectly Ryan WAS FULLY RESPONSIBLE because if he didnt try to breakout no shots would have been fired AT ALL!=NO DEATHS.

Peter Mace | 30 April 2009  

Peter Mace, a person cannot be held 'morally' responsible for the actions of others. I believe Ronald Ryan was wrongly convicted for several reasons. Why wasn't Ryan's gun tested by forensics, to prove it fired a shot? How could police investigations miss this absolute vital piece of evidence? Where's the missing spent cartridge? Where's the missing bullet? Why all the inconsistencies of witnesses evidence? Why weren't all prison officers guns aimed in the same direction, tested by forensics?

Brendon | 17 June 2009  

Hi Brendon, Just a thought for you to ponder, Would any shots have been fired if Ryan didn't try to escape?

What we do know is that because Ryan tried to escape shots were fired = 1 dead guard.

Peter Mace | 27 June 2009  

Would the actions of others have been to draw their guns and fire if Ryan hadn't tried to escape?
The actions of 'others'...guards would not have been to go shooting all over without an attempt to escape and danger to the public.

Peter Mace | 27 June 2009  

Peter, ponder this. Would any deaths happen if some people didn't try to drink-drive? What we do know is that because some people, whether by intent or unintent disobey the laws, deaths do occur = innocent dead people. The actions of 'others' is a daily phenomena happening all around us. Humans are not perfect. Let 'He' who is without sin cast the first stone.

Nicholas Anderson | 07 July 2009  

Hi Nicholas, by saying "let he who is without sin cast the first stone" opens the discussion really up.

What should we do with the child rapists/torturers/murderers,
1. put these poor sadistic child killers on a tropical island to refresh thier loving memories of the children they have attacked?
2. Put them in a maximum security prison for 20 to life.
3. forgive them and send them on thier way to carry on doing whatever they want.....or
4. execute them and save our next door neighbour's 6 year old daughter from being torn apart by these monsters.A nd then possibly your daughters, or sisters or mothers or wifes.

To tell the truth, I have been a prison officer many years ago. And with that insight I know, I have the qualification of experience to say if we execute them we have saved children's lives.

To me that is the right thing to do.

Peter Mace | 19 July 2009  

Mr Mace, I have been a psychologist/social worker/researcher for many years. I have the qualification of experience to say that state-sanctioned violence (capital punishment) has a brutalizing affect on society, which actually inspires more acts of violence. Contrary to popular belief, executing criminals does not save taxpayers money, but in fact ends up costing taxpayers much more money than life in prison, after all avenues of appeals have been exhausted by the condemned. In my opinion, people who support the brutality of state-sanctioned killing should not be employed in any capacity with caged human beings, just as people who dislike animals would never be granted employment caring for caged animals.

Darlene Evans (Monash University) | 28 July 2009  

I think it is about time Ronald Ryan was seen as an innocent man being hung.

The evidence that was used during his trial should have been enough to see him not guilty.
I suppose if any thing is done it will be done in ninety years time when no one can be found accountable for the hanging of an innocent man.
May be the media should start the ball rolling
because it seems their coverage of the story made Ronald Ryan a condemmed man before his trial.

I don't think this letter will do any good because the truth hurts.

Jeffrey Starr. | 15 February 2010  

I agree with you Jeffrey Starr. After I read an article on Ronald Ryan I was totally shocked. The Crown's case had so many holes it resembled a tank of swiss cheese. There was no scientific proof at all. How can anyone really believe that man was guilty beyond all shadow of a doubt?

David | 21 February 2010  

More than four decades later, serious doubts remain of whether Ryan was guilty beyond all reasonable doubt. This doubt has been well documented in various documentary films and stories.

For unknown reasons, Ryan's rifle was never examined by scientific ballistic forensic experts for evidence. There was no scientific evidence whatsoever that Ryan's rifle had fired a shot.

Despite a total lack of scientific ballistic forensic evidence, unexplained missing pieces of vital evidence (including the fatal bullet, the spent bullet cartridge) that would have cleared Ryan, and dire wide-spread inconsistencies of all fourteen eyewitnesses evidence for the prosecution, Ryan was found guilty of the shooting death of prison officer George Hodson during a botched prison escape. Only four of the fourteen eyewitnesses testified seeing Ryan fire a shot.

Ronald Ryan’s guilt and subsequent execution by hanging was based solely on unsigned, unrecorded and unproven alleged verbals/confessions said to have been made by Ryan to police. By law, Australian police have to record all interviews they carry out in connection with a crime following extraordinary revelations of police corruption over the years, uncovered by various Australian Royal Commissions. Ryan only signed official statements stating that he would not be saying anything until he consulted an attorney.

Ryan had intentionally kept his firearm to prove his innocence in the event of recapture, as he knew forensic examinations on the rifle including ballistic forensic microscopic markings on the spent bullet, would prove his rifle had never fired a shot. Scientific ballistic forensic tests would have proven without doubt, whose rifle fired the fatal shot. Instead of Ryan's rifle being subject to careful storage for scientific ballistic forensic testing, it had been inadequately hidden in the boot of a police car where it was subjected to contamination by dirt and dust.

The following facts remain to this day:

• For unknown reasons, ballistic forensic experts never scientifically examined Ryan’s rifle.
• There was no forensic proof and no conclusive evidence that Ryan's rifle had fired a shot at all.
• It was never proven by forensics that the fatal bullet came from the rifle in Ryan's possession.
• Despite extensive search by police, the fatal bullet mysteriously went missing and was never found.
• The fatal bullet was never scientifically examined by ballistic forensic experts, to prove which rifle fired the fatal bullet.
• Despite extensive search by police, the spent cartridge mysteriously went missing and was never found.
• The spent cartridge (bullet-case) was never scientifically examined by ballistic forensic experts, for evidence.
• If Ryan had fired a shot, a spent cartridge would have spilled out of the rifle. No spent cartridge was ever found.
• All fourteen eyewitnesses for the prosecution testified different accounts of what they saw - there were widespread inconsistencies.
• Only four of the fourteen eyewitnesses testified of seeing Ryan fire a shot.
• All fourteen eyewitnesses testified of hearing one single shot. No person heard two shots.
• Prison officer Paterson, admitted and testified he fired one single shot, from an elevated distance.
• If Ryan had also fired a shot, at least one person among the dozens of people surrounding the scene of the crime, would have heard two shots.
• Forensic experts never scientifically examined prison officer Paterson’s rifle, to prove it had fired a shot.
• Forensic experts never scientifically examined all other prison officers’ rifles at the scene of the crime, to prove if their rifles had fired a shot.
• Ballistic evidence indicated that the prison officer was shot from a distance, in a downward trajectory angle.
• The measurement of the entry and exit wound on the deceased prison officer indicated that the fatal shot was fired from an elevated position. At the time of the shooting, there were many prison officers' armed with rifles surrounding the crime scene, on prison walls, on prison guard towers and on the streets.
• Eyewitnesses testified seeing prison officers aiming their rifles.
• Ryan (a shorter man) could not have fired at the prison officer (a taller man) in such a downward trajectory angle, as both were on level ground.
• Ryan could not have fired from a distance as evidence indicated, because Ryan was adjacent to the prison officer who was running after and adjacent to, the other prison escapee.
• Ryan could not have fired from an elevated position as evidence indicated, because Ryan was on level ground.
• Some eyewitnesses testified seeing Ryan recoil his rifle and smoke coming from the barrel of his rifle. In fact, ballistic experts testified at trial that type of rifle had no recoil and it contained smokeless cartridges.

Over the decades, a variety of educational documentary films and stories have been made on Ronald Ryan. These are dramatised documentaries, based on meticulous research with a mixture of re-creating interviews with the people directly involved in the Ryan case. The documentaries include archival material depicting the life and death of Ronald Joseph Ryan, the events surrounding the shooting, the case, the ambiguities in the case, total lack of scientific forensic evidence, mysterious missing pieces of vital evidence, eyewitnesses wide-ranging inconsistencies at trial, and the political power leading up to the hanging of Ryan. The documentaries have candid interviews with the people who knew Ryan well - his wife, lawyer, fellow escapee, trial judge, the catholic priest, politicians and media journalists who witnessed Ryan's execution. These documentaries tell the true story of Ronald Joseph Ryan - a petty-thief with no police record of violence, whose botched escape from Pentridge Prison resulted in a political execution. All documentaries ever made on Ryan cast serious doubt over his guilt.

Ronald Ryan was hanged on “hearsay” evidence that was flimsy and manipulated - a most ambiguous capital case ever, with no actual scientific proof.

But what rattles the mind is the fact that most jury members pleaded with the state not to execute Ronald Ryan. They claimed they never would have convicted Ryan had they known he would be executed. These were the same jury members that had onloy months earlier convicted Ryan of murder, knowing fully that he would be sentewnced to death if convicted.

This case should be re-opened.

Larry | 04 June 2010  

Who's telling lies? Book author Tom Prior claims Brosnan told him Ronald Ryan had confessed guilt to shooting a prison guard. But, as early as March 2003 Brosnan was interviewed on ABC National Radio when media journalist Kellie Day asked Brosnan about Ronald Ryan, who is is believed fired the fatal shot. Brosnan clearly replied; "I don't know whose bullet killed who." (Ref: http://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2003/s817259.htm).

In addition, to add support to Brosnan's comments was Bishop Greg O'Kelly. In February 2007, O'Kelly stated in the Catholic Archdiocese Southern Cross newsletter that Brosnan believed Ronald Ryan was innocent.
(Ref: http://www.adelaide.catholic.org.au/sites/SouthernCross/Features?more=1464).

Kaitlin Smith | 11 June 2010  

I believe without doubt that police misconduct played a major role in the conviction of Ronald Ryan. It is unbelievable that the state hanged this man. Shame of the state of Victoria.

Thomas | 22 March 2011  

45 YEARS LATER: Who really fired the fatal shot? There were no scientific ballistic forensic evidence to prove guilt, dire ambiguities in the capital case, serious inconsistencies of all fourteen witnesses for the prosecution, mysterious missing pieces of vital evidence that could have cleared Ryan, testimony by another prison officer that he fired one single shot (heard by hundreds of witnesses - no person heard two shots fired) and autopsy report/ballistic expert evidence that the one single fatal bullet was fired from a distance at an elevated position in a downward trajectory angle - impossible for Ryan to have fired at such an angle. Ryan was convicted of murder based solely on unsigned unrecorded unproven allegations of verbals/confessions said to have been made by Ryan to police. Despite the biggest public protests ever seen in the history of Australia and public petitions, including pleas from seven jurors not to execute Ryan, Victoria Premier Henry Bolte was determined Ryan would hang - this would boost his votes in the upcoming state elections. Ryan was hanged seven days before his unfunded final appeal (Bolte withdrew all public funds) to The Privy Council had made its decision on the execution.

Australian Coalition Against Death Penalty (ACADP) | 10 February 2012  

Having researched the case of Ronald Ryan, I am one very concerned citizen that an Australian jury found this man guilty when there was no forensic evidence at all. Eyewitness evidence has been proven to be most unreliable. Why is this shameful injustice being ignored by lawyers, politicians and the mainstream media?

Concerned Citizen of Australia | 10 December 2017  

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