The Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal, the High Court and the Human Rights Commission have emphatically expressed the view to afford prisoners with the right to vote - what is the world coming to?! Sarcasm aside, it seems just yesterday - 30 years to be exact - that New Zealand ditched the death penalty for all crimes. As we're winding down for Christmas I thought it nice to indulge in a bit of New Zealand legal history.
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To be clear, Twitter extraordinaire and lawyer Graeme Edgeler clarified that the last execution was 62 years ago, the death penalty was removed as a sentence for murder 58 years ago, and the death penalty was finally removed as a sentence for treason and various military offences in 1989.
Capital punishment was first employed in 1842, the method of execution being hanging. [As an aside, the past tense is "hanged" not "hung", but this grammatical smugness must be attributed to my sixth form English teacher who likened me to Lady Macbeth. It was this injustice that probably prompted me to pursue law, but I digress].
Wiremu Kingi Maketu was the first person to be executed, after being found guilty of murdering five people in the Bay of Islands. The deaths stemmed from a disagreement between Maketu and a man called Thomas Bull. Maketu was of chiefly rank, and was mistreated by what he thought to be a plebeian. This led to Bull's death by axe, the death of his employer Elizabeth Robertson, her two children, and another.
Maketu was about 16-years-old and notably the first person, and first Maori person, to be tried and punished under British rule. He was tried in the Auckland Supreme Court by Chief Justice William Martin. Martin CJ hailed from Birmingham, attended Cambridge University, and together with Attorney-General William Swainson and Thomas Outhwaite, he was responsible for setting up the New Zealand judicial system. The case is fascinating for a number of reasons, as Maketu's legal counsel C.B. Brewer was secured just an hour before appearing in court and failed to communicate with the defendant or assess the depositions. Brewer cited ignorance of the law (perhaps a nod to Section 25 of the Crimes Act?) saying Maketu had no means or opportunity to understand the penal law of the colony.
Martin CJ sided with prosecuting counsel William Swainson - that same Attorney General - who argued there should be one rule for all.
Maketu was found guilty by an all-pakeha jury despite the defence wanting Maori representation. He was hanged at the corner of Queen and Victoria Streets in Auckland. Later that year Swainson - in his capacity as Attorney General - wrote to the Colonial Office over concerns that the case undermined Māori sovereignty and went beyond the provisions of the Treaty of Waitangi. A Mr James Stephen ultimately said "too bad" and the case played a part in the lead-up to the 1845 Flagstaff War.
It seems access to justice issues has plagued New Zealand since the birth of the colonial system. Ironic seeing as Maori were about 80,000 in number compared with 2050 non-Maori at the time. Of the 85 executions between 1842 and 1895 at least 27 were Maori.
The only execution that involved a woman was the case involving Minnie Dean. It's been the subject of popular culture - Marlon Williams' "The Ballad of Minnie Dean" springs to mind.
The tale is fairly straightforward. Minnie Dean - being in financial disrepute - took in unwanted children in exchange for payment. Various deaths occurred while in her care, but a coroner's inquest found universally poor standards of hygiene to be the culprit.
She was under police investigation at the time after trying, but failing, to take out life insurance policies on some of the infants.
Dean boarded a train in 1895 with a baby, and left with just a hatbox, which was reported to be abnormally heavy. While childcare legislation was sparse at the time, meaning Dean didn't need to keep records, a woman came forward to testify that the child in question was her granddaughter. Dean was arrested for infanticide and three bodies were uncovered at her property. The causes of death involved suffocation, drowning, and an overdose of laudanum.
She went on trial for murder in Invercargill in 1895 and was represented by famous defence lawyer Alfred Hanlon who argued death was accidental. She was hanged at the Invercargill gaol - which is now the home of a Noel Leeming car park - in August 1895. The case led to the Infant Life Protection Act 1893 and the Infant Protection Act 1896. I could wax lyrical about the poverty and disenfranchisement of women and criminals in general but instead I shall leave you with the court reporting of the time: "She walked firmly to the scaffold, and said in answer to the Sheriff - 'I have nothing to say except that I am innocent.' There was no hitch in the arrangements, and the prisoner's death was instantaneous.
"The condemned woman slept for three hours last night. She took no breakfast, and only a sip from a glass of spirits given her by the gaol surgeon. 'Don't let them keep me in agony, doctor,' were her parting words to the surgeon."