Capital punishments [25 March 1845]

[Editor: An article arguing in favour of capital punishment. Published in The South Australian, 25 March 1845.]

Capital punishments.

At the late sessions, two men have been convicted of capital crimes — have been condemned to death — and will be executed on the 29th instant.

One of them (who has assumed the name of James Douglas) was found guilty of the crime of rape upon the person of a married woman; and the other, a native, of the crime of murder. We have searched in vain for a single redeeming feature in either case. In the first, the criminal shewed himself to be thoroughly hardened in crime. Not content with the horrible offence of which he was found guilty, he robbed the poor woman’s house, and afterwards, both before the Commissioner and the Judge, harrowed her feelings by the insulting and unfeeling questions which he put to her. It was acknowledged on all hands, that never before, in our courts, had been seen such a ruffian.

The murder by the native was also one of peculiar atrocity. The victim, McGrath, had been, according to the evidence, a liberal, kind-hearted fellow; yet this native, animated by a love of murder almost for its own sake, got up in the dead of night, while the white men were peacefully sleeping alongside of the blacks, at one blow killed McGrath, and endeavoured to murder his two companions.

In every country in the world, we believe, and from the remotest times, it has been considered absolutely necessary to punish these two great crimes with death; and the first written record and sanction to which is to be found in Divine revelation.†

If it has been found necessary, in densely peopled countries, to punish such crimes with death, how much more in a country like this, in which the population is scattered over a vast extent of territory, and many helpless people of both sexes are at all times unprotected.

In such circumstances, we have been astonished beyond measure to hear that a few (we trust, for the credit of the colony, a very few) parties have actually presumed to petition his Excellency to remit the capital punishment to which the above criminals have, by the laws of the country, been sentenced.

We have used the word “presumed,” because we think that, if their efforts should prove in any case successful, they incur a fearful responsibility. We shall not dwell upon this, however, as we are satisfied, on the following grounds, that their petitions will never be granted:—

1. Because it would be dangerous to interfere with the administration of the law, unless there was some flaw in the proceedings, or unless the sentence was too severe. If, for instance, there was any reason to suppose that the witnesses had perjured themselves; that the Judge had unfairly summed up; that the jury had returned a verdict contrary to the evidence; if the sentence of death was for a trifling offence; or if there were circumstances in favour of the convict which would justify a mitigation of punishment : but none of these can be alleged.

2. Because it is absolutely necessary, for the security of females in remote districts, and for the safety of every class, that the crimes of rape and murder should be capitally punished.

3. Because a vigorous and impartial administration of the law has hitherto been of the greatest benefit, and has saved many lives. It is certain that the execution of the natives in 1839 and 1840 has saved a multitude of lives; that the execution of Hughes and Curran, in 1840, has saved the colony from the curse of bushranging; and that the execution of the native at Port Lincoln has been mainly instrumental in preserving that small community from outrage and murder.

We flatter ourselves that we are not of a peculiarly sanguinary disposition; but, at the same time, we must say, that we cannot for a moment agree to the abolition of the punishment of death; and if that punishment is to be inflicted upon any, most certainly the criminals now under sentence, who have, by the laws of God and man, incurred the penalty, should not be exempted.

† See Exodus xxi. 14. — Deut. xxii. 25.

The South Australian (Adelaide, SA), Tuesday 25 March 1845, page 2

Editor’s notes:
Hughes and Curran = two bushrangers who were hung for attempted murder [see the article by Anne Richards, “Bushrangers near Gawler! George Hughes, Henry Curran and James Fox”, available as a PDF file on the website of Gawler Council (accessed 12 May 2012)]

sanguinary = bloodthirsty, murderous (or something accompanied by bloodshed, such as a sanguinary battle or war)

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