The Last Person Sentenced to Death in Australia
Brenda Hodge’s troubling story and the final abolition of capital punishment in the country
“It is the sentence of this court that you be returned to your former custody, and at a time and place appointed by the Governor-in-Council, that you be hanged by the neck till you are dead, and may the Lord have mercy on your soul”.
The jury had not accepted the defence of provocation. After deliberating for four and a half hours, they had found Brenda Hodge guilty of the murder of her partner, Peter Rafferty. The venue was the impressive Federation-style courthouse in Kalgoorlie, deep in the arid goldfields of Western Australia. The date was 14 August 1984.
None of the journalists covering Hodge’s trial recorded if Justice William Pidgeon of the state’s Supreme Court donned the black cap when he sentenced her to death. Before the mid-twentieth century, no judge in one of Her Majesty’s courts would have pronounced the supreme penalty of the law without one. But the elaborate rituals around the death sentence steadily fell out of use, just as the sentence itself did. Death remained the mandatory sentence for murder in Western Australia in 1984, but the state had not actually hanged anyone in twenty years. Every murderer had his or her sentence commuted to life imprisonment. But the Parliament had not yet removed capital punishment from the statute books, so judges continued to recite the ritualistic words condemning prisoners to die at a time and place named by the Governor-in-Council (that is, the state cabinet), and in each and every case, the state cabinet had declined to name such a time and place.
“I don’t remember much about my trial, only disconnected images” Hodge wrote in her memoir, Walk On. Justice Pidgeon seemed very elderly to the 33-year-old defendant, although it may have just been his big grey wig, and he wrote very slowly. Members of the prosecution team dozed. When Pidgeon’s associate asked Hodge if she had anything to say before sentence of death was passed in accordance with law, she stayed silent.