Ronald Ryan was the last man to be legally executed in Australia.
Ryan was convicted of the shooting death of a prison guard.
Despite a total lack of scientific forensic ballistic evidence,
missing pieces of vital evidence that would have cleared Ryan, and
dire inconsistencies of eyewitnesses evidence, Ryan was found
guilty of murder based solely on unsigned alleged verbals and
confessions said to have been made by Ryan to police. Ryan had not
yet exhaused all right of appeals when he executed one year later.
Ryan had intentionally kept his rifle to prove his innocence, as
he knew that forensic microscopic markings on the spent bullet
would prove that it was not fired from his rifle. Guilt can be
proven by scientific forensic tests as ballistic experts could
establish the fact that the bullet was fired by a particular
rifle. No scientific forensic tests were ever performed on Ryan's
rifle, the fatal bullet and the spent cartridge.
Ronald Joseph Ryan was born on 21 February 1925
at the Royal Women's Hospital in Melbourne's inner suburb of
Carlton, to John (aka Big Jack) and Cecilia Thompson. Cecilia
already had a son with her first husband George Harry Thompson and
was living with John Ryan. Cecilia and George had separated in
1915 when George left to fight in the Great War. The relationship
never resumed. Cecilia met John Ryan while working as a nurse in
Woods Point where he was suffering lung disease. They formed a
relationship in 1924 and later married after Thompson's death in
1927 from a car accident.
In 1936 Ryan was confirmed in the Catholic
Church. He took as his confirmation name Joseph, and then became
known as Ronald Joseph Ryan. The family lived in dire poverty.
When Jack was completely unable to work due to lung disease and
with most of his invalid pension spent on alcohol, the family move
to a tiny cottage in Brunswick and things became even more
desperate. Severe, neglected ulceration leaves Ronald almost blind
in his left eye, which causes a slight droop to his damaged eye.
Finally Mrs Ryan can no longer keep the state child welfare
authorities at bay.
The Ryan children are made a ward of the state
after authorities declared them as "neglected". At the age of ten
Ronald Ryan is sent to the Salesian Brothers' Orphanage at Sunbury,
on the outskirts of Melbourne. His sisters (Irma, Violet and
Gloria) were sent to the Good Shepard Convent in Collingwood.
Ryan did quite well, captaining the football
and cricket teams, joining the choir, and impressing other boys as
'a natural leader'. Ryan absconded from Rupertswood in September
1939 and joined his half-brother George Thompson, working in and
around Balranald, New South Wales, spare money earnt from sleeper
cutting and kangaroo shooting was sent money to his mother looking
after their sick alcoholic father John Ryan.
At the age of eighteen, Ryan returns to
Melbourne from Balranald and picks up his three sisters from the
convent and buys them new clothes. Excitedly, he tells his sisters
about the wide-open space in the "outback", and his plans to move
them and their mother away from the violence and bad memories of
the big city. Later that year, after months of hard work to prove
his ability to support his sisters, the state child welfare
authorities agree to young Ronald's plans. That Christmas the
family are joyfully reunited at Balranald. Ryan is now the sole
breadwinner for the family. While his sisters go to school and his
mother looks after the house, Ryan takes on some farm work as well
as his other jobs. Ryan's father Jack, stayed in Melbourne and
died after a long battle with miners' phthisis turberculosis a
year later. Ryan worked to support his mother and sisters.
Aged about 23, Ryan returned to Melbourne where
he was employed as a storeman. On 4 February 1950, Ryan married
Dorothy Janet George at St Stephen's Anglican Church in Richmond.
She was the daughter of the Mayor of the Melbourne suburb of
Hawthorn - a prominent figure in local government, from an old
Melbourne family. Ryan's origins are firmly working class. Ronald
and Dorothy then have three daughters, Janice, Wendy, Rhonda and
Robert (died a few hours after birth).
Although Ryan had no trade, he was a versatile
worker, managing to support a wife and three daughters. Each
summer he works as a timber-cutter for a man named Keith Johanson,
a logging and pulpwood contractor in the mountains near Matlock,
eighty miles from Melbourne. Gradually, Ryan worked up to a
position as sub-foreman, responsible for paying and organising a
number of other men. Every second weekend, Ryan hitch-hikes home
to Melbourne with a cheque for his family, but the precious hours
with his wife and daughters are never long enough. Early Monday
morning he went back to work in the forest.
Ryan works harder than ever, earning the
respect of his employers and the men under him. When his daughters
begin attending school and the timber-cutting season ended, there
is not enough money. Ryan, now aged 31, is too proud to ask
Dorothy's parents for financial help and instead begins to gamble
heavily and passing forged cheques. He is soon caught and he
pleads guilty. Ryan is released on a five-year good behaviour bond.
In one report a detective describes Ryan as "highly intelligent".
Ryan worked in a series of straight jobs closer to home. For three
years he avoided crime, instead turning to gambling as a way to
give his family what he believed they deserved. However this
inevitably leads Ryan to store-breaking, then stealing, then
factory-breaking. Again he is caught.
Ryan was a small-time criminal, with no history of violence.
Unlike many criminals, Ryan's police record did not begin until he
was 31 years of age. Ryan was first sent to prison for robbery. He
had overcome the temptation to fall into a criminal life during a
difficult upbringing, only to stumble in maturity. Ryan's troubles
began when he tried to live up to the social level of his wife's
family, who were wealthy business people. In desperation Ryan
turned to gambling, switched from manual work to passing bad
cheques, received stolen goods, shopbreaking and burglary.
Ryan first served prison time at Bendigo Prison. His time in
prison was productive and he exhibited a disciplined approach to
study, completing his Leaving Certificate (year 11). Ryan was
studying for his Matriculation Certificate (year 12) when he was
released on parole in August 1963 He was regarded by the
authorities as a model prisoner. Appearing to want to rehabilitate
According to his wife Dorothy, in the
documentary film The Last Man Hanged Ryan wanted to provide
everything for his family and his gambling escalated. Ryan
returned to crime. On 13 November 1964, Ryan received an eight-year
prison sentence for breaking and entering. He was sent to
Slightly built and 5 ft 8 ins (173 cm) tall,
Ryan was a stylish-if spivvy'-dresser, who usually wore expensive,
well-cut suits, silk tie and a fedora. He was always keen to
impress as a man of means and consequence. He was of above-average
intelligence and was described by not only the people who knew him,
but also prison authorities, as a likable character with dignity
After Ryan was sentenced to Pentridge Prison, he was placed in 'B'
Division where he met a fellow prisoner Peter John Walker (who was
serving a 12 year sentence for bank robbery). When Ryan was
informed that his wife was getting a divorce, he made a plan to
escape from prison. Walker decided to go along with him. Ryan
planned to take himself and his family and flee to Brazil, where
there was no extradition treaty with Australia.
At around 2:07 p.m. on Sunday 19th December
1965, Ryan and Walker put the escape plan into effect. As prison
officers were taking turns attending a staff Christmas party in
the officers' mess hall, Ryan and Walker scaled a five-metre
prison wall with the aid of two wooden benches, a hook and
blankets. Running along the top of the wall to a prison watch
tower, they overpowered prison warder Helmut Lange. Ryan took his
M1 carbine rifle. Ryan quickly pulled the cocking lever of the
rifle and released it, forcing one round to spill onto the floor
of the watch tower. (The issue of the spilled round would become a
significant issue at trial). Ryan threatened Lange to pull the
lever which would open the prison tower gate to freedom. Lange
pulled the wrong lever. Ryan, Walker and Lange then proceeded down
the steps but the gate would not open. When Ryan realised Lange
had tricked him, Ryan jabbed the rifle into Lange’s back and
marched him back up the stairs so Lange could pulled the correct
lever to open the tower gate, the two escapees exited the gate out
into the prison car park.
Just in front of the duo was prison chaplain
Salvation Army Brigadier James Hewitt, The escapees grabbed him
and used him as a shield. Ryan armed with the rifle pointed it a
Hewitt and demanded his car. Prison Officer Bennett in Tower 2 saw
the prisoners, Ryan called Bennett to throw down his rifle,
Bennett ducked out of sight and then got his rifle. Walker had
dropped his pipe and had moved to the next door church. Prison
officer Bennett had his rifle aimed at Walker and ordered Walker
to halt or he would shoot. Walker took cover behind a small wall
that bordered the church.
The prison alarm was raised by Warder Lange,
and it began to blow loudly, indicating a prison escape. Armed
prison officers (every prison officer was issued with a prison-authorized
M1 Carbine rifle), including Paterson, came running out of the
prison main gate, onto the street.
George Hodson who had been having lunch in the
prison officers mess near the number 1 post responded to Lange’s
whistle. Bennett shouted to Hodson he had a prisoner, Walker,
pinned down behind the low church boundary wall. Hodson headed for
Walker and picked up Walker‘s pipe. Hodson grabbled with Walker
but the escapee managed to break free so Hodson began hitting the
fleeing Walker over his head with the piece of pipe. This wasn't
the first time that Hodson used violence against a prisoner. The
Truth Newspaper published letters from ex-prisoners claiming that
Hodson was a violent heavy-weight bully who would bash prisoners
with phone books, as not to leave marks on their bodies. Hodson
was separated from his wife and daughter and living in a flat in
the red-light center of Inkerman Street, St Kilda. The area was
notoriously known for street prostitution and illegal narcotics.
Walker was faster runner than Hodson, so Hodson continued to chase
after Walker with the pipe still in his hand. Walker was faster
runner than Hodson, so Hodson continued to chase after Walker with
the pipe still in his hand. Both men ran towards the armed Ronald
Meanwhile, confusion and noise was gaining
strength around the busy intersection of Sydney Road and O'Hea
Street, with armed prison guards on the street, on prison watch
towers and standing on low prison walls, vehicles and trams
banking up and people running between cars.
Frank and Pauline Jeziorski were traveling
south on Champ Street and had slowed to give way to traffic on
Sydney Road when Ryan armed with the rifle appeared in front of
their car. Ryan threatened a car driver and his passenger wife to
get out of their car. The driver Frank Jeziorski, turned his car
off, put it in neutral then got out of his car. Ryan got in via
the drivers door. Amazingly, Pauline Jeziorski refused to get out
of the car. She was persuaded by Ryan to get out of the car, only
to get back in the car to get her handbag. Ryan discovered he
could not drive the car because Jeziorski had modified the cars
In frustration, Ryan with the rifle forced
Mitchinson to back off, then got out the passengers side door and
noticed Walker running towards him, being chased by Hodson who was
holding the pipe in his hand. Walker was shouting frantically to
Ryan that prison guard William Bennett, standing on the number 2
prison tower, had his rifle aimed at them. At this time, Hodson
was running close behind Walker, who was near Ryan.
In scenes of noise and confusion, a loud whip-like
crack of a single shot was heard, and a prison officer George
Hodson fell to the ground. He had been struck by a single bullet,
travelling from front to back, in a downward trajectory angle (suggesting
the shot had been fired from a high angle). The bullet had exited
through Hodson's back, about an inch lower than the point of entry
in his right shoulder. Hodson died in the middle of Sydney Road.
Ryan and Walker ran past the fallen warder and
commandeered a blue vanguard with Walker driving the car drove
through the service station and drove away on Ohea Street.
(Reference: Supreme Court Trial Transcript -
Queen v. Ryan & Walker, March 15-30 1966)
Ryan, Walker were extradited back to Melbourne. They were jointly
tried for the murder of George Hodson. It is alleged that Ryan
made three verbal confessions to police whilst being extradited to
Melbourne. According to police, Ryan admitted to them he had shot
prison officer Hodson. However, these verbal allegations were not
signed by Ryan and he denied making such verbal or written
confessions to anyone. The only signed document by Ryan was that
he would give no verbal testimony.
also tried for the shooting murder of Arthur James Henderson
during the period when he and Ryan were at large.
On 15 March
1966, the case of The Queen v. Ryan and Walker began in the
Supreme Court of Victoria. Justice John Starke instructed the jury
of 12-men to look at the realities of things and ignore all that
they had read and heard about the case in the media.
The Crowns case
The crown's case relied heavily on eyewitnesses who were near the
Pentridge Prison when Hodson was killed. The big surprise was
that the rifle in Ryan's possession was never scientifically
examined by forensics to prove it had fired a shot. Instead of
the rifle being subject to careful storage and ballistic testing,
it had been inadequately stored in the boot of a police officer's
car where it was subject to contamination by dirt and dust.
Police testified that the M1 carbine rifle
stolen by Ryan from Lange "looked as if" it had been fired,
but there was no conclusive evidence that the rifle commandeered
by Ryan had been fired at all. It was noted that neither the
bullet that killed Hodson nor the spent cartridge case were ever
found despite intensive search by police.
There were fourteen eyewitnesses and each had a
different account of what they saw. All fourteen eyewitnesses
testified they saw Ryan waving and aiming his rifle. Only four
eyewitnesses testified that they saw Ryan fire a shot (a spent
cartridge would have had to spill on the ground, but a spent
cartridge was never found despite extensive search by police.) Two
eyewitnesses testified they saw smoke coming from Ryan's rifle.
Two eyewitnesses testified they saw Ryan recoil his rifle. A
ballistic expert on firearms testified that type of rifle was
coiless and it contained smokless cartridges.There were
contradicitions also, whether Ryan was standing, walking or
squatting at the time a single shot was heard, and whether Ryan
was to the left or right of Hodson.
All of the fourteen eyewitnesses testified that
they heard only one shot - no person heard two shots.
Prison officer Paterson testified he fired a
shot, and he was also the only person to claim to heard two shots
fired. At trial, Paterson was questioned about how he used his
rifle when he fired a shot. Paterson replied; "I took aim, I
took the first pressure that you take on the trigger, and I was
beginning to squeeze the trigger when a woman got into my sights,
and I could not withdraw my pressure from the trigger, so I had to
let the shot go in the air, and I don't know where the woman came
from she just appeared in my sights." the spent cartridge from
Paterson's rifle was never found by police either.
Paterson had contradicted in several statements
he made to police about what he saw, heard, and did on that day.
His first statement given to Detective Sergeant Carton on 19
December 1965 Paterson said; "I did not hear a shot fired other
than the one I fired." In a second statement given to Senior
Detective Morrison on 12 January 1966 Paterson said; "Just as I
turned into the entrance to the garden I heard a shot." In a
third statement on 3 February 1966 Paterson said; "I ran back
inside and asked for a gun, I went to the main gate and I received
a gun and ran back outside, as I was running on to the lawn I
heard the crack of a shot."
Paterson changed his story, too, about who was
in the line of fire when he aimed his rifle. In his first
statement Paterson said; "I sighted my rifle at Ryan and was
about to fire when a woman walked into the line of fire and I
lifted my rifle." In his second statement Paterson said; "I
took aim at Ryan but two prison officers were in the line of fire
so I dropped my rifle again." In his third statement Paterson
said; "I took aim at Ryan and I found out I had to fire between
two prison officers to get Ryan, so I lowered my gun again."
At trial, all prison officers testified that
they did not see Hodson carrying anything, and they did not see
Hodson hit Walker. However, two witnesses Keith Dobson and his
passenger Louis Bailey testified that they saw Hodson carrying
something like an iron-bar/baton as he was chasing after Walker.
Governor Grindlay testified that he didn’t see a bar near Hodson’s
body but he found one after Hodson’s body was loaded into an
Apart from the inconsistencies of witnesses
evidence, missing pieces of vital evidence and no scientific
forensic evidence, the Crown relied heavily upon testimony that
Ryan had, allegedly, verbally confessed to shooting Hodson.
(Reference: Supreme Court Trial Transcript -
Queen v. Ryan & Walker, March 15-30 1966)
The defence pointed to various substantial
discrepancies in The Crown's case. While some eyewitnesses
testified they saw Ryan to the east of Hodson when a single shot
was heard, other eyewitnesses testified Ryan was to the west of
Hodson. The discrepancies in evidence were substantial and wide-ranging.
Opas contended that each of the fourteen eyewitnesses evidence
were so contradictory that little store could be placed on them.
Philip Opas produced and human skeleton as a
visual aid to explain the trajectory of the fatal bullet, Opas
argued that the ballistics evidence indicated that the fatal
bullet entered Hodson's (shoulder) body in a downward trajectory.
He also got a Monash University mathematics professor Terry Speed,
to explain that Ryan (5 feet 8 inches (1.73 m) tall would have had
to have been 8 feet 3 inches (2.55 m) tall to have fired the shot.
These calculations were based on Ryan being twenty feet from
Hodson and Hodson was standing perfectly upright. The bullet would
enter Hodson's body 62 inches from the ground and exit 61 inches
from the ground. If the shot was in a downward angle the bullet
would have hit the road forty feet from where Hodson was hit, it
also suggested that Hodson could have been shot from another
elevated point and possibly by another prison officer. It would
cast doubt that Ryan had fired the fatal shot. But the prosecution
argued that Hodson (6 feel 1 inch (1.85 m) tall could have been
running in a stooped position, thus accounting for the bullet's
fatal downward trajectory angle of entry.
The fact that Ryan's rifle was never
scientifically tested by forensic experts was of significate
concern. Ryan intentionally kept his rifle to prove his innocence
in the event of recapture, as he knew that forensic microscopic
markings on the spent bullet would prove that it was not fired
from his rifle. Opas pointed out that the the normal course of a
person who has shot another is to dispose of the weapon, because
it is well known that guilt can be proven by scientific forensic
tests. Ballistic experts would establish the fact that the bullet
was fired by a particular rifle
The fatal bullet was a vital piece of
evidence that was never found. Scientific forensic tests on
the fatal bullet would have provided proof of who's rifle
had fired it. Although all prison-authorized rifles were the
same M1 carbine type, scientific forensic testing would
prove which rifle fired the fatal shot—every rifle leaves a
microscopic "unique marker" on the fired bullet as it
travels through the barrel of the rifle. In addition, the
spent cartridge was also, a vital missing piece of evidence.
The spent cartridge would be ejected to a distance of 5-10
feet—this meant that it was highly unlikely that Ryan's
rifle had fired a shot.
search by police, neither the fatal bullet nor the spent cartridge
were ever found. At the time of recapture, Ryan had no reason to
assume the rifle he deliberately kept to prove his innocence,
would never be scientifically tested by forensic experts. Ryan had
no reason to assume the fatal bullet would never be found. Ryan
had no reason to assume the spent cartridge would never be found.
All the bullets in Ryan's M1 carbine rifle
would be accounted for if Ryan cocked the rifle with the safety-catch
on, this faulty operation (conceded by prison officer Lange,
assistant prison governor Robert Duffy, and confirmed by ballistic
experts at trial) would have caused an undischarged bullet to be
ejected, spilling onto the floor of the guard tower. Opas
established that a person who was inexperienced in handling that
type of rifle and its cocking-lever rifle, it would be easy to jam
the rifle and any attempt to clear the jam would result in a live
round being ejected.
On the eighth day of the trial Ryan was sworn
in and took the witness stand. Ryan denied firing a shot, denied
the alleged verbal (unsigned) confessions said to have been made
by him, and denied ever saying to anyone that he had shot a man.
According to Ryan, they were after the reward money by making
false allegations. "At no time did I fire a shot. My freedom
was the only objective. The rifle was taken in the first instance
so that it could not be used against me".
In his final address to the jury members, Opas
stated; "Long before this case came to trial there was most
unusual publicity given to the exploits of the accused, in the
media, on the radio and over television. It would be impossible
for anyone living in a capital city in Australia to approach this
trial without some pre-conceived notions based on what they had
read or heard about the case. It is easy to take the view of the
accused that they are convicted criminals, a perfect scapegoat a
convicted person would become if he became the target for a
After a trial in the Victorian Supreme Court
lasting twelve sitting days the jury found Ryan guilty of murder.
Ryan was convicted of the murder of Hodson.
Justice John Starke wasted no time in passing the sentence of
death. Starke asked Ryan if he had anything to say, Ryan stated;
"I still maintain my innocence. I will consult with my counsel
with a view to appeal. That is all I have to say!" Without
further delay, without the right of plea by the defence and
without the usual adjournment prior to sentencing, Starke
sentenced Ryan to death; "Ronald Joseph Ryan, you have been
found guilty of murder of George Henry Hodson, it is the sentence
of this court that you be taken from here to the place from where
you came (Pentridge Prison) and on a day and hour to be fixed, you
shall be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and may God have
mercy on your soul."
(Reference: Supreme Court Trial Transcript - Queen v. Ryan &
Walker, March 15-30 1966)
According to juryman Tom
Gildea, the jury evidently thought that the death sentence would
be commuted, as had happened in the previous 35 death penalties
cases since 1951. Gildea's account of the discussions in the jury
room, not one member of the jury thought that Ryan would be
Of the jury, two members who thought
Ryan was not guilty but were convinced by the others to bring in a
guilty verdict. They were so sure that the death sentence would be
commuted to life imprisonment, that they did not even discuss the
issue of making a recommendation for mercy along with their guilty
Later, some of the jurors came forth and stated
they would never have convicted Ryan of murder had they known that
he would in fact be executed. Seven jury members signed separate
petitions requesting Ryan's death sentence be commuted to life in
Opas, convinced of
Ryan's innocence, decided to appeal against the murder verdict.
The first appeal was to the Victorian Court of
Criminal Appeal, a bench consisting of three judges of the Supreme
Court. His ground was that the verdict was against the weight of
the evidence. He argued that as a matter of law that the inherent
inconsistencies and improbabilities and even impossibilities in
the evidence. The appeal was dismissed on June 8, 1966. In October
1966, a second appeal is rejected. Two months later after a state
government cabinet meeting Premier Bolte announces that Ryan's
death sentence will not be commuted. Ryan was scheduled to hang on
January 9, 1966.
Ryan had a right to increased free legal
assistance for expert forensics analysis, to hire expert witnesses,
and to present a series of appeals and recourses that were
available to those facing execution by the government. The Full
Court agreed that it was unthinkable that a man should be executed
before he had exhausted his ultimate right of appeals. Opas
decides to apply to the Privy Council in London. The appeal is a
vestigial remnant of an appeal to the sovereign in person. The
Privy Council gives an opinion always ending with; "and we
shall so humbly advise Her Majesty" on the decision of whether
the appeal has been allowed or dismissed.
With all legal avenues yet to be
exhausted, legal aid to Ryan was cut by the Bolte Government.
Premier Bolte then directed the Public Solicitor to withdraw
Opas' brief as the government was not going to fund the
petition to the Privy Council.Premier Bolte then directed
the Public Solicitor to withdraw Opas' brief as the
government was not going to fund the petition to the Privy
Opas, convinced of Ryan's
innocence, agreed to work without pay. Opas consulted the Ethics
Committee of the Bar Council to seek approval to make a public
appeal for a solicitor prepared to brief him, as Opas was prepared
to pay his travel, other expenses and appear without fee. The
Committee said that this would be touting for business and was
unethical. Opas argued that a man’s life was at stake and he could
not see how he would be touting when no payment was involved. Opas
defied the ruling and on national radio sought an instructor. Opas
was inundated with offers and accepted the first application,
being from Ralph Freadman. Alleyne Kiddle was in London completing
a Master’s degree and she agreed to take a junior brief at a fee
of two-thirds of nothing.
Opas then flew to
London to present Ryan's case to the highest judges in the
Commonwealth. Ryan's execution was reluctantly delayed by Premier
Bolte awaiting the Privy Council's decision. However, Bolte took
no chance of the possible that Her Majesty might give a decision
contrary to the advice of the Judicial Committee. Bolte schedules
Ryan's execution on the morning of Friday February 3, 1967. The
decision of Her Majesty in the Privy Council to refuse leave to
appeal was announced on February 10, 1967 (seven days after Ryan
Henry Bolte, Victoria’s
longest serving State Premier, was a key figure in the hanging of
Ronald Ryan. Until this time, the State Government of Victoria had
commuted every death sentence passed since 1951, after three
people Robert Clayton, Norman Andrews and Jean Lee (the last
female executed in Australia) had been executed for the tortured
murder of an old man.
At the time of the Ryan
sentence there were at least four State cabinet members who
opposed capital punishment but Premier Bolte was determined to
Bolte wanted take the "tough on crime"
stance. Justice John Starke reported that Bolte had insisted that
the death sentence be carried out. Bolte's determination to hang
Ryan to boost his votes is widely documented.
When it became apparent that the Premier Mr (later Sir Henry)
Bolte intended to proceed with the execution, a secret eleventh-hour
plea for mercy was made by four jury members who had found Ryan
guilty of murder. They sent petitioning letters to the Victorian
governor, stating that in reaching their verdict, they had
believed that capital punishment had been abolished in Victoria
and requesting that the Governor exercise the Royal Prerogative of
Mercy and commute Ryan's sentence of death.
Bolte denied all requests for mercy and was
determined Ryan would hang. The approaching execution of Ryan
prompted widespread protests in Victoria and elsewhere around the
Newspapers in Melbourne, traditionally
supporters of the Bolte government, deserted him on the issue and
ran a campaign of spirited opposition on the grounds that the
death penalty was barbaric. There is some evidence that, for
premier Bolte, Ryan's execution was an opportunity for him to re-assert
his political authority.
As Ryan's execution approached, his 75-year old
mother made a final plea to Premier Bolte for mercy. Cecilia Ryan
wrote: "I plead at this late hour you will reverse your
decision to hang my son. If you cannot find it in your heart to
grant this request then I pray you will grant me one last favour,
that the body of my son be given into my custody after his death
so that I can give him a Christian burial. I pray to God for the
success of this last prayer". Premier Bolte promptly replied
in a letter, saying that her son would not be spared the death
penalty and that law required his body be buried within prison
grounds. It would not be returned to her for a Christian burial.
Churches, universities, unions and a large
number of the public and legal professions opposed the death
sentence. An estimated 18,000 people participated in street
protests and 15,000 signed a petition against the hanging.
Melbourne newspapers The Age, The Herald and The Sun, ran
campaigns opposing the hanging of Ryan. The Australian
Broadcasting Commission (ABC) suspended radio broadcasts for two
minutes as a protest.
On the afternoon of the eve of Ryan's
hanging, Dr opas appeared before the trial judge Justice
John Starke. Opas was seeking a postponement of the
execution, due to the opportunity of testing new proferred
evidence. Opas pleaded with Starke, and said; "Why the
indecent haste to hang this man until we have tested all
possible exculpatory evidence?" But Starke rejected the
The Attorney-General Arthur
Rylah, rejected a second plea to refer Ryan's case to the Full
Court under Section 584 of the Crimes Act. A third attempt to save
Ryan in the form of a petition presented at the Crown Solicitor's
office pleading for clemency, was also rejected. Close secrecy
surrounded all Government moves on the Ryan case.
That evening, a former Pentridge prisoner Allan
John Cane, arrived in Melbourne from Brisbane in a new bid to save
Ryan. An affidavit by Cane, which was presented to Cabinet, says
he and seven prisoners were outside the cookhouse, when they saw
and heard a prison warder fire a shot from the No. 1 guard post at
Pentridge Prison, on the day Hodson was shot. Police had
interviewed these prisoners but none were called on at the trial
to give evidence. Cane was immediately rushed into conference with
his solicitor Bernard Gaynor, who tried to contact Cabinet
Ministers informing them of Can's arrival. Gaynor telephoned
Government House seeking an audience with The Governor Sir Rohan
Delacombe. However, Gaynor was told by a Government House
spokesman that nobody would be answering calls until 9 am in the
morning (one hour after Ryan's scheduled execution.) Gaynor said
Cane's mission had failed.
At 11 pm, Ryan was informed that his final
petition for mercy had been rejected. More than 3,000 people
gathered outside Pentridge Prison in protest to the hanging.
Shortly before midnight more than 200 police were at the prison to
control the demonstrators. For a moment the crowd looked as if it
might break through the barricades police had erected. Extra
police rushed to the prison in three buses to help control the
noisy demonstrators. The great majority of demonstrators were non-violent
and chanted "Don't hang Ryan" sporadically between
listening to impromptu anti-hanging speeches. These were greeted
with enthusiastic cheering and applause and more chanting.
Placards read; "Don't Hang a Man Who Could be Innocent."
Ryan's Final Hours and Last Letters
The night prior to the execution, Ryan was transferred to a cell,
just a few steps away from the gallows trapdoor. Father Brosnan
was with Ryan most of this time. In the eleventh-hour Ryan wrote
his last letters to members of his family, his defence attorney,
The Anti-Hanging Committee and Father Brosnan. The letters were
handwritten on toilet paper inside his cell and neatly folded. In
the documentary film The Last Man Hanged Ryan's letter to
The Anti-Hanging Committee is read out loud. Ryan wrote; " ...
I state most emphatically that I am not guilty of murder."
Ryan was hanged in 'D' Division at Pentridge Prison at 8:00 am on
Friday 3 February, 1967.
For unknown reasons, Ryan was not given the
right to make a final verbal statement to the people who had
gathered to witness his execution.
Ryan refused to have any sedatives but he did
have a nip of whisky, and walked calmly onto the gallows trapdoor.
Ryan's last words were to the hangman; "God bless you, please
make it quick." The hangman wasted no time after adjusting the
noose, quickly leapt to pulled the lever. Ryan fell through the
trapdoor with a loud crash.
A nationwide three-minute silence was observed
at the exact time that Ryan was hanged. Thousands of people
protesting outside the prison knew the moment of the execution
because the pigeons on the D Division roof all took flight.
Later that day, Ryan's body was buried in an
unmarked grave within the "D" Division prison facility. Three bags
of quicklime was spread over the coffin. The exact location of
Ryan's grave has never been released by the authorities.
A media reporter asked Bolte what he was doing
at 8:00 am. Bolte replied; "One of the three S’s I suppose"”
when asked what he meant by that, Bolte replied; "A shit, a
shave or a shower!".
While the biggest public protest ever seen in
the history of Australia was not successful in averting Ryan’s
execution, the protest campaign to save Ryan from the gallows
ensured that governments around Australia regarded it as too
difficult politically to ever enforce the death penalty again.
Within twenty years, capital punishment would be abolished
federally and in all state and territory jurisdictions. In 1985,
Australia officially abolished capital punishment.
Today, almost all federal and state politicians from all political
parties are opposed to the reintroduction of capital punishment in
Australia, for all crimes. Whether these politicians are
representative of their voters is less clear. In recent years,
Australian politicians (both government and opposition) have made
various comments that have changed Australia's opposition to the
death penalty. The implications of this shift in Australian policy
have not yet been fully explored or debated.
Nineteen years after Ryan's
execution, a prison officer Doug Pascoe, confessed on-air to
Channel 9 and the media, that he fired a shot during Ryan's escape
bid. The former prison guard wept on Channel 7 'Day By Day'
program claiming his shot may have accidentally killed his fellow
prison guard, George Hodson. Pascoe said he had not been
interviewed after the shooting.
On 12the June 1986, Pascoe tried to tell his
story to the media because of his involvement with the church.
Pascoe said he had not told anyone that he fired a shot during the
escape because at that time, "I was a 23-year-old coward". Pascoe
said he did not know why he fired except for the hype of the
moment. News of Pascoe's claims were met with mixed reaction from
lawyers, prison guards, and others directly involved in the Ryan
case. His claim was rejected by authorities, including former
prison warder Bill Newman who said Pascoe could not have fired a
shot. The trial judge who sentenced Ryan to death declined to make
After the claims and counter-claims, Dr Opas
said only a "proper enquiry" would determine the truth. Public
solicitor Allan Douglas, said Ronald Ryan should not have been
convicted, let alone hanged, on the evidence presented to the
court. Douglas said Ryan did not get a fair hearing at trial
because of adverse media reports. He added that the actions of the
Bolte Government had been "pretty drastic". Senior law lecturer at
Melbourne University Ian Elliott, said the claims by Pascoe might
form the basis of corroborative evidence for material at Ryan's
trial. A public witness at Ryan's hanging was journalist Patrick
Tennison, who said it was incumbent on the Government to explore
fully the circumstances of Ryan's hanging and to determine the
veracity of Pascoe's claims.
Forty Years Later
Forty years after Ronald Ryan was hanged, his family members made
a request to have his body exhumed and placed with his late wife
Dorothy, at Portland Cemetery. Victorian Premier John Brumby, gave
permission for archaeological work and exhumation of Ryan's body.
Only recently has it been revealed by
undertakers John Roy V. Allison that Ryan was buried in a highly
polished darkwood coffin with the best trimmings, high-quality
handles, satin lining, and a crucifix attached to the coffin. In a
protest against the hanging, the undertakers added the best of
everything to Ryan's coffin, so that his daughters would know he
had a bit of dignity.
However, the daughter of murdered prison guard,
Carole Hodson-Barnes-Hodson-Price, strongly objected and claimed
Ryan did not deserve to be buried in consecrated ground. She was a
13-year-old at the time of her father's death and had not lived
with her father for a number of years. When visiting Ryan's
unmarked grave recently, she danced and jumped on it
Carole Hodson angrily demanded to know who was funding Ryan's
exhumation and made a plea to Victorian Premier John Brumby to
ensure Ryan's remains not be removed from the prison grounds and
not be returned to Ryan's family members. But Mr Brumby supported
the views of Ryan's relatives to have his body exhumed so it could
be cremated and placed with his late wife Dorothy, buried at
Carole Hodson has been unable
to bury the bitterness and get any sense of peace after so many
years. She has been vocal and angry and doesn't believe Ryan
deserves any consideration. Her request to the journalist for
media interview has been ignored.
Hodson has met Ryan's family members, where she has consistently
gate-crashed various Ryan memorials and documentary film openings
to loudly protest. Ryan's daughter Wendy, has told how Carole
Hodson's cruel and unneccesary actions continue to add extra
emotional pain for the entire innocent family members, who believe
their loved one was wrongly convicted and hanged an innocent man.
The effects of the death penalty experienced by
families of executed criminals are documented in two books; Hidden
Victims: The Effects of the Death Penalty on Families of the
Accused by Susan F. Sharp (Associate Professor of Sociology) and
Capital Consequences: Families of The Condemned by Rachel King (Lawyer).
The books highlight the death penalty's hidden victims - the
families of executed offenders and how the execution trickles down
to those closely connected to the offender. Family members and
friends experience a profoundly complicated and socially isolating
grief process - economic, social and psychological repercussions
that shape the lives of the forgotten families of executed
offenders. Post-traumatic stress disorder can also affect these
innocent family members.
The family members of Ronald Ryan - the unseen
and unheard innocent victims of Ryan's execution, They have been
devastated and have suffered in silence without sympathy or
comfort, having had a ripple effect through to the future
generations. The Ryan family have kept a low-profile over the
decades, but have endured public scrutiny, been subjected to
harassment, have had to endure the after-math false allegations
and are struggling to live with the knowledge that Ryan may have
been innocent of murder when he was executed by the State of
Victoria. The emotional pain of Ryan's family members tends to
attract less attention and empathy from the media and the public,
than that of the victim's family members.
The Case for
Professor Gordon Hawkins, at Sydney University Law School doubts
the validity of the unsigned confessions of Ryan in a television
film documentary, Beyond Reasonable Doubt. Although verbal
confessions are not permissible in court, in the 1960s the public
and therefore the jury, were much more trusting of the police.
Whether as a result, an innocent man was hanged there is at least
a reasonable doubt. Professor Hawkins questions why Ronald Ryan, a
seasoned criminal, would suddenly feel the need to tell all to the
police? Was he 'verballed’ as such unsigned confessions are called?
These days 'verbals’ are virtually impossible as police have to
record all interviews they carry out in connection with a crime,
following extraordinary revelations of police corruption uncovered
by various police royal commissions.
pointing to the innocence of Ronald Ryan may have been lost when
prison guard Helmut Lange, committed suicide by shooting himself
in the head whilst on duty at Pentridge Prison, two years after
Ryan was hanged. It is alleged that a close friend of Lange (who
wanted to remain anonymous) claimed Lange had been troubled since
Ryan's hanging and committed suicide.
anonymous friend of Lange, telephoned Ryan's defence attorney Dr
Philip Opas QC, years after Lange's death to claim that Lange
confessed to finding the missing bullet casing in the prison guard
tower and told his friend he had made an official report to prison
authorities at the time, attaching the missing bullet casing.
But Lange had been ordered by "someone" to make a new
statement, excluding any reference to the missing bullet casing.
Fearing for his job, Lange made a new statement. At trial, Lange
testified that he did not see a bullet casing. Dr Opas advised the
caller to inform the Police but it is unknown whether in fact the
caller did. Police refused to comment.
a former Pentridge prisoner Harold Sheehan claimed he had
witnessed the shooting but had not come forward at the time.
Sheehan saw Ryan on his knees when the shot rang out and therefore,
Ryan could not have inflicted the wound that passed in a downward
trajectory angle that killed Hodson.
authorized M1 carbine rifles were issued with eight rounds of
bullets, including the rifle seized by Ryan from Lange. Seven of
the eight rounds were accounted for. If the eighth fell on the
floor of the prison watch tower when Ryan cocked the rifle with
the safety catch on, thereby ejecting a live round, then the
bullet that killed Hodson must have been fired by a person other
In a letter, Opas on Ryan - The
Innocence of Ronald Ryan written to The Victorian Bar
Association and published in The Bar News in Spring 2002, Dr Opas
responded to assertions made by Julian Burnside (who was reviewing
Mike Richard's book The Hanged Man,) that Ryan was guilty,
the verdict was correct but the punishment was wrong. In addition,
the editors of The Victorian Criminal Bar Association disagreed
with Julian Burnside personal assertion of Ryan's guilt.
Dr Opas vehemently disagrees with this assertion and refuses to
believe that at any time did Ryan confess to anyone that he fired
a shot. Burnside (a human rights advocate) has been asked on
several occasions to explain how came to his assertion, but has
refused to explain. Dr Opas vehemently states that there is no
evidence anywhere, that Ryan ever confessed guilt to anyone,
either verbally or in writing.
evidence and swore that he did not fire at Hodson. He denied
firing a shot at all. Ryan denied the alleged verbal confessions
said to have been made by him. Dr Opas says the last words Ryan
said to him were; We’ve all got to go sometime, but I don’t
want to go this way for something I didn't do.
On 1 March 2004, in an interview with the Australian Coalition
Against Death Penalty (ACADP) Dr Opas said; I want to put the
record straight. I want the truth told about Ronald Ryan - that an
innocent man went to the gallows. I want the truth to be made
available to everyone, for anyone young and old, who may want to
do research into Ryan's case or research on the issue of capital
punishment. I will go to my grave firmly of the opinion that
Ronald Ryan did not commit murder. I refuse to believe that at any
time he told anyone that he did.
August 2008, Dr Philip Opas QC, OBE died after a long illness at
the age of 91. Opas maintained Ryan's innocence to the end. He was
posthumously awarded an AM : Australia Day Honours in February
Mr. Justice Starke the judge at Ryan's
trial, and a committed abolitionist was convinced of Ryan's guilt
but did not agree Ryan should hang. Until his death in 1992,
Starke remained troubled about Ryan's hanging and would often ask
his colleagues if they thought he did the right thing.
The Facts Supporting Innocence
Ryan's rifle was never scientifically tested by
There was no proof that Ryan's
rifle had been fired.
The fatal bullet that
passed through Hodson's body was never found despite extensive
search by police.
The spent cartridge, also, was
never found despite extensive search by police. If Ryan had fired
a shot, a spent cartridge would have spilt on the ground.
It was never proven that the fatal bullet came from the weapon in
All fourteen witnesses testified they
heard one single shot.
Paterson admitted and testified he fired
one single shot.
No person heard two shots fired. If Ryan
had also fired a shot, at least one person would have heard two
shots. Only one shot was heard.
Ballistic evidence indicated that Hodson
was shot in a downward trajectory angle.
The measurement of the entry and exit
wound on Hodson's body indicated that the shot was fired from an
Ryan (a shorter man) could not have fired
at Hodson (a taller man) in such a downward trajectory angle, as
both were on level ground.
Two eyewitnesses testified seeing Ryan
recoil his rifle and two eyewitnesses testified seeing smoke
coming from the barrel of Ryan's rifle. In fact, at trial a
ballistic expert on firearms testified that type of rifle had no
recoil and it contained smokeless cartridges.
<Referenced Documentaries: The Last Man
Hanged, The Last of The Ryans, Beyond Reasonable Doubt, Odd Man
Prison Chaplain Convinced Ryan Was Innocent
On 26 March 2003, Father Brosnan was interviewed by The Australian
Broadcasting Commission National Radio, Brosnan was often asked by
ther media about Ronald Ryan -- who it was believed fired the
fatal shot during the prison breakout. Just months before Brosnan
died, he said on ABC National Radio; "No I won't make a hero
out of him. He caused a situation, I don't know whose bullet
killed who, but a friend of mine died. But I'll tell you what, he
had heroic qualities."
Father John Brosnan
was a Catholic priest for 57 years. For 30 years he was Pentridge
Prison chaplain. He had come to know Ryan very well and
accompanied Ryan to the gallows. In February 2007, The Catholic
Archdiocese published a story that Father Brosnan was convinced
and always believed Ryan was innocent.
Documentaries on Ronald Joseph Ryan
There are various educational documentary films/stories on Ronald
Ryan. They are dramatised documentaries, based on 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, lack of scientific
evidence, missing pieces of vital evidence, witnesses
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 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.
Film and Television Documentaries
The Last Man Hanged, historical
documentary, ABC, Australia, 1993
The Last Of The Ryans, television
movie, Crawford Productions, Australia, 23 April 1997 (Winner of
The 1998 Award of Distinction Telefeatures, TV Drama & Mini
Beyond Reasonable Doubt - The Case of
Ronald Ryan, documentary series, 1977 Australian Film
Odd Man Out - The Story of Ronald Ryan
Three-part television mini-series
Who Hung Ronald Ryan? Australian
Broadcasting Corporation Film (A Documentary Film on The
Execution of Ronald Ryan - released 1987)