Days of future past
Today, when murders attract sensational headlines, thoughts may well turn to capital punishment. The recent case of the ‘‘pamper party’’ kitchen slaughter certainly suggested to this correspondent that Anna Browne, who wielded the butcher’s knife, was ripe for the hangman.
Less than a hundred years ago this was a reality in New Zealand. In Hamilton, in 1921, one Hakaraia Te Kahu stood trial for the murder of his friend and work colleague Patrick Richard Elliot, at Ongaroto, near the upper reaches of the Waikato river. Whilst two earlier juries found the evidence too circumstantial, Te Kahu’s third prosecution benefited from additional witness testimony, placing him close to the scene of the crime, brandishing a shotgun which ballistically matched the murder weapon. This proved decisive. Mr Justice Stringer expressed himself most clearly when passing sentence. Calling the homicide ‘‘foul and atrocious’’ and noting that he agreed with the jury’s decision, Stringer was said to have ‘‘assumed the black cap’’ before uttering the immortal line, that Te Kahu ‘‘ . . . be taken to the place of execution and there be hanged by the neck until dead’’.
Having displayed a stoic disposition through all three of his trials, the condemned man ‘‘completely broke down and cried like a child’’. Collapsing in the dock, Te Kahu was assisted back to his cell, where he received medical attention, having ‘‘stiffened out as from a paralytic stroke’’.
Parliament received numerous petitions urging that the sentence be commuted. At first these pleas were based on the notion that some doubt existed as to Te Kahu’s guilt. However, after the convicted man belatedly confessed, albeit claiming the shooting was accidental, the argument shifted. Either way, the government was indifferent. The fact that Te Kahu robbed Elliot’s corpse, went gambling a few hours after the murder and displayed no remorse for what he had done, could not have helped his cause. Given Te Kahu’s penchant for collapse a new device was employed on the gallows, pinning his feet and supporting his shoulders. At the last, he ‘‘bore up bravely and although labouring under strong emotion and breathing heavily, he stood erect’’. Death was instantaneous.