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That was the law

23 May 2014

Punishment of High Treason Act 1870

“2. From and after the passing of this Act the [Imperial Act 54 George III c146] shall be deemed not to extend to or be applicable in the administration of justice within the Colony of New Zealand.”

The Imperial Act referred to required the sentence in all cases of high treason to be “that such person should be drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution and be there hanged by the neck until such person should be dead and that afterwards the head should be severed from the body of such person and the body divided into four quarters” to be disposed of as the monarch sees fit.

The 1814 English statute was definitely the law in New Zealand by virtue of our English Laws Act 1858. The sentence has actually been imposed in this country, provoking the 1870 legislation. On 23 September 1869, after a jury had found Te Kooti associates Hetariki Te Oikau, Rewi Tamanui Totitoti and Matene Te Karo guilty of high treason, Justice Johnston unwillingly sentenced each to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

“The law which I am bound to administer leaves me no alternative, and it is my duty to pass upon you the highest sentence which that law allows. The sentence that I am about to pass on you is not my word, but the word of the law. I must now proceed to pass upon you, and each of you, that awful sentence which the law has prescribed for the offence of which you have been found guilty,” the Wellington Independent reported the Judge as saying. After passing sentence he then added: “I again say that I am sure nothing will be done but the hanging.”

None of the three was executed and their sentences were commuted to imprisonment. One person has been executed for treason in New Zealand. Although it was accepted that he had killed no-one, Hamiora Pera was also charged with high treason for actions in Te Kooti’s war and tried after the other three. He was found guilty and Justice Johnston reluctantly passed sentence, again assuring him that “nothing but death” would be carried into effect. While there has been extensive debate about his guilt, he was hanged in Wellington on 16 November 1869.

On 30 June 1870 New Zealand’s Parliament changed the punishment for high treason from hanging, drawing and quartering to hanging. This remained the law until the Abolition of the Death Penalty Act 1989 came into force on 26 December 1989.

Last updated on the 17th March 2016