The policeman who said “no” to the last execution in Australia

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In 1965, Ryan and his fellow inmate Peter John Walker escaped from Pentridge Prison. Prison officer George Hodson was shot and killed in the process.

Ronald Ryan (left) was the last person to be executed in Australia. Bryan Harding (right) was invited to attend the hanging at Pentridge Prison but declined. Credit:Archives, provided

Ryan was convicted of murder and hanged in Pentridge in February 1967.

Harding’s former school and football buddy Jim Mulvey was the deputy sheriff and, along with Sheriff Gerry O’Brien, he was responsible for overseeing the execution. “They told me before the hanging … that Ryan, when asked, would like witnesses to be present on his behalf, named me among others.

“I was tempted briefly, but I’m very grateful that I refused,” he says.

Participants included government pathologist, reporters, prison staff and Priest Pentridge, Father John Brosnan.

“All of these men were affected by the experience. O’Brien and Mulvey [were] destroyed by it, ”recalls Harding. Harding was one of the few police officers at the time to oppose state executions. “Some called me a weak bastard.”

The toll of corruption

“When the police do good things, we are proud. When they go rogue, we suffer and feel a kind of collective shame. To this day, I suffer from these reactions, ”writes Harding.

Corruption in policing is the postscript of unpopular laws when there is a public appetite for something illegal. Before abortion was legalized, it was part of the homicide squad’s mandate to investigate the burgeoning backyard business.

Some members of the team shielded a group of doctors and medical personnel carrying out the operations, explaining that by closing their eyes (for a price) they made sure the women avoided backyard butchers.

When Harding, then a suburban detective, indicted one of the doctors (after a husband showed up to the station to complain), he had his first dealings with entrenched corruption thanks to one of the most charismatic force, then Detective Sgt. Jack Ford.

“Ford and I had an interest in thoroughbred racing and arranged to meet at a meeting in Caulfield.

“He had a huge bet with a rail bookie. If it was meant to impress me, it both succeeded and bothered me.

“He made me a surprising proposition. If I followed his advice to the letter regarding any testimony in Dr. Lewis Leon Phillips’ incarceration process, or in any subsequent trial, I would be rewarded with a huge gift of cash. If I attended the trial more and Phillips was acquitted, the reward would be doubled. He also wanted a full interpretation of my shorthand notes.

“I thanked him for his interest in my financial future, but no thanks.”

Not the type to take a no for an answer, Ford called Harding’s wife Lorna: “He begged her to convince the reluctant guy that this was the financial opportunity of a lifetime. He got the same answer.

Harding reported the attempted bribe, but nothing was done until 12 years later, in 1970, when the government reluctantly announced a judicial abortion inquiry under William Kaye, QC.

Deputy Prime Minister and Police Minister Sir Arthur Rylah initially resisted calls for an investigation and, when his hand was forced, assured him limited powers.

Sir Arthur Rylah: Where there is smoke.

Sir Arthur Rylah: Where there is smoke.Credit:Age

Rylah felt indebted to the Homicide Squad who he said had shown her great compassion when in 1969 his wife, Lady Ann Rylah, died after being found unconscious in the back garden from his sprawling Kew home.

Homicide took control of the case and quickly found no suspicious circumstances. The cremation and funeral took place four days later. Rylah married his longtime mistress within months.

The person responsible for the homicide at the time was Detective Inspector Jack Ford.

I once interviewed a member of the Homicide Squad at that time about the case. He thought for a while before saying that it was Ford’s best friend who did it: “There wasn’t a lot of paperwork.

The Kaye abortion investigation revealed a corrupt payment system to some members of the team. Ford, his boss, Superintendent Jack Mathews and former Detective Constable Martin Jacobson have been jailed.

Not that Harding is black and white on all laws. Stationed in the country, he decided if local cops should be part of the community, they should be flexible. Before the days of telephone betting, there were illegal SP bookies in every pub and Harding implemented their own local “laws”: “No cheating, no betting with minors, no advertising, no gambling. bet with clients who have financial problems, if the police outside the neighborhood who raided you, it was your bad luck, be nice to your clients and pay your taxes.

Avoid the avoidable

Harding tried to avoid violence, but that didn’t mean he was hiding from the confrontation.

When in 1972 two men, Edwin John Eastwood and Robert Clyde Boland, kidnapped teacher Mary Gibbs and her six students from tiny Faraday elementary school, Harding broke down the door to stop Boland.

Victorian Education Minister Lindsay Thompson with Mary Gibbs and her six students after their rescue from the kidnappers.

Victorian Education Minister Lindsay Thompson with Mary Gibbs and her six students after their rescue from the kidnappers. Credit:Age Archives

In 1985, when burglar Pavel Marinof shot six police officers, Harding raided his home. The following year, when Marinof was shot by police, Harding delivered the message of death.

What he despised were the pointless confrontations that had once put him at loggerheads with then-Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser.

In 1976, Fraser was invited to Monash University to open the Alexander Theater. A crowd of angry protesters overwhelmed insufficient security and the prime minister was forced to escape in an unmarked police car. He vowed to return, making it to deliver Sir Robert Menzies’ inaugural lecture just as Harding was transferred to the district.

Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser received a brutal reception at Monash University in 1976.

Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser received a brutal reception at Monash University in 1976. Credit:Age

“When I got to Oakleigh, I hoped that reason would prevail and the Prime Minister would be distracted from his promise to return to Monash,” writes Harding. “That hope was dashed immediately.”

Harding has offered a number of safe exit strategies to be told, “The Prime Minister is not going through a back door. “

“At 9.45pm, Premier Fraser and his wife appeared and, at the right time, the waiting crowd poured in. Punches and kicks were exchanged; the police were pushed and pulled, splashed with mud and constantly mistreated. Fraser and his wife were in the relative safety of their car.

“Suddenly he got out of the car, stood up to his full height and waved and smiled at the Prime Minister, then escaped into the car. It was not helpful.

Angry at the unnecessary provocation, said Harding Age: “Mr. Fraser could have left the university building by one of the many exits, but chose to exit by the door surrounded by demonstrators. He failed to avoid the avoidable.

“We end up with the unfortunate conclusion that he sought confrontation.”

Bryan Harding against the Prime Minister in The Age, April 1978.

Bryan Harding against the Prime Minister in The Age, April 1978.Credit:Age Archive

Vintage Harding. He still cared about his job, but didn’t care to ruffle the feathers of roosters, whether they were pedantic senior officers or preening politicians.


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