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Beyond Reasonable Doubt – The Case of Ronald Ryan (1977)


Ronald Ryan, a convicted armed robber, was the last man to be hanged in Australia. The year was 1967. It was alleged he’d shot a warder as he and another prisoner, Peter Walker, made their escape from Pentridge Gaol in 1965. This program asks whether he was guilty beyond reasonable doubt or was the rifle shot that killed the warder fired by another warder?

Curator’s notes

This was the first of four programs made for the series by the ABC’s documentary unit. The presenter was Gordon Hawkins, Associate Professor of Criminology at Sydney University Law School. The other three programs were about McLeod Lindsey, Leith Ratten and Van Beelen. It’s hard to go past a juicy murder story, especially one with doubts about the guilt of the accused, and Gordon Hawkins is a good storyteller.

In this first program about Ronald Ryan, the director Stephen Ramsey uses an array of props to assist with recounting a complicated story. The film uses an excellent animation to explain the escape route from the jail. It’s a tribute to the animators that you really feel you’re watching an escape. The film also uses dramatised re-creations of courtroom evidence, especially that given by Ronald Ryan himself, played by Bill Hunter (wearing a terrible wig). This must have been early days for television documentary re-creations because there is no carefully placed supertitle to signal that the person we are watching is an actor. These days, re-creations are carefully described as such so there can be no misunderstanding. Complicated explanations of who was where on the day of the escape are also assisted by the use of a model of the jail and the surrounding area, with Gordon Hawkins moving around amongst the props to place people according to their evidence or the evidence of others.

The death penalty hung over this terrible story from the moment that Ryan was convicted. Huge crowds kept vigil outside the jail on the morning of the hanging, desperately hoping that Premier Bolte would change his mind. He didn’t and with the public outrage and horror of this execution, Australia ended capital punishment forever.