Murder trial of Aro of Rupamanda: Graham Hardy

On 10 April 1957 a tribal man named Aro from Rupamanda, close to Wabag Government Station in the Western Highlands District of the Territory of New Guinea, murdered his two wives. He immediately afterwards surrendered himself to the Wabag Subdistrict Office and voluntarily admitted to the offence. On 2 May 1957, in the District Court at Wabag he was committed for trial to the Supreme Court by Mr F.P.V. Robb, Assistant District Officer, for the two murders.
 
Aro appeared before the Wabag Criminal Sittings of the Supreme Court on 6 August 1957, Mr Justice Esme Bignold presiding, and Mr John Greville-Smith prosecuting. At that time the office of a public defender had not yet been established, and in accordance with the general procedure in criminal trials, whereby an officer of the Department of District Services and Native Affairs who was not involved in the investigation or prosecuting of the case was appointed defending officer, Patrol Officer Graham Hardy (the writer) was defending officer. Although Aro had freely admitted committing the offences outlined in the Indictment, a plea of Not Guilty was entered, again in accordance with the procedure generally adopted in the case of capital offences. The trial continued and on 9 August 1957, Aro was found guilty and the Sentence of Death was pronounced. Aro was remanded in custody at the Wabag Gaol pending further advice.

Advice was eventually received at Western Highlands District Headquarters, Mt Hagen, that Aro’s execution was to take place in Lae on 14 November 1957. Several weeks before the execution date, he was transferred to Mt Hagen Gaol. The Warrant of Execution signed by the Governor-General, Sir William Slim, was received by the District Office, Mt Hagen. Mr W.D. Allen, District Officer, Western Highlands, was appointed Sheriff for the execution at very short notice prior to 14 November. Instructions from Headquarters in Port Moresby stated that Aro was not to be told the date of execution or the reason for his transfer to Lae.

The execution was duly carried out in the presence of a number of Headmen witnesses from Wabag and other parts of the Western Highlands. Aro’s body was buried in Lae.  It was a week before news of the execution was broadcast over the ABC or in the press. Upon returning home, the witnesses travelled about their areas, to tell the people what had happened. The general response by the populace was to doubt the truth of what they were told because of the lack of a body to prove the point. Between the sentencing and the return to their homes by the Headmen, murders ceased while people waited to see if the Government would, at last, carry out the long-standing threat to hang a murderer. The murders, chiefly wife murders, resumed without any apparent diminution in their frequency. During 1962 and 1963, the writer was Assistant District Commissioner in Wabag and presided over many District Court committal hearings for murder. Also, more than once, a story would circulate that a local who had visited Lae had seen Aro “walking about” there.

The decision to not return Aro’s body to Wabag for burial negated any deterrent effect his execution would have had. We field officers in Wabag Sub-district at the time informally discussed the idea of a public hanging and the effect this would have, but at the same time agreeing that such an event would never be allowed to happen. The public display of the body, on the other hand, would, in my opinion, have had a positive result. I think it is safe to say that an unintended consequence of the timidity (if, indeed, it was timidity) shown by the decision to bury the body in Lae was the killing of more victims which would otherwise have not occurred. As I recall, we assumed the body would be returned as a matter of course, and I cannot remember anybody, locally, raising it as an issue. Whether or not it was discussed at a higher level, I do not know.

Some of the reasons given for the non-commutation of the death sentence to one of imprisonment deserve comment:

In his letter of 13 September 1957 to His Honour the Administrator, Justice Bignold addressed the matter of mitigation. Given the violence of the acts of killing his two wives with an axe and the absence of real evidence of the behavior of his wives which led Aro to kill them, there certainly was nothing to support a claim of provocation or an act done in the heat of the moment. In fact, I recall a remark attributed to Aro that he had killed the second woman “because she was there and it was an opportunity to be rid of her as well”. This does not appear however in any of the court documents. The Judge, in stating that there seemed to him to be no circumstances of mitigation, (especially given the facts of the case), appears to have been influenced by the fact that Aro lived next to Wabag Station. In his last paragraph His Honour says that “the accused was born adjacent to the Wabag Station and has lived there all his life. The fact that he at once reported his crimes to the Sub-District Office appears to me to show that he well knew that his acts were unlawful, and quite apart from this, his long residence almost on the Station precludes any other conclusion, in my view”.

The densely settled parts of Wabag Subdistrict consisting of the relatively small geographical area of the Lai, Ambum and Tschak valleys carried a population of approximately 80,000 at that time. Awareness of the unlawfulness of murder would have been as present to the people living on the outer reaches of this area as it would have been amongst those in close proximity to Wabag. Investigation of wife murders, especially, in the Western Highlands of that time, almost invariably commenced with the arrival of the offender at the Kiap’s office to surrender the murder weapon and confess his guilt so he would be locked up and safe from ‘pay back’ by the victim’s family.

Based on personal experience, I am certain that uppermost in Aro’s mind would have been the need to be taken out of circulation by way of a court case and a sufficiently long prison sentence for the necessary compensation to be paid in accordance with tribal custom, long before his release to resume tribal life. To him, the killing of his wives would not have been out of the ordinary and in accordance with the lingering influence of a still existent tribal custom; even though he would have known it was unlawful.

The handwritten notes taken at the Federal Cabinet Meeting on 15 October 1957, Decision No. 1035, display an unawareness of the actual situation in the Wabag Subdistrict, in the notation “relation to possible crimes by or against whites”, at the time these events took place. From the first contact by Europeans with the warlike Enga speaking people in the Wabag area in the 1930s until the establishment of a Government Station and the consolidation of law and order in the most populated areas during the immediate post-war years, clashes between tribesmen and government patrols were not unknown. By the 1950s, law and order was well and truly established except for inter-clan conflict, mainly over land, in the densely populated area, as well as recourse at times to the traditional tribal method of dealing with offences such as adultery, even though the latter was an offence under the Native Administration Regulations which attracted a penalty of six months imprisonment. Apart from three experienced Australian alluvial gold miners in a remote uninhabited corner of the sub-district, the expatriate population consisted solely of Government Officers and their families and Missionaries of various denominations and their families. Apart from extremely rare petty theft by a domestic servant there was no threat of any “crimes against whites”. If this was a serious consideration in the decision to confirm the execution, it was to sanction a deterrent against a non-existent threat.

 

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