Richard Bourke In Brisbane: A Rare Australian Advocate Fighting The Death Penalty


An Australian lawyer working against the death penalty in the United States will be back in Australia next month to speak. Stephen Keim SC and Madeleine Murphy are hoping people won’t miss the chance to hear what he has to say.

“We are all going to die, and we have no choice about that, but we do choose whether to kill or not,” concluded Australian-born capital defence lawyer, Richard Bourke, during a moving speech he delivered at a TedxSydney event in early 2015.

Since then, the effectiveness and availability of various drugs employed in the lethal injection protocols of various US states has again brought the debate about the death penalty to the fore.

In its June 2015 ruling (Glossip v Gross), a five Justice majority of the United States Supreme Court ruled that use by the State of Oklahoma of the sedative midazolam in the lethal injection protocol does not violate the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment. The finding was contrary to contentions by the Applicants that midazolam failed to render the person insensate (unconscious and without sensation).

In a dissenting opinion in which Justice Ginsberg joined, Justice Breyer wrote, “Rather than try to patch up the death penalty’s legal wounds, one at a time, I would ask for a full briefing on a more basic question: whether the death penalty violates the Constitution”.

Recently, the United States Supreme Court has accepted for review, a challenge by a Missouri man to his death sentence on the basis that the combined effect of his particular medical condition and the drugs used in the lethal injection cocktail would result in a death which violates the same Eighth Amendment protections. That matter (Bucklew v Precythe) is due to be heard in the next sitting Term of the Court.

Richard Bourke is returning to Australia in July to speak at the Banco Court of the QEII Courts building in Brisbane in a joint initiative of Australians Against Capital Punishment, the Julian Wagner Memorial Fund; the UQ Law Alumni Association and the TC Beirne School of Law. Bourke’s talk will be recorded for broadcast on the ABC’s Big Ideas program.

Bourke often speaks of the dignity and humanity involved in the work of defending capital cases and it is certainly these words which come to mind when hearing his own story.

While studying law at Melbourne University, he worked with homeless and abused children, before commencing his legal practice working in Children’s Court and criminal defence matters.

Bourke originally interned with the Louisiana Capital Assistance Center (LCAC) in 1998. Now, he is one of its directors. The LCAC is a non-profit legal centre which was founded in 1993 and continues to provide legal representation to those charged with and convicted of capital offences at both a trial and appellate level. The work of the LCAC extends beyond casework to consultation and training of capital offence counsel and the provision of resources.

After returning to Australia following his internship, Bourke, along with fellow criminal barrister, Nick Harrington, established the Australian chapter of Reprieve to provide legal representation and assistance to those at risk of execution. Reprieve continues to provide volunteer legal and humanitarian assistance to activists, prisoners and lawyers in the United States and South East Asia, including facilitating Australians who wish to volunteer with the LCAC.

In 2002, Bourke took a leave of absence from his burgeoning practice at the Bar and returned to Louisiana and the LCAC. He has lived and worked there ever since.

While Bourke’s story is itself remarkable, he is a remarkable storyteller: of the clients he has worked with and the work of the LCAC. For example, he speaks often of Chuck Winfree, who had been charged with the shooting of three people including a 17-year-old woman who was pregnant. He tells of the power of a meeting between the mother of that young woman and Chuck and how, at the conclusion of that meeting, the victim’s mother agreed to fight for Chuck and, indeed, only days later, stood before the court and urged that it not impose the death penalty.

Viktor E Frankl was a psychiatrist who survived years of living at Auschwitz, Dachau and two other Nazi concentration camps. Frankl’s mother, brother and wife were killed in Nazi concentration camps. Professor Frankl founded a branch of psychiatry called logotherapy. His essential thesis is that the most important thing we require as humans is meaning in our lives. Richard Bourke is someone who chose meaning over other rewards that a successful stint at the Melbourne Bar might offer. He has found dignity, humanity and meaning in places where most of us have chosen not to look.

A rare chance to listen to and be in the presence of Mr Bourke beckons on July 30, at 5.30 pm at the Banco Court in Brisbane.

For more information about the event or to buy tickets to attend, contact Elisa at or Tina on 0423 709 445.


* Australians Against Capital Punishment and the Julian Wagner Memorial Fund have contributed funds to provide assistance to prospective interns who cannot, from their own resources, afford the expenses of travelling to and living in Louisiana while working as a volunteer at the LCAC. Hopefully, Mr Bourke’s presence in the Banco Court will encourage some Queensland law students and lawyers to consider undertaking the life enriching exercise of working as a volunteer on capital defence cases in the United States.

Australians who wish to volunteer with the LCAC or other capital defence centres in the United States are gratefully received. Interested people may contact Reprieve Australia, Australians Against Capital Punishment or the Julian Wagner Memorial Fund.

The Julian Wagner Memorial Fund was established in 2016 to continue to promote and protect human rights in memory of Julian Wagner, a Queensland barrister and passionate opponent of the death penalty. Australians Against Capital Punishment was formed in 2007 to advocate for the abolition of the death penalty, internationally.

Madeleine Murphy has recently been called to the Bar in Queensland. Prior to this, she spent a number of years working as an associate in the Family Court of Australia and volunteering at community legal centres across a broad range of practice areas. Stephen Keim SC has been a barrister for 32 years. He practises from chambers in Brisbane and Hobart. Stephen was awarded the human rights medal in 2009 by the Australian Human Rights Commission. He is patron of Australian Against Capital Punishment and the Julian Wagner Memorial Fund Inc., both organisations dedicated to opposing the death penalty.