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Politics

Oct 27, 2008

The black and white of a Palm Island tragedy

The scale of injustice surrounding the Palm Island case is hard to comprehend, writes Chris Graham.

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The question the state of Queensland should be asking itself today is this: is Lex Wotton a danger to society?

The answer is that if Queensland Police stop killing black men in custody, and trying to cover it up, then Lex Wotton is no threat to anyone.

Not that it matters much. Late on Friday, Wotton was convicted of the offence of “rioting with destruction” following the November 2004 uprising on Palm Island. He is now in custody, awaiting sentencing on November 7 in Townsville District Court.

The scale of this injustice is hard to comprehend, and even harder to describe. So I won’t even try. I’ll just stick to the facts — the black and white of the issue.

These are the injuries sustained by black people at the hands of police in the days and months immediately surrounding the death in custody, and the uprising: Mulrunji Doomadgee suffered four broken ribs, a ruptured spleen a torn portal vein and a liver “almost cleaved in two” (it was held together by a couple of blood vessels). After his death, Mulrunji’s son Eric hung himself from a tree on Palm Island. The man who lay in the cell next to Mulrunji and comforted him as he died — Patrick Nugent — has also taken his own life. In the course of his arrest, Lex Wotton was tasered, as was a second Aboriginal man.

Now these are the injuries police suffered at the hands of black people during the November 26, 2004 uprising: One officer was hit in the stomach with a rock. Another was hit in the hip. Both suffered bruising.

Now to matters of criminality.

Lex Wotton has been convicted of inciting a crowd to move against police. It’s worth noting there was also substantial evidence presented at his trial — mostly by police — that Wotton ordered rioters to stop throwing rocks at officers and secured transport (later refused) to get police off the island safely. There was also video footage of Wotton trying to stop rioters from preventing a fire truck accessing the carnage.

Now here’s what we know the police did.

In June 2004 — five months before the killing and riot — Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley ran over an Aboriginal woman in a police vehicle. He didn’t stop to render first aid, and both he and a female officer present in the vehicle denied the incident had occurred.

In response, senior police in Townsville appointed a friend (and neighbour) of Hurley’s — Detective Senior Constable Darren Robinson — to investigate the matter. After doing nothing for a month, Robinson finally delivered his report to his superiors. His mate Hurley did nothing wrong, the entire complaint was fictitious. Robinson neglected to mention that he had not interviewed any witnesses, nor had he sought any medical evidence. Had he done so, he’d have discovered the injured woman, Barbara Pilot, had suffered a compound fracture to her leg, and her shinbone was sticking through her skin.

Robinson subsequently admitted on the stand during the Wotton trial that he lied in his report.

Three months later, in September 2004, Hurley assaulted a man — Douglas Clay — in the Palm Island police station. About half a dozen police — including his mate Robinson — witnessed the incident. Police denied an assault had occurred, but after the death of Mulrunji, the Crime & Misconduct Commission investigated, and found traces of Clay’s blood in the police cell.

In November, Hurley was implicated in the death of Mulrunji. Senior police from Townsville again appointed Hurley’s mate Robinson to the investigation. Robinson and several other police – including an Inspector of police from the Ethical Command unit sent to Palm Island to ensure the investigation was conducted properly – ate dinner and drank beers with Hurley that night. Mulrunji’s body was barely cold.

A few days later, detectives provided an interim report to the coroner’s office. They chose not to tell the coroner that an Aboriginal witness had seen Hurley assaulting Mulrunji on the floor of the police station. A pathologist’s report subsequently found Mulrunji had died as the result of a “fall”. It was some fall – his injuries were consistent with the sort of trauma you might see from a plane crash.

Now here’s the wash-up.

Chris Hurley — a white cop — was tried by an all-white jury, overseen by a white judge on a charge of manslaughter. He got off.

Lex Wotton — a black man — was also tried by an all-white jury, overseen by a white judge on a charge of rioting with destruction. He’s facing life. He may as well have a killed a copper — he’d be facing precisely the same jail time if he had. His family — wife Cecelia, and four children (two of whom are disabled) are without a father. His community is without a leader.

By contrast, police who lost property in the riot have been compensated.

Some officers are still receiving taxpayer-funded trauma counselling today. Darren Robinson has been promoted to the rank of Detective Sergeant. Chris Hurley received a $100,000 compensation payout from the Queensland Government. He took a two-year break from the police service — on full pay — while awaiting a trial of manslaughter (unlike Wotton, an all-white Queensland jury acquitted him). He has since returned to the job on the Gold Coast. He has been promoted to the rank of Inspector.

And today, police present on the island on the day of the riot will receive bravery medals. One officer, describing the uprising, told the court last week: “I feared for my life. I thought I was going to die.”

So did Mulrunji. And I bet you Lex Wotton — a black man in custody at the Roma Street Watchhouse in Brisbane — feels exactly the same way.

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16 comments

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16 thoughts on “The black and white of a Palm Island tragedy

  1. Chris Johnson

    What a goose Kevin Rudd now looks after the theatrics of February 13 and the landmark apology. We are sorry for inflicting “profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians”. Shame he didn’t look back over his shoulder at the hapless state of his heritage. Our PM is more than familiar with the culture of Queensland and its law-unto-itself practices particularly in the area of human rights. For years he’s rubbed shoulders with those linked to flawed administrative bungles from children in state care to deaths in public hospitals and a Premier who left the state struggling with civil rights. Rudd needs to reflect on his words earlier in the year and cancel the so-called bravery awards. He needs to call a full inquiry as he offers his heartfelt regrets to Mr Wotton and the people of Palm Island. It shouldn’t be too difficult since his speech writers have already penned “we are sorry for the indignity and degradation inflicted on a proud people and a proud culture”.

  2. Lucy

    Excellent recap. I don’t remember feeling this angry about events – ever, really. It’s just appalling. Sometimes it feels like we’ve gone backwards. This sounds like an incident from apartheid South Africa, or Jim Crow era United States. What are we doing? Why is this happening?

  3. CTW

    Queensland, not 20 years behind but actually 200 it seems.

    Where is Anna or Judy on this one? Seems politics and police only go together when there is an upside.

    The decent, honest cops left in QLD must be hanging their heads in shame, all ten of them.

  4. Sad Barry

    Unfortunately this story seems to be all to familier.

    Thankyou for your informed ‘Black & White’ interpretation. Queenland & Australia should be absolutely disgraced!! This needs to go to the UN. This stuff happened 200 years ago – maybe we’ll recognise this in another 200 yrs!!

    I wonder if a White ‘Royal Commission’ would provide anymore insight than this plain english ‘Chris Graham article. What more facts are required.

    This stinks!!!

    Disappointed,

    Sad Barry

    I’ll be watching 4Corners tonight – again to be disappointed at our apparteid & inconsistant policing system. Community should be expecting 100% more from our men in blue & our hot air politians!!

  5. Outside Looking In

    One of the most poignant moments surrounding the Palm Island situation, was seeing the women interviewed on TV (by the ABC of course since 9 et al never even bothered to send anyone until the riot was over), and the simple view the women had that there was no point in trying to fight what Hurley did.

    Leanne Clare, it has to be said, irrespective of the bullying by the fat maggots of the QPSU, at least had a go, and the external silk called to decide whether a case existed also, in saying there was a case, handed that case to a bunch of red-necks in Townsville, who still refer to “black bastards” outside the pub. These cretins became a jury to decide Hurleys’ supposed guilt or innocence, deciding, as expected, that it is better to have a bunch of cops to drink with rather than have to fight them off when they are accused of in-breeding, which naturally, since they are mates, they won’t be charged over (apart from the fact it appears to be normal in Townsville).

    I thought Queensland had grown up, and that the cops had learned from Fitzgerald, but I guess it’s fair to say once a bagman, always a bagman. I guess also it’s little surprise that the cops haven’t learned the old adage “beware your sins will find you out”, even if it is 10 or 15 years down the track from the last black man Hurley murdered. Let’s face it, you don’t have to be a brain surgeon to join Queenslands’ Thick Blue Line.

  6. Cathy

    By the way the farce continues as a bravery award recipient remains before the CMC over his inquiries into the colleague believed to have run down a woman! Looks like one of those tonnes of ecstasy Mick Keelty’s AFP lauded as now being in the hands of authorities might have made its way to Queensland.

  7. Harry

    It reads as though this was an excerpt from an incident in Alabama U.S.A. in the early 60’s. If this man is sentenced to goal let us together rise up in anger at the perpetration of such injustice in the whole Palm Island affair. So how do we take action?
    Harry

  8. Billy

    Good on those brave police men and women who looked after each other on that terrible terrible day when they were just doing their job. Shame on the Palm Island community for supporting such disgraceful behaviour. Lex Wotton got what he deserved. You can’t whinge about the police behaving badly and then going on burning down buildings and rioting like that. If they don’t want the police to be violent then don’t be voilent towards the police, everyone else in Australia that has no trouble with police can grasp that concept why can’t Palm Island? I am sure if any other group of people behaved in such a manner anywhere else in Australia they would also be punished like Lex Wotton has been, it has nothing to do with being an Aboriginal Palm Islander and everything to do with breaking the law. Do you really believe that the entire police force in Queensland and the judges and everyone who could be randomly picked for the jury all being in on some consipiracy to treat Palm Islanders badly without reason? Do you really believe that is what is going on here? Do you think that every black person in police custody is being treated extra badly because of some special secret police code to do so? Why was Doomadgee in police custody in the first place if he was such a saint? How many other Palm Islanders have died in police custody since then? I haven’t heard any big stories like this on any others so I assume there hasn’t been any as I am sure there would be another riot if there was. So I guess black deaths in custody have stopped afterall and all those people wasting their time holding up signs asking for this to happen can change them over to “Stop Black Bad Behaviour” because if that were to happen then maybe there would be less black people like Lex Wotton in custody in the first place let alone dying there. I am not racist, I believe in treating everyone in this country equally and not giving specific groups free range to do as they please and get away with it

  9. Julie

    Dear Billy and Jane, you’ll find all the facts and a very well researched and readable book on the matter in “Gone for a Song” by ABC journalist Jeff Waters. A little knowledge and understanding can go a long way.
    I can’t imagine a whitefella being arrested for singing a song, and losing his life in the process.
    But then you and I can’t even begin to imagine the level of police interference, harrassment and intimidation that your ordinary blackfella experiences going about their daily business.
    But you might find out if you listened to some.

  10. Simon

    So tell me Chris, if a white fella burnt down a police station and a court house, would he be sentenced to just 6 years? I think not. Your report is so biased and so full of shit, I can’t help but wonder if the Townsville state member for parliament helped you write this article.
    Maybe, just maybe, when indigenous people actually start to give a shit about their own lives, and their own well-being, then true reconciliation might just be achievable.

  11. Coreen

    Billy your ignorance is outstanding. Before making such brazen and quite frankly ignorant comments, I honestly think that you should have all of the facts before you. To help you out, here is the website for the initial coroner’s inquest: http://www.courts.qld.gov.au/mulrunji270906.pdf
    Also, here is Sir Laurence Street’s report: http://www.justice.qld.gov.au/files/AboutUs/StreetReport_PalmIsland.pdf.

  12. Omar

    Justice – HA!
    The wonder is that the people of Palm Island haven’t razed the pig station to the ground and killed all in it.

    I think we would.

    Clearly their cultural outlook is far more civilised than ours. What halfwit decided we need to send the brownshirts there anyway?

    They’ve been quite capable of minding their own affairs for 40 or 50 thousand years now.

    I think it’d be appropriate to the people of Palm Island mete out justice to Hurley, Robinson and their scaly mates.

  13. Marilyn

    And to make things even worse the bloody cops are getting bravery medals.

    What sort of suck hole country are we still in light of the horrors we have seen in the SBS film “The First Australians” that has rendered me distraught at some times and enraged at others – we are no better today.

  14. Chris Graham

    Actually Simon, if you (and people like you) quit the Queensland Police service, then we might actually have a shot at “true reconciliation” . You’re part of the problem… straight out of the “I’m not a racist but…” school of thought (and employed by “I wasn’t racist until I became a copper Pty Ltd…”

  15. Realist

    Death and prison sentences for Aborigines and bravery medals for brutal policemen at Palm Island. Plainly, Queensland is no country for black men. We should all hang our heads in shame.

  16. Jane

    Here here to Billy! Finally someone with a decent argument…

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