Eminent NSW jurist Laurence Street has provided the Queensland Government with a report indicating that there is sufficient evidence to charge Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley with the manslaughter of Mulrunji Doomadgee at the Palm Island police lock-up on 19 November 2004.

It’s the first time in Queensland history that a police officer will face charges in connection with an Aboriginal death in custody.

At six foot six in the old money, Senior Sergeant Hurley is a physically imposing man who towered over the much smaller figure of Mulrunji Doomadgee. Hurley had arrested the Palm Islander on a charge of public nuisance – an action which Queensland’s Deputy Coroner Christine Clements would later describe as “not being an appropriate exercise of police discretion”. Mulrunji was dead within the hour, four ribs broken and a liver almost cleaved in two. The Deputy Coroner found that these injuries had been inflicted by Hurley.

Crikey spoke this morning to long-time Indigenous justice activist Sam Watson, who described the Laurence report as a “welcome step”. However Watson has suggested that justice delayed is justice denied. “There are four fresh graves on Palm Island as a direct result of this incident” he said. “No matter how many police are charged… these people will stay in their graves. They have been lost to us forever.”

The Queensland Police Union has been typically intemperate, with vice-president Denis Fitzpatrick saying that his members are “incensed at this political interference”, and refusing to rule out marches, protest rallies or “any form of industrial action”.

However, Queensland’s Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson, has moved to defuse the threat, writing to all sworn officers to remind them of their ‘duty and responsibility’ to protect all Queenslanders.

The normally media-savvy Beattie Government appears badly shaken by the widespread public criticism of its mishandling of events. In what has quickly become a national issue, Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders alike have pilloried the government for its bungling of the process, and the loss of public confidence which has ensued.

Tragic and premature death is an all too familiar theme on Palm Island. Since 1918, “problem cases” and “uncontrollables” on Indigenous communities across Queensland were punished by “removal to Palm”. The locals have no expectation of a fair go before the law and make their discontent apparent though sporadic episodes of damage to symbolic public property, such as the burning of the police station in the wake of Mulrunji’s death.

Now Street has offered the Queensland Government a way out. His report provides a belated opportunity for “justice to be seen to be done”.

Peter Fray

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