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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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