Any hopes that the community of Palm Island might have finally moved on from the 2004 death in custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee were dashed this morning after the Queensland Court of Appeal ruled that the 2006 findings of Queensland Acting State Coroner Christine Clements be set aside, and that the inquest into Mulrunji’s death be reopened.
It sets the stage for yet another gut-wrenching chapter in a tragedy that has churned on for almost five years.
The full bench of the Court of Appeal, a division of the Queensland Supreme Court, ruled that: “The whole of the finding of the Coroner as to how the deceased died … is set aside.
“The inquest is to be reopened. The State Coroner is directed to appoint another Coroner, other than the Coroner below (Christine Clements) to re-examine the finding …”
The dispute is centred on the October 2006 finding by Coroner Clements that the Officer-in-charge of the Palm Island Police Station, Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, had repeatedly punched Mulrunji while he was lying on the floor of the police station, and that those punches caused fatal injuries to the victim.
Lawyers for Hurley successfully argued that it was not open to the coroner on the evidence provided at the inquest to determine that the punches caused the death.
“Undisputed medical evidence” provided to the inquest suggested that “severe compressive force” was needed to cause the fatal injuries, and that Hurley — despite his 200cm frame — could not have applied that sort of force merely from punching the victim.
For his part, Hurley has always maintained he never even did that much.
Right up until his trial for manslaughter, Hurley claimed that not only did he not repeatedly punch Mulrunji, but that the drunken Aboriginal man had simply tripped up a single step into the police station, and fallen onto a flat floor.
Hurley claimed that he had fallen beside him.
Of course, no-one has been able to explain to Palm Islanders how that might have caused an otherwise healthy 36-year-old man to sustain the sorts of injuries you’d expect to see in a plane crash victim.
For Hurley, the issue is fundamentally about culpability if Coroner Clements’ findings stand, then he’s culpable for causing Mulrunji’s death while repeatedly punching him. But if the findings are that the death was caused by Hurley “accidentally” landing on Mulrunji as they both fell, culpability disappears.
Waiting in the wings, is a civil action against Hurley by the Doomadgee family. It will hinge on the ultimate findings of the inquest.
Queensland Police, and in particular the Queensland Police Union, will no doubt try and use this latest legal manoeuvre to strengthen their repeated claims that Snr Sgt Hurley is an innocent man caught out doing a difficult job in trying circumstances.
But it’s no victory for Hurley, particularly when you note what’s not being disputed here.
What’s not being contested is that Mulrunji Doomadgee, a man with no prior history with Palm island police, had simply chipped a black police liaison officer for assisting in the arrest of an Aboriginal person. He was warned to move on, and did so, but for reasons known only to Hurley, he decided to go and arrest Mulrunji anyway.
Within an hour Mulrunji was dead.
What’s not being contested is that the injuries inflicted on the deceased were staggering — Mulrunji’s liver was “almost cleaved in two”, his spleen had been ruptured, his portal vein was torn, four of his ribs were broken, and he suffered a number of abrasions to his scalp.
What’s not being contested is that while Mulrunji lay dying in the watch house, writhing and screaming in pain, no-one came to his aide. He died on the floor of a police cell while another Aboriginal man (who has since taken his own life) tried to comfort and console him as he bled to death from massive internal injuries.
What’s not being contested is that Hurley didn’t even have the courage to tell the family their husband, father, son was deceased — when they arrived at the police station later in the day to visit, Hurley told them that he was too busy to let them see the Mulrinji, and to come back later.
What’s not being contested is that three days before the resumption of the inquest in 2006, Mulrunji’s son Eric hung himself from a tree on Palm Island.
What’s not being contested is that Queensland Police conducted a woeful police investigation into the death; that Hurley drank beers with investigating police (including an officer from the Ethical Standards Command, there to ensure everything was “above board”) only a few hours after the death; that police neglected to mention to the pathologist conducting the autopsy that there was an allegation of assault of Mulrunji by Hurley from an Aboriginal witness in the watch house at the time; that Hurley had run over an Aboriginal woman in a police vehicle six months earlier; that the only people ever punished after the death in custody have been Aboriginal people, with dozens jailed over the uprising that followed Mulrunji’s death.
What’s not being contested is that numerous Aboriginal people were tasered during the arrests following the uprising, while police including at least one of those accused of engaging in a cover-up of the death were awarded bravery medals for their service on Palm during the uprising. The extent of their injuries was a bruised hip.
What’s not being contested is that Chris Hurley successfully obtained a $100,000 ex-gratia payment from Queensland Police to compensate him for his losses in the uprising.
What’s not being contested is that he was also allowed to take leave with full pay for months while awaiting trial for manslaughter (he was acquitted). He has since been moved to the Gold Coast and the last I heard was serving as an Acting Inspector (a promotion in rank).
And ultimately, of course, what’s not being contested is that Chris Hurley killed Mulrunji.
What we all want to know is how he did it.