Another day, another inquest into the death of Mulrunji Doomadgee — an Aboriginal man killed in the Palm Island Police Station in 2004, is under way.

The findings of the second inquest (the first was abandoned) were set aside last year after a court found Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley could not have inflicted the fatal injuries simply by punching Mulrunji Doomadgee.

For his part, Hurley has admitted killing Mulrunji, but claims it was a tragic accident.

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Mulrunji was found dead on the floor of a cell in the station less than an hour after he was arrested by Hurley on the morning of November 19, 2004 for swearing. He had suffered four broken ribs, bruising to the head, a torn portal vein and his liver had been almost cut in two.

A week later, Aboriginal residents torched the police station, courthouse and Hurley police barracks amid claims of a cover-up, claims that later proved true.

This latest inquest is being watched by Aboriginal people around the nation for one simple reason: it represents the best chance yet for justice over an Aboriginal death in custody.

The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody looked into the deaths of 99 Aboriginal people. All of them, apparently, did it to themselves, because while there were deep suspicions of occasional foul play, no one was ever charged over a single death.

Hence, Hurley was the first police officer in history to face trial over the death in custody of an Aboriginal man. He has already been acquitted of manslaughter, but Aboriginal people haven’t given up hope Hurley will one day pay a price for the death, even if it’s only in a civil court.

Thus far, Hurley has escaped sanction, and has even received a promotion to the rank of Acting Inspector.

The inquest has so far heard from Roy Bramwell, an Aboriginal man who was sitting in the Palm Police Station when Mulrunji died.

In past inquests, he claimed his vision of a scuffle between Hurley and Mulrunji was obscured by a filing cabinet, but that he saw Hurley strike Mulrunji about three times, and yell, “Do you want more Mr Doomadgee, do you want more?”

But this week, Bramwell told the court that while his direct view was obscured by a filing cabinet, he watched the assault in a mirror. He told investigators this in his original statement, but it was removed after he was threatened by one of the local detectives investigating the death.

“(The officer) told me ‘Hurley is a good man, he’s a good friend, anything happens to him and I’m going to come after you’,” Bramwell told the court yesterday.

That officer, says Bramwell, was Detective Darren Robinson, who screwed up his original statement and binned it, before threatening him.

Robinson is already in hot water — during the criminal trial of Lex Wotton, the man ultimately convicted of torching the Palm Police Station and Court House — it emerged that Robinson had repeatedly lied to superiors during an investigation into another assault by Hurley, this time an Aboriginal woman, six months before Mulrunji was killed.

Robinson was appointed to investigate allegations Hurley — a known friend of Robinson — had run over an Aboriginal woman with a police vehicle. Barbara Pilot was airlifted from Palm with her shinbone sticking through her skin.

A doctor who treated Pilot told investigators he felt pressured by police to agree the incident never occurred. Indeed, according to Robinson, it never did.

Twice Robinson submitted false reports to his superiors in Townsville claiming the incident was fictitious. Despite the deceit, six months later his superiors again appointed him to investigate Hurley, this time over the death of Mulrunji.

Three months before that, Robinson was present with about half a dozen other police when Hurley assaulted another Aboriginal man — Douglas Clay — in the police station. Interviewed by superiors, Robinson claimed the attack was simply a “slap” by Hurley. A subsequent Crime and Misconduct Commission investigation found Clay’s blood on the walls of the police station.

Robinson was also one of the officers who ate dinner and drank beers with Hurley on the night of the killing (as was a member of the Ethical Standards Command, sent from the mainland to ensure the investigation was above board), while Mulrunji’s body was still cooling in the hospital a few hundred metres away.

While the inquest continues, Aboriginal people remain keenly aware that justice hasn’t caught up with Robinson anymore than it’s caught up with Hurley.

Robinson is still a serving detective. Indeed, since the riots he’s been promoted to the rank of Sergeant, and in 2008 Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson awarded Robinson the top police bravery medal, the Queensland Police Valour Award, for his actions during the Palm Island uprising.

Lex Wotton, by contrast, is still cooling his heels in the Townsville Correctional Centre. He’s expected to be released from jail in July this year. The inquest rolls on.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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