Northern Territory

Mar 10, 2010

Holding their breath for Palm justice

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

Chris Graham

Tracker managing editor

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. 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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21 thoughts on “Holding their breath for Palm justice

  1. michael crook

    Sad indeed that a large part of the Queensland Police Service, still believes that it is there to “keep down the blacks”. They are encouraged in this by the endemic racism in Australia which is not only evidenced by black deaths in custody but also in our non response to the racism inflicted on refugees and other minorities. We must also feel sorry for Lex Wootten, jailed for the crime of being a freedom fighter for his people when the law failed them, as it always has. But I forget, in this country black people are not supposed to be angered by the many injustices forced upon them, they are supposed to be grateful for the racist crumbs we bestow on them as a gift. But, as always the two main parties play up to and participate in this racist ethos because it is popular with the shock jocks and the commercial media, these parties have no humanity and no empathy. Hopefully, if those voters disenchanted with the racism exhibited by the Rudds and Abbotts, were to change their vote to Greens or Socialist then perhaps a new balance of power could open a new debate, and the humanists could gain a voice.

  2. Ern Malleys cat

    Apart from the cause of the fatal injuries, and whether it constitutes manslaughter, there seems to be an irrefutable case for criminal negelect.
    No medical assistance was given to an obviously badly injured man. And to compound the callousness, when Mulrunji’s wife came to the station in the morning after he was already dead, she was sent away and only informed much later.
    I wish the inquests included not just the graver charges and maybe at least something might stick.

  3. 1934pc

    “she was sent away and only informed much later”. Was that so they could get their story straight?.
    So many injuries could not be accidential.

  4. Andrew Lewis

    This is just one of the saddest stories of our time. I can only hope that some justice eventuates. I have followed this terrible story from the start and my heart goes out to his relatives and to his people. You don’t need to be a member of the indigenous community to have been struck by the sheer tragedy of this story, and moved by the injustice of it all.

    And thanks Michael Crook for your inflammatory comments. “Endemic racism in Australia’ eh. Endemic – peculiar to a particular people or locality; native to a country. Apparently racism is peculiar to Australia. Never see it anywhere else on the planet.

    That’s the way to fight racism, with more racism! Well done.

    Spare me.

  5. shepherdmarilyn

    I have followed this since the beginning and read Chloe Hoopers depressing book “The Tall Man”. If it wasn’t for Hooper and Tony Koch, the family and a very small number of others who give a damn about justice this would be buried as surely as the tragedy of Mr Ward who was cooked by negligent staff in WA.

  6. Greg Angelo

    I can only hope that finally we will get to the truth this matter. It is painfully obvious that Queensland police look after their own, whether the victim is black or white. In this particular instance, notwithstanding any aspect of racism, there was a clear failure of due process in relation to the death of Mulrunji Doomadgee, and the obvious aspects of “mates” looking after “mates”.

    I suspect that if Mulrunji Doomadgee had been white, the same apparent cover-up would probably have occurred. Intimidation of witnesses is not always just undertaken by criminals under suspicion or threat of legal action.

    It is vitally important that justice be seen to be done, for a number of reasons, the least of which is the presumption that when there is a confrontation between a black man and a white man, that the white man is morally superior.

    All members of the Australian community must be able to assume that they will get equal access to justice, regardless of the colour of their skin, or their economic or social circumstances. This includes not being assaulted by police, or being denied appropriate medical treatment when injured either through indifference, neglect or sheer bloody mindedness.

  7. twobob

    This is a tragic story of police brutality and injustice, from the perpetrators through the inspectors to the superiors of the QLD police force.
    If someone should make a film of this disgraceful act it will both nationally and internationally be an example of the injustices suffered by Australian indigenous people.
    The story makes me angry and that it could happen here disgusts me.
    This leaves a stench upon all white Australians that can never be entirely removed. But an attempt would be appreciated.

  8. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    Anyone who has read Chloe Hooper’s excellent, calm and sobering book and/or been present in the court to hear the evidence in the manslaughter trial will be well aware that there is unlikely to be any further ‘truth’ revealed that might undo the injustice that surrounds this case. Although, as Greg Angelo writes, it is vitally important that justice be seen to be done, what exactly do we think this “justice” might look like? The accused policeman has been acquitted by a jury after an ordinary and quite uncontroversial criminal trial so it’s hard to see any further justice available via that route. Palm Island has been shaken, stirred, ripped apart, patched up and repaired, not for the first time, so I can’t see any justice available via the community sector. Something similar could happen just about anywhere in Australia, including the metropolitan areas, tomorrow and we’d still be stunned by the shortcomings of our justice system.
    I know the Coronial enquiry is the last official hurrah so to speak but I think it is wishful thinking to hope for some sort of comprehensive ‘justice’, against all the odds, at the finishing post.

  9. nicolino

    As with the inquiries into police misconduct on the Gold Coast, what’s the betting that this will all be swept under the carpet. That’s the Australian way after all as the authorities time and again play the out of sight out of mind game. There are those of us out here who do remember however.

  10. Barb Oldfield

    This must result in the sacking of the Current Commissioner as the whole process reeks of cover up from the very top. A national disgrace.

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