Justice in Deep North perhaps not as colour-blind as it should be

Thursday, 21 June, 2007

Greg Barns writes:

If this were America, we would get a chance to talk to jury members in the Chris Hurley trial, and find out just how it is they came to the conclusion yesterday in Townsville, that Hurley was not guilty of the manslaughter of Cameron Mulrunji Doomadgee in the Palm Island watchhouse on the evening of 19 November 2004.

Was the verdict simply another manifestation of the sad fact that, as a criminal barrister highly experienced in defending cases in northern Australia told me this morning, when it comes to cases in which a white man is accused of a crime involving an Aboriginal person, nine times out of ten juries find in favour of the white man?

The facts in this case, as spelt out in the Queensland Supreme Court trial of Hurley over the past week, seemed to point to a manslaughter verdict. Cameron Mulrunji died in his cell, less than an hour after being taken to the Palm Island watchhouse, of internal bleeding caused by his liver being split in two and his portal vein bursting. The prosecution said that Hurley either accidentally fell on  Mulrunji with his knee striking Mulrunji’s abdomen, or he deliberately injured him with a ‘knee drop’.

Hurley admits to struggling with an inebriated Mulrunji, when leading him from the police van to the watchhouse. He also says that he and Mulrunji tripped on a stairway and both men landed on the floor inside the watchhouse. According to  Hurley, they landed side by side, although another officer says he saw Hurley’s legs on top of Mulrunji’s. Hurley acknowledges he must have killed Mulrunji.

Because their were no witnesses to the fall between Hurley and Mulrunji, the court essentially relied on a video re-enactment performed by Hurley. In other words, there was no independent corroboration of the events which caused Mulrunji’s death.

But there was powerful forensic evidence from forensic pathologist Guy Lampe who conducted two autopsies on Mulrunji. He told the court that it was most likely a knee blow which split Mulrunji’s liver in half. He said he could not “exclude or confirm” that Hurley had executed a deliberate ‘knee drop’. This evidence was backed up by the deputy director of the Victorian Institute of Forensic Pathology, David Ranson.

Dr Lampe described the injuries suffered by Mulrunji as being consistent with those you would find after a high-speed car, motor bike or plane crash. In other words, it was open to the jury to believe that this was more than an accidental fall, which is unlikely to have caused such damage, but a deliberate ‘knee drop’.

There was also evidence that Mulrunji had hit Hurley earlier – leaving open the possibility that Hurley had a reason to retaliate with a ‘knee drop’.

It’s clear that the prosecution had a very solid case and one which, in a place where race relations and the white versus black mentality of the citizens is not as potent as it is in Townsville and northern Australia generally, might have led to Hurley’s conviction for manslaughter.

The images in the media overnight of Mr Hurley alongside his white police union reps looked uncannily like the images one sees in the American Deep South after a white is acquitted of a crime against an African American. There is a look of defiance, and rallying around ‘our boy’ about it, which is unsettling.

One other thought. Why the hell was Mulrunji arrested in the first place by Hurley? He was doing no harm to anyone. He was drunk and singing Who let the Dogs Out? So what? Did he deserve to be dragged off the watchhouse for such a minor misdemeanour?

And why is it that he was left in his cell for nearly an hour after his arrest without any officer checking on his health, particularly given he had fallen, and then been dragged into a cell.

The Queensland Police might hail this win by Hurley as a victory, but it has also reinforced the view that justice in the Deep North is perhaps not as colour-blind as it should be.

Peter Fray

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