Police racism in the dock as new inquest opens into Aboriginal man's death

Kathy Marks The Independent 7 March 2010

Timeline for Mulrunji Doomadgee death in custody

Sydney Protest in 2005

Coronial Inquiry Updates
  Witness threatened Greenleft
  Family rejects apology Aust 13Mar
  Hurley at inquest Aust 12Mar
  Police evidence ABC 11Mar
  Article Crikey 10Mar
  Story with Video Sky 09Mar
  'I saw the scuffle' Aust'n 09Mar
  Secrecy - suppression ABC 09Mar
  A dubious death Aust'n 06Mar
  Search for truth NZHerald 06Mar

Five years after a 36-year-old died in custody in a former penal settlement in Queensland, his family hope to get justice

The killing of Mulrunji Doomadgee in 2005 led to riots in Palm Island and protests in Sydney (right)

An Aboriginal man named Mulrunji Doomadgee was found dead on the floor of a police cell on Palm Island, off the Queensland coast in November 2004. Six years on, his family are still grieving, and questions about racism, justice and the value of black lives in Australia remain unanswered.

Mr Doomadgee, a healthy 36-year-old, died of massive internal injuries following a struggle with the officer who arrested him, Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley. An inquest found that Sgt Hurley punched him in the stomach. However, the only people jailed have been islanders who rioted after being told that Mr Doomadgee's death was probably an accident. In 2007 an all-white jury acquitted Sgt Hurley of manslaughter after reviewing the complex medical evidence for less than four hours. Now the powerful Queensland Police Union (QPU) – which some believe virtually runs the state once known as the "Deep North" – is returning to court in an effort to clear his name completely.

A fresh inquest, which will open tomorrow, is the latest twist in what one Australian newspaper has called "a shameful, protracted saga of errors and ham-fisted justice". Meanwhile, authorities are braced for escalating tensions on Palm Island, a former penal settlement for Aboriginal people, nowadays a byword for dysfunction and despair.

Mr Doomadgee, who had never been in trouble with police, was arrested by Sgt Hurley for being drunk and swearing. During a scuffle, the two men tripped and fell through the doorway of the police station. Sgt Hurley told investigators that he landed beside Mr Doomadgee. At the trial, he changed his story and said he must have landed on top of him. After the fall, Mr Doomadgee lay on the concrete floor, inert and unresponsive. Sgt Hurley and a fellow officer dragged him by his wrists into a cell. Footage from a security camera showed him writhing in pain on the ground. Less than an hour after being arrested, he had bled to death. He had four broken ribs and a ruptured liver – the kind of injuries normally seen after a high-speed car crash.

The riot, during which the police station and courthouse were burnt down, erupted a week later. For Mr Doomadgee's family, and the Palm Island community, the legal and political saga was only just beginning. Despite the coroner's conclusions, the Queensland Director of Public Prosecutions ruled there was not enough evidence to charge Sgt Hurley. An independent judicial review, ordered after a public outcry, overturned that decision. Last year, after being acquitted, Sgt Hurley appealed against the inquest findings. Mr Doomadgee's family, who have launched a civil case, then appealed themselves.

The state's anti-corruption watchdog, meanwhile, has yet to finalise its review of a police investigation into the affair. But the Crime and Misconduct Commission has hinted that its report will be scathing. The investigating officers included two friends of Sgt Hurley, whom he picked up from the airport and with whom he shared a meal and a beer at his home on the evening of Mr Doomadgee's death.

For Aboriginal leaders, and for the wider community, the case demonstrates that little has changed since a royal commission into indigenous deaths in custody. The commission, which reported in 1991, found that while black prisoners did not die at a higher rate than whites, Aboriginal people were much more likely to be incarcerated in the first place.

It recommended that police should make arrests only if absolutely necessary, and suspects should be imprisoned as a last resort. If Sgt Hurley ignored that advice, he was not alone. Sam Watson, deputy director of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit at the University of Queensland, says: "In every single Aboriginal death in custody since 1991, police officers across the six [Australian] states and two territories routinely and fundamentally ignored the royal commission's key recommendations."

At Sgt Hurley's trial, three doctors testified that Mr Doomadgee's injuries were probably caused by being kneed in the stomach. The defence argued that this must have happened during the fall. The Mayor of Palm Island, Alf Lacey, says that a verdict of accidental death at the new inquest would be "yet another slap in the face". "The law was very quick to move on the black fellas after the rioting and make sure they got locked up," he says. "But we're still waiting for justice on the other side of the fence. That's the reason why Aboriginal people in this country will never have faith in the system: it doesn't treat us equally."

The island is blighted by problems common to many remote indigenous communities: unemployment, alcoholism, overcrowding, domestic assaults. Founded in 1918 as a penal settlement where Aborigines were sent for such crimes as falling pregnant to a white man or being "disruptive", it is home to about 3,500 people.

The QPU believes Sgt Hurley should never have been put on trial. It staged mass rallies after he was charged, and members wore blue wristbands in support of their colleague. Two other officers who were in the Palm Island police station refused to co-operate with the prosecution until ordered to do so. Mr Watson is convinced the culture of the Queensland police – which has a history of corruption and brutality – has hardly changed. "They close ranks and defend their own," he says. "They refuse to accept any responsibility or acknowledge any wrongdoing."

A QPU spokesman paints all the players as victims. "It's been trying times for Chris Hurley, but we also acknowledge that it's been a very trying time for the Doomadgee family," he says. "Everyone involved has suffered quite a lot, and the best thing that can happen for all concerned is that we finally get to the end of it.

Sgt Hurley has been transferred to the Queensland Gold Coast. He received compensation of more than $100,000 (£60,000) for property destroyed in the riots.

The Doomadgee family, meanwhile, lurches from one tragedy to the next. Mr Doomadgee's mother died of cancer two weeks after her son's death. His only son, Eric, hanged himself 18 months later; he was 18. Mr Doomadgee's cellmate, Patrick Bramwell, who tried to comfort him as he died, also committed suicide. Gracelyn Smallwood, an indigenous activist based in Townsville, the nearest mainland town to Palm Island, says the family is "just numb". She says: "If this was all happening to a non-indigenous family, there would be a public outcry. It's like this is normal behaviour for this to happen in Aboriginal Australia."

The new inquest might not go Sgt Hurley's way, particularly now that he has admitted causing Mr Doomadgee's fatal injuries. Meanwhile, Mr Doomadgee's sisters and his widow, Tracey Twaddle, are determined to pursue the civil case. Their lawyer, Andrew O'Brien, says: "They just want to know why their brother was arrested and 40 minutes later was dead on a watch house [police station] floor."

Timeline for Mulrunji Doomadgee death in custody

Source: (AAP) The Australian
November 19, 2004: Mulrunji Doomadgee, 36, dies in custody at Palm Island police station after being arrested for being drunk and causing a nuisance.

November 26, 2004: Palm Islanders riot. Police officers seek refuge at the island's hospital and are airlifted to safety. Rioters burn down the police station, courthouse and the home of officer-in-charge Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley.

December 3, 2004: Private investigator hired to carry out an independent investigation into Mulrunji's death.

February 28, 2005: Coronial inquiry into Mulrunji's death begins.

March 4, 2005: State Coroner Michael Barnes stands down from the inquiry after claims of bias.

March 30, 2005: Second inquiry begins.

September 2006: Deputy Coroner Christine Clements finds Snr Sgt Hurley responsible for Mulrunji's fatal injuries.

December 14, 2006: Director of Public Prosecutions Leanne Clare determines Snr Sgt Hurley has no case to answer and the death was a tragic accident.

January 4, 2007: Former NSW chief justice Sir Laurence Street starts review of DPP's decision.

January 16, 2007: Witness Patrick Bramwell hangs himself on Palm Island.

January 26, 2007: Sir Laurence advises there is enough evidence to prosecute Snr Sgt Hurley, who is officially suspended.

February 5, 2007: Snr Sgt Hurley faces Supreme Court charged with manslaughter and assault.

February 6, 2007: Queensland police halt plans to march on state parliament over Snr Sgt Hurley being charged after Premier Peter Beattie accedes to demands for closed circuit cameras in watchhouses in Aboriginal communities.

March 16, 2007: Justice Kerry Cullinane sets down a two-week trial to start on June 12 in the Townsville Supreme Court for Snr Sgt Hurley.

March 22, 2007: William Neville Blackman, John Major Clumpoint, Dwayne Daniel Blanket, and Lance Gabriel Poynter are found not guilty of rioting with destruction by a Brisbane Supreme Court jury.

May 8, 2007: Terrence Alfred Kidner sentenced to 16 months in jail in Townsville District Court after pleading guilty to rioting on Palm Island.

May 31, 2007: Accused rioter Lex Wotton succeeds in Brisbane District Court application to be released from custody on bail with strict conditions, formally entering a plea of not guilty to rioting with destruction on Palm Island.

June 5, 2007: State budget announces boost to police numbers in indigenous communities, more CCTV cameras for watchhouses.

June 12, 2007: Hurley case begins in Townsville Supreme Court. Large group of Palm Islanders turns up to watch.

June 15, 2007: Snr Sgt Hurley breaks silence, testifying in his own defence. Says he has come to terms with the fact he caused the death, but strongly denies any intention to cause harm.

June 20, 2007: Jury acquits Hurley on manslaughter and assault charges.

I fell next to Doomadgee: Hurley

Tony Koch The Australian March 12, 2010

The policeman who arrested Aboriginal cell death victim Mulrunji Doomadgee yesterday told a coronial inquiry he could not explain how the Palm Islander suffered his fatal injuries.

Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley told Coroner Brian Hine that he had a "tussle" with Doomadgee at the north Queensland island's lockup on November 19, 2004.

Sergeant Hurley insisted that they tripped near a doorway leading into the watchhouse and that he fell "beside" Doomadgee.

But he said he accepted medical evidence that Doomadgee's massive injuries were consistent with his tall and heavy frame falling on the slightly built Doomadgee.

While he still believed they had hit the concrete floor side by side, Sergeant Hurley said: "I have since said that is obviously not the case (and) some part of my person has touched Mr Doomadgee."

Sergeant Hurley said he could not explain exactly how Doomadgee had been so seriously injured.

Asked by counsel assisting the coroner, Ralph Devlin SC, to detail what happened after they scuffled and fell, Sergeant Hurley said: "I tried to pick up Mulrunji off the floor of the police station by his shirt, which was making a ripping noise at the time. I was telling him to get up and not start again."

The policeman was giving evidence to a reconvened inquest into the death of the 36-year-old Aborigine, who received fatal internal injuries, including a ruptured liver, and died within an hour.

Sergeant Hurley was acquitted of Doomadgee's manslaughter at a 2007 trial, and applied successfully to quash an earlier inquest finding blaming him for the death.

He agreed yesterday that Doomadgee had not moved after the fall at the watchhouse.

Sergeant Hurley said he and another police officer, Sergeant Michael Leafe, each took hold of one of the prone Aborigine's wrists and dragged him into a nearby cell.

Mr Devlin asked why Sergeant Hurley had not noticed Doomadgee on the video surveillance "writhing in apparent pain and calling out", after he was left in the cell. Sergeant Hurley said he had not heard the cries.

Asked why he changed his version of events from that he gave later on the day Doomadgee was discovered dead in the cell, Sergeant Hurley said he had had the opportunity to remember more detail.

In evidence yesterday, Sergeant Leafe said he was a friend of Sergeant Hurley but he had not seen anything happen to Doomadgee as he had been opening the cell door at the time.

Peter Davis, for the Queensland Attorney-General, accused Sergeant Leafe of trying to "sabotage" the prosecution case against Sergeant Hurley at the manslaughter trial by not divulging evidence to the crown he provided to the policeman's defence team. The evidence was that he had estimated it took 10 seconds for him to open the cell door and return to find Hurley standing over Doomadgee. But at the request of defence barrister Robert Mulholland QC, he checked the time in a private test and brought his estimate back to "six or seven seconds".

Sergeant Leafe denied the proposition.

Evidence was also given by Sergeant Peter Amiguet, who relieved as officer in charge at Palm Island in 2002, that there was not a mirror on the day room wall where it was alleged by another witness, Roy Bramwell, to be, and which he said enabled him to see Sergeant Hurley punching Doomadgee just before he died.