Demand for new inquiry into Eddie Murray's death

February 25, 1998

By Jennifer Thompson

The Newcastle Legal Centre has called for a new inquiry into the 1981 death of Eddie Murray in a police lock-up. In a report published late last year, the NLC criticised the inquest and subsequent investigation of Murray's death by the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Royal Commission.

Eddie's parents, Arthur and Leila Murray, believe police killed their son. Along with the families of other Aboriginal people who have died in custody, they pushed for creation of the royal commission.

"I was one of the six that travelled Australia lobbying for the royal commission ... but it didn't achieve anything", Arthur Murray told Green Left.

Murray explained that Commissioner James Muirhead found that police officers fabricated evidence, lied "and did all sorts of things", but did not recommend that charges be laid against them.

In 1981, 21 years old, Eddie was living and working in Sydney and playing football for the Redfern All Blacks. He returned to Wee Waa, a small cotton town in north-western NSW, to visit family and friends in June 1981.

The Murray family were famous in Wee Waa. Arthur had led the fight by seasonal Aboriginal cotton workers for award wages and conditions and an end to spraying cotton with poisons while workers were in the fields. The Murrays had been involved in the fight for Aboriginal housing in town, so residents did not have to camp on the reserve five kilometres away.

Arthur was also the elected manager of the local Aboriginal Advancement Association.

As a result, the Murray family often faced racist harassment, including from police. In Wee Waa in the few years before his death, Eddie had been arrested for drunkenness seven times, detained under the Intoxicated Persons Act three times and convicted for offensive behaviour twice. In contrast, he had never been picked up by police while in Sydney.

On June 12, 1981, Eddie was detained by Wee Waa police as an intoxicated person and placed in "preventive detention" rather than taken home. Police said he was placed in a cell soon after 2pm, and found "hung" from a bar above the cell door, with his feet touching the floor, soon after 3pm.

The state coroner recorded an open verdict — that Murray died by hanging, but whether by his own hand or the hand of person or persons unknown could not be determined. He said there was no evidence that Murray took his own life. Though medical experts agreed that it was improbable that someone with a blood alcohol level of 0.3 could decide to hang himself and do so, the coroner said he was

"inclined" to believe Murray was capable of making a noose.

The coroner ruled that one of the four police on duty that day, Constable Rodney Fitzgerald, was an "unreliable" witness. He found that police failed to properly investigate a suicide motive. He said he could find no evidence that an offence was committed by any person and would not submit the inquest papers to the attorney general.

In January 1989, Royal Commissioner Muirhead submitted his report on Eddie Murray's death to the NSW governor. He found it was "more probable than not that death resulted by Eddie's own actions", that Murray had died by hanging, and that police involved fabricated and withheld evidence.

Muirhead also found that the autopsy was inadequate. Like the coroner, the royal commissioner did not recommend further investigation into why the police lied or recommend any legal action. He resigned from the royal commission after completing his report.

The Newcastle Legal Centre report, Too Much Wrong, reviewed in detail the evidence presented to the coronial inquest and the royal commission, obtained an evaluation of the original autopsy and its conduct, and considered the relevance of findings by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) of corrupt conduct by one of the police involved.

The report concluded: the royal commissioner's analysis of the evidence was flawed; the coroner failed to recommend the direction of any additional investigations of the death despite making an open finding and concluding that one of the four police was unreliable; the police investigation of the death was incompetent; the police documentation of the circumstances of the death was limited and unreliable; the autopsy was so hurried and poorly recorded that the cause of death is unclear; the police officers' testimony to the coronial inquest and royal commission casts doubt on their reliability and contradicts independent witnesses' evidence.

The NLC adds that the royal commission cast doubt on the "accuracy and frankness" of the evidence of Senior Constable Kevin Parker, who was found in 1994 by ICAC to be corrupt and willing to manipulate police records. Parker prepared the initial report to the coroner on Eddie Murray's death and was present at the first autopsy.

The royal commission was criticised for not conducting its own investigations — aside from a "view" trip to Wee Waa — but instead relying primarily upon police evidence gathered at the time of Eddie's death.

The NLC report asks: Why did the royal commission conclude that police evidence was unreliable without explaining why? Why did it find there was no medical evidence to support a finding that Eddie died other than by his own actions? Why did it find that no police officer could have been involved when medical evidence could not confirm that Murray died by hanging? And why did the commission suggest a motive needed to be identified before any police officer could be found to have a part in the death?

In November, after a long campaign by the Murray family, the state coroner agreed to the exhumation of Eddie's body and the conduct of a new autopsy, as was recommended in the NLC report. The new autopsy revealed new injuries not reported by the original autopsy, which was conducted hurriedly by a local doctor.

A significant injury, a fractured sternum, was overlooked by the first autopsy. "It was after 16 years", Arthur Murray told Green Left, "but it still found things that should have been reported [by the first autopsy]".

The new autopsy report, by Dr Joe Duflou, deputy director of the NSW Institute of Forensic Medicine, concluded that the injury could have been caused by severe blows to the chest "some time prior to death".

According to one of the NLC report's authors, Dr Roderic Pitty, Eddie Murray had shown no sign of the injury, "which requires footballers to be carried off the field", prior to his detention. The NLC is now waiting for advice on whether, while exceptionally drunk, Eddie could have torn a strip off the prison blanket, folded it, threaded it through the bars of the ventilation window, tied two knots, made a noose and hung himself — all with a broken breast bone.

On January 20, current state coroner, Derrick Hand, stated that he was "satisfied there is no new evidence or facts making it necessary or desirable in the interests of justice to hold a fresh inquest".

The Murray family doesn't want a new inquest but a full and complete investigation of the death, never conducted by the police. The Newcastle Legal Centre has sent copies of Too Much Wrong to the state premier, police minister and commissioner, and attorney general and is demanding that the case be reopened. n

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