Mulrunji, Wotton struggle continues

The family of Palm Island Aboriginal man Lex Wotton say they are relieved he did not get a life sentence and they will not be mounting an appeal against his six-year jail sentence. However, there has been widespread questioning of the discrepancy in the "justice" received by Wotton and white senior sergeant Chris Hurley.

Hurley took Palm Island Aboriginal man Mulrunji into custody for swearing on November 19, 2004. In less than an hour Mulrunji was dead, with injuries the coroner found to be similar to those sustained in a high-speed car crash.

Hurley was initially "investigated" by his police mates over beers, and would have escaped charges if not for a mass public outcry.

Such an outcry began on Palm Island with an uprising of 400 people, angered at another community member going into police custody, winding up dead, with no action taken.

Wotton was found guilty of "riot with destruction", despite strong evidence that he actually played a calming role in the uprising.

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While Wotton received a six-year sentence, Hurley was acquitted, despite changing his story from denying any involvement in Mulrunji's death, to accepting that he "must have" caused the horrific injuries — but that they were the result of an "accidental fall".

Hurley subsequently received $100,000 worth of compensation, and fellow officers received "bravery" awards four days before Wotton's sentencing.

North Queensland Aboriginal activist Murrandoo Yanner was quoted by ABC Online on November 8 as saying "there is only so much Indigenous people can take from police, politicians and the legal system before they reach a breaking point".

"Relations have definitely been set back between police and Aboriginal people", Yanner said.

Indigenous rights campaigner Gracelyn Smallwood said Wotton's sentence was "too long but with this system I'm sure we don't want an appeal cause it could take him longer", according to the article.

Even the normally conservative Brisbane Courier Mail ran an editorial on November 12 raising serious questions over the Palm Island death in custody and subsequent proceedings, in particular the lack of police accountability.

The editorial noted that a Crime and Misconduct Commission report is still outstanding, "more than 1400 days" after Mulrunji's death, and that "in a scathing report more than two years ago, deputy coroner Christine Clements found [the initial investigation into his death] lacked transparency, objectivity and independence".

In response to the police bravery awards, the Courier Mail editorial noted: "the fact police gave priority to organising medals over the completion of a critical internal examination clearly raises questions about the service being charged with responsibility for policing itself.

"Mulrunji's death is probably the worst example this decade of something going terribly wrong with policing. … the outstanding issue from the watchhouse death is the completion of an investigation into the investigators", the article concluded.

Aboriginal activist and Socialist Alliance spokesperson Sam Watson summed up the double standards of the justice system applied to Hurley and Wotton, stating on November 8: "Under the corrupt Queensland judicial system bricks and mortar were treated as of more value than human life."

Protests supporting freedom for Wotton, an end to black deaths in custody, and an end to the racially based "interventions" into Aboriginal communities, are being organised for International Human Rights Day in December.

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