Untidy verdict in a tidy town


By Tony Collins and David Brazil

Bathurst is a "Tidy Town", even though a very untidy incident is taking place within its famous district court building. Ten kooris find themselves at the mercy of Judge Bill Nash and an all-white jury, accused of "riotous assembly" on the basis of uncorroborated police evidence.

May 6 has been set down for the sentencing of key black activists Albert (Sonny) Bates and Arthur Murray. They have already been found guilty of riotous assembly and assault. The jury is still deliberating on the fates of Guy Gibbs, Floyd Gillen, Dallas Scuthorpe, Richard Sullivan, Luke Williams and Keith (Corgi) Wilson on similar charges.

The charges stem from the night of August 15, 1987, when hundreds of Aboriginal people gathered in the small north-west NSW town of Brewarrina for the funeral of Lloyd Boney. It was Boney's death in the Brewarrina police cells that prompted the announcement of the Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody.

After a protest march to the jail, more than 150 Aboriginal people gathered for a peaceful wake in Memorial Park. The trouble started when Brewarrina Hotel publican Geoff Martin appeared with his friends on the balcony overlooking the park. He shouted at the crowd: "Shut up you mob of niggers, you black bastards, I'll blow you away, get out of the park". The 12 shotguns they had with them confirmed the seriousness of the threats. Two shots were fired.

Arthur Murray, a fearless campaigner for the Royal Commission after the 1981 death in police custody of his own son, Eddie Murray, witnessed the events. "Aboriginal people got the idea that this prejudiced man really wanted trouble ... Once these words were said out of this white man's mouth, they in turn have taken to his hotel, smashing windows and throwing empty kegs through his doors and through his windows and then the police were called."

The NSW police Tactical Response Group had been flown up from Sydney especially for the funeral. At about 9.30 p.m. they moved into the park. The incident that followed led to the arrest of 17 Aboriginal people, including the 10 now standing trial in Bathurst District Court. None of the white protagonists or the police were charged.

An ABC film crew and a Sydney Morning Herald photographer captured parts of the incident. This allowed the identification of some of the people involved. But exactly who did what and when, was purely a matter for the trusty police notebooks, which were not filled in until three days after the event.

The trial

Despite the recent High Court decision on uncorroborated police evidence, it seems highly organised police prosecution is still ecially when they've had three years to get their story straight.

Riotous assembly, an outdated law used almost exclusively against Aborigines in disputes with the police, carries a maximum term of life. Sydney University criminologist Chris Cunneen says it is the most serious public order charge the police have at their disposal, used at their discretion when other charges such as offensive behaviour or disorderly conduct would clearly suffice.

The trial proceedings were quite remarkable. The main police witnesses have attested to being prejudiced, relevant evidence has been disallowed, and the crown's case has been changed numerous times to fit the evidence. Nevertheless, an all-white jury, (following the dismissal of two kooris by the crown prosecutor), were able to reach a guilty verdict in the case of Bates and Murray.

Much of the police case was based on the testimony of Kevin Martin, owner of the Brewarrina Hotel, and his brother Geoff Martin. Under cross-examination, Geoff answered "Yes" to the question: "I suggest that you are so prejudiced that you are prepared to come into court and say that every Aboriginal person who was in the vicinity of the police that night was throwing bottles".

The jury was directed that this wasn't an inquiry into relations between whites and blacks in the town and that they were to ignore media reports of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody relating to Lloyd Boney.

The Royal Commission, however, appeared to be high on the mind of the police in compiling their case. Arthur Murray was a target from the beginning due to his work in instigating the Royal Commission. Murray was in town to visit his mother, who was very ill and died within hours of the "riot". In an interview two days before he went on trial, he explained the situation:

"The next morning they were fishin' around to find people who had been involved with it. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that I'd be the first bastard to get charged because probably the cops didn't think that I had any right to be in Brewarrina at the time."

In a dramatic incident on May 3, Rodney Grimes, a co-accused, blew open the police case against Murray. During the presentation of references, Grimes stood in the dock and said "It was me that broke the policeman's leg. Mr Murray didn't do it. Shows how much you judge and jury know." This was dismissed by Judge Nash as an irrelevant interjection.

Previous experience

Judge Nash was the trial judge in the case of the "Bourke riots" of August '85 and '86, and has had previous dealings with many of the accused. He specifically requested to serve on this case.

During the sentencing hearing for Murray and Bates on May 3, he defence council Robert Cavanagh, turning the defence arguments on their head.

The judge enjoyed posing as an authority on race relations due to his extensive experience as a magistrate in Bourke. "There weren't problems with the Aborigines in the '50s and '60s ... One asks oneself why", he declared. When Cavanagh pointed out the systematic oppression of blacks within Australian society he retorted, "Cut it out Mr Cavanagh - if you walk down the streets of Brewarrina and Bourke, you see whites and Aborigines chatting away with each other". When the question of land rights arose, he responded, "You don't get white Australians talking about land rights".

A protest against the police frame-up will be held on Wednesday, May 8, outside the Supreme Court, Macquarie Street, 12 noon.

[Thanks to Antony Balmain for information used in this article.]