Police officer faces court over Mulrunji's death

June 15, 2007

On June 12, the trial of Queensland police officer Chris Hurley on charges of assault and manslaughter began. Hurley is alleged to have punched and then unlawfully killed Aboriginal man Mulrunji on November 19, 2004, on Palm Island, an Indigenous community located near Townsville.

Sam Watson, who has been campaigning for justice for Mulrunji and is the Socialist Alliance's Indigenous spokesperson, told Green Left Weekly: "This is the first time in the history of Queensland that a police officer has faced criminal charges over the death of an Aboriginal person in his custody."

As evidence was heard throughout the week following the trial's start, the family of Mulrunji, Indigenous elders and activists, and other supporters of justice in Townsville held ceremonies outside the courthouse each morning and attended court proceedings.

The Queensland Police Union has consistently defended Hurley. When it became likely that he would face charges, it began selling blue wristbands with his police number on them to raise money for his legal defence. The wristbands have been worn by police officers, including while on duty. Many supporters of justice for Mulrunji have responded by wearing yellow wristbands inscribed with "Justice now: Mulrunji 19-11-04".

Gracelyn Smallwood, an Indigenous activist from Townsville, told GLW that she appealed for black and white mothers, and all Australians, to think about how they would feel if a child or someone else they loved was arrested and then, within an hour, was dead — as happened to Mulrunji.

Queensland Murris and their supporters have campaigned hard for justice in the case. The campaign had to overcome substantial opposition for there to even be a trial. After a coronial inquest found Hurley's actions had caused Mulrunji's death, Queensland's Director of Public Prosecutions ruled that there was insufficient evidence to lay charges.

Labor Premier Peter Beattie asked for "the umpire's decision" be accepted. However, outrage and a militant street campaign forced a review of the decision. The review found there was enough evidence to prosecute. Only then was Hurley, who had been assigned a new position on the Gold Coast, suspended from his duties.

Watson told GLW, "As an Aboriginal historian I know of hundreds of cases where Aboriginal men, women and children have been taken into police custody by colonial authorities and ended up dead. The police uniform, the way in which the invading colonial authorities have used their law, and their domination upon innocent Aboriginal people has established a historical sequence of oppression, terrorism and brutal suffering. So now today we wait the outcome of this important trial."

Prosecutor Peter Davis told the court that Mulrunji was arrested without "a lot of evidence as to what [he] did to deserve" it. Florence Sibley gave evidence that she saw Mulrinji at the watchhouse, as he was pulled out of the police van, struggle against and punch Hurley. She said she then saw Hurley punch Mulrunji. A police officer, Michael Leaf, said he had not seen Hurley punch.

Soon after, one or both of Hurley and Mulrunji tripped over on a step at the doorway of the watchhouse and began to fall inside into a corridor. Within seconds, Mulrunji had suffered a fatal blow that cleaved his liver nearly in two against his backbone and punctured his portal vein. Hurley and another officer dragged Mulrunji by his wrists into a cell. He bled to death within an hour.

The prosecutor's opening statement argued that medical evidence showed injuries of this nature could not be suffered just by a fall. Instead, Mulrunji must have been struck by a protrusion while his back was on the floor. The corridor was empty except for Mulrunji and Hurley. Therefore, this must have come from Hurley, and was most likely to have been his knee. Davis posed two scenarios: the fall was in some way complicated, so a protruding part of Hurley's body struck Mulrinji's abdomen accidentally; or the blow did not occur in the fall, but was deliberately inflicted immediately afterwards. The opening defence statement suggested it would show there was reasonable doubt about the latter scenario.

No prosecution witnesses said they could see either Mulrinji's torso or the blow. However, according to various newspaper reports on June 14, a police officer, Kristopher Steadman testified that from outside the watchhouse he saw Hurley's boots located above Mulrunji's bare feet when the pair landed. Then he heard Hurley say something that "sounded angry". Earlier, Davis's statement said Steadman also saw Hurley's feet move first inside the watchhouse after the fall.

Hurley, who had said in earlier police interviews that he had fallen beside Mulrinji, spoke in his own defence to claim the killing was accidental.

Smallwood said she "is pleased with how the trial is going, and the media reporting of it". Watson commented: "It's all been low key. Both sides have stepped back and allowed the court to proceed with the trial …

"Regardless of what the verdict may be, this entire matter will then go to the next level regardless of what the jury decides or what the final outcome will be. If he is found guilty that will be a totally new era. If he is found not guilty then Aboriginal people across Australia will, I believe, take it to the next level."

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