Palm Island: Five years of justice denied

December 2, 2009

Five years ago, Mulrunji Doomadgee was arrested by senior sergeant Chris Hurley for "disorderly conduct" and taken to a police cell on Palm Island, near Townsville. Within an hour, the Aboriginal man was dead.

His injuries were later likened to those usually associated with a high-speed car crash. The Queensland coroner found Mulrunji had four broken ribs and his liver was "almost cleaved in two".

Five years on, no independent investigation into the police role in the death has been held.

In 2006, Deputy State Coroner Christine Clements slammed the police's investigation into the death as lacking "transparency, objectivity and independence". She found Hurley was responsible for Mulrunji's death, but Hurley was later acquitted of manslaughter by an all-white Townsville jury in 2007.

Aboriginal activists said the acquittal was the result of a police cover-up and demanded Hurley be brought to justice.

The Queensland Court of Appeal later overturned Clements' finding and a second coronial inquest into Mulrunji's death has been ordered for March 8.

On November 20, the state's Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC) released an interim report on police brutality in Queensland's Aboriginal communities. The CMC is the state's anti-corruption body.

The report was commissioned more than three years before in response to Mulrunji's killing, but won't be completed until the end of the year at the earliest.

Aboriginal activists and supporters are furious at the vastly differing speeds of "justice" in the case. Palm Island residents who rose up in grief over Mulrunji's death faced swift police action and were jailed in months — such as Lex Wotton, who was convicted for "riotous destruction" in October last year. Yet five years on, police "protecting their own" have suffered no consequence.

In the November 19 Australian, Tony Koch said: "The appallingly inadequate investigation by police into the death in custody spoke volumes about the Queensland Police Service's lack of professionalism.

"It was so demonstrably woeful that the CMC undertook an inquiry into the investigation. But five years have elapsed since the death of the Aboriginal man and that inquiry has not been finalised."

He compared the five-year delay in Mulrunji's investigation with the CMC's investigation of former Beattie government Minister Merri Rose. When Rose tried to extort a plum job from Beattie, the matter went to the CMC. Just 10 days later, Rose was charged with extortion, and soon jailed.

The interim CMC report said the prevailing police culture was one of "protecting their own". The CMC report rejected the police's own internal report into Mulrunji's death, which recommended nothing more than "managerial guidance" for the police involved.

The report also confirmed that the two police officers asked to investigate the death — Darren Robinson and Raymond Kitching — were friends of Hurley.

Hurley picked them up at the airport, and they went to his house to share dinner and beers. "Off the record" conversations between the three occurred, despite the so-called investigation.

Meanwhile, the Queensland parliamentary officer supposedly responsible for overseeing the CMC, Alan MacSporran, announced on November 19 he would vacate his position. Shockingly, MacSporran, who was supposed to oversee an investigation into police misconduct, said he had agreed to represent the Queensland police at the coronial inquest.

Brisbane-based Aboriginal activist Sam Watson told Green Left Weekly the CMC report revealed it "suspects the investigating police, friends of Hurley's, attempted to construct a cover-up of the events that led to death of Mulrunji".

Watson said: "The cover-up is responsible for the way the Palm Island community reacted. They saw a cop taking their brother into custody, they saw he was dead an hour later, and they saw the cover-up, the police protecting their own."

He believes "all police involved in the investigation should be charged with criminal conspiracy to conceal evidence that could have led to the conviction of Hurley".

"Hurley was charged with manslaughter and acquitted by an all-white jury in Townsville. The first 24 to 48 hour period in a death-in-custody investigation is absolutely critical — yet we know the entire investigation was haphazard.

"There was no attempt by police from either Palm Island or Townsville to cordon off the site, no attempt to interview key Aboriginal witnesses.

"The entire process was designed by police to remove any finger of blame from their mate Chris Hurley", he said.

Watson described MacSporran's decision to provide legal defence for the police as "outrageous".

"They have learnt nothing from the [former Queensland premier] Joh [Bjelke Petersen] years. Instead of a clear line between parliament and the police, we can see that the Queensland parliament and the CMC are in bed with the police."

Watson said Aboriginal activists were campaigning for Hurley to be charged again with Mulrunji's death. "He should be tried on Palm Island, where the offence occurred, or in Brisbane. He admitted in trial that he caused Mulrunji's death. Without the aid of a huge police cover-up, he would be convicted."

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