Queensland DPP fails Palm Island Community

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“The whole system is rotten and needs to be changed,” said Ray Jackson, President of the Indigenous Social Justice Association, after hearing about the decision of Queensland’s Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) not to charge Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley for his role in the 19 November 2004 death of Mulrunji Doomadgee on Palm Island. DPP Leanne Clare’s conclusion that there was not enough evidence to charge the police officer — despite an earlier coroner’s finding that Hurley struck Mulrunji, causing his death — stunned those who hoped for a different outcome.

Within hours of the announcement, Indigenous leaders drafted a petition and circulated a call to mobilise in Brisbane on 20 December. This rally, led by Queensland Murri activist, Sam Watson, demanded justice for Mulrunji and an end to the cover-ups. It called for the DPP to be sacked and insisted that the recommendations of the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (RCIADIC) be implemented in full. Rallies were also held in Melbourne, Sydney and Townsville. Watson described the day of the DDP’s decision as one that “will live on in infamy.”

Mulrunji Doomadgee was 36 years old when he died in the Palm Island watch house. Prior to his arrest, he was fit and healthy and not known to the police. He came to police attention for the “crime” of “mouthing off” to an Aboriginal police liaison officer, telling him that he shouldn’t be locking up his own people. An hour later, Mulrunji was dead. He had four broken ribs and his liver was split in two. The death sparked a riot when the State Coroner released preliminary findings that there was no sign of police brutality. The Queensland government responded to the community anger with brute force. The island swarmed with heavily armed police equipped with batons, stun guns and semi-automatic rifles.

Glimmer of hope. Queensland Premier Peter Beattie urged the grieving family and outraged community to “let justice take its course.” On 27 September 2006, Acting State Coroner, Christine Clements, released her finding that a blow by Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley caused Mulrunji’s death. She was also critical of the way the investigation was conducted and made 40 recommendations.

Clements took over the investigation into the events surrounding Mulrunji’s death after the original State Coroner was forced to stand down. His ability to be impartial was questioned once it was publicly revealed that Hurley, who spent his entire career policing Aboriginal communities, already had a string of official complaints against him. The Coroner had presided over eight of these complaints and had ruled in Hurley’s favour on every occasion!

The Acting State Coroner’s report makes compelling reading. She calls into question why Mulrunji was even arrested in the first place. One of the most powerful recommendations of the RCIADIC is that arrest and imprisonment must be a last resort. The Clements report reveals a police officer on a racist power trip. She calls the decision to arrest “completely unjustified” and concludes, “what is clear from the evidence is that Senior Sergeant Hurley felt the need to exert his authority.”

Clements was also scathing about the way the police investigation was conducted after Mulrunji’s death. After paramedics declared that Mulrunji was dead, Hurley called a mate whom he had served with previously and who had cleared him of past complaints. When the investigating team arrived on the island, Hurley was at the airport to collect them and then hosted them for a meal at his home. The Coroner called the decision of the investigating team to accept this hospitality “a serious error of judgement” and said that assigning Hurley to collect them at the airport was “inappropriate.” She is also critical of occasions where witnesses were allowed to compare notes and the practice of allowing off-the-record discussion.

Indigenous activists were pleased by the strength and clarity of Clements’ findings, but also sounded a note of caution. Sam Watson told the Freedom Socialist Bulletin, “I was pleased for the family and felt their commitment to achieving justice for Mulrunji had been vindicated by the findings. Clements was the first Queensland judicial officer to actually make a negative finding against a member of the Queensland Police Force. It was an historic day.”

“But,” said Watson, “I didn’t join with those who celebrated. Regardless of what Clements found, Mulrunji is still dead. And as a direct result of Chris Hurley’s violent and illegal assault, we have three generations of the one family [Mulrunji, his mother and his son] who have all died.”

Ray Jackson agreed, warning that “such findings have been reported in other cases, but always the DPP has declined to accept the recommendation on the grounds that the case would not be supported in a court.” On 14 December 2006, Jackson’s concerns were tragically vindicated.

History repeats. In her report, Clements describes as “reprehensible” the fact that the RCIADIC’s detailed recommendations should still need to be referred to so many years after they were made. She concludes, “the evidence is clear, however, that these recommendations are still apt and still ignored.”

Sam Watson reflected on the highly publicised death in custody in 1986 of John Pat who was bashed to death in a Roebourne police cell. “Those officers were subsequently charged, taken before a court and an all-white jury took only a matter of hours to acquit them. But,” argues Watson, “that cannot be allowed to happen again. Those police officers murdered an innocent young man and they’ve never been held to account for that.” Anger at John Pat’s death injected renewed vigour into the movement which helped spark the Royal Commission.

Watson urges, “We have to stay active and keep driving the issue. Of the 99 deaths in custody examined by the Royal Commission, not one single prison officer was ever charged. The Royal Commission made 339 recommendations. Since they were handed down in 1991, there have been a further 220 Aboriginal deaths in custody. And again, not one single prison officer or police officer has been charged with a criminal offence. The genocide goes on. It is being carried out by brutish and thuggish police officers who have no respect or regard for the humanity of Aboriginal people.”

Major change essential. For those who heeded Premier Beattie’s call to let the system take its course, the system stands exposed! Some in the community have expressed despair at the failure of the Queensland State to charge Hurley. While this response is understandable, determination, rather than despair, is a more productive response. Jackson says, “The decision not to put Hurley before a court needs to be overturned. The whole DPP office needs a clean out. When they can make such a decision in the face of all the evidence that was found by their own system and then smugly and arrogantly ignore that, there needs to be a groundswell of resistance around Australia. We need concerted action taken by the Murris, the Kooris, the Noongars and all our supporters. For Beattie to bob up in his smirking way and tell us that the umpire was independent is a racist insult. There is no such thing as an independent umpire for Aboriginal people.”

One call we must be raising is for bodies independent of the police and the State to do the investigating and the charging. Elected civilian review boards, armed with real powers and accountable to the community, would be a great step forward.

Watson says, “Aboriginal people are only asking that those members of the Queensland Police Service, who played a direct part in the criminal assault and murder of Mulrunji and in subsequent criminal assaults on members of the Palm Island community and in the attempts after that to cover up the murder at the Palm Island watch house, be made criminally accountable. They must be made to face charges in a court in the same way that a number of Aboriginal people who were involved in the community response to that death in custody have been charged and will soon have to appear in court. There are clearly two systems of law happening Queensland. One system regulates ordinary Queensland people, and particularly Aboriginal people. The other system of law is for the rich. It is a system that gives a virtual open-ended licence to every member of the Queensland Police Service to bash, brutalise, terrorise and murder Aboriginal people.”

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