Palm Island residents riot over ‘Mulrunji’s’ death in November 2004. Photo: ABC
Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man really is one of the most powerful essays in The Best Australian Essays 2006, which I reviewed earlier this week. It tells the story of the inquest into the death of ‘Mulrunji’ in police custody on Palm Island in November 2004. The death led to riots on Palm Island over several days, though they calmed down when it seemed that the Queensland justice system was taking the issue seriously.
Earlier this year the Coroner made findings on ‘Mulrunji’s’ death, recommending that the DPP examine whether charges should be laid arising from the death, given allegations and evidence against Palm Island’s then police officer Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley. Today the final(?) chapter of that saga was written when Queensland DPP Leanne Clare announced that no charges would be laid:
But Director of Public Prosecutions Leanne Clare said today charges would not be laid against Senior Sergeant Hurley, who was stood down from operational duties while the DPP considered the coroner’s findings.
Ms Clare said the evidence was not capable of proving Snr Sgt Hurley was criminally responsible for Mulrunji’s death, and said it was “a terrible accident”.
Fortunately, Chloe Hooper’s essay was originally published in The Monthly, and is one of the selected essays available for free access. Have a browse at it and then ask yourself whether you agree that ‘Mulrunji’s’ death was just “a terrible accident”? In case you don’t have time (though I strongly recommend you make time, because it’s a beautifully written piece), I’ve reproduced over the fold the critical extract summarising the evidence of Roy Bramwell, the only eye witness (apart from Snr Sgt Hurley) to the immediate events leading to ‘Mulrunji’s’ death inside Palm Island Police Station. Bramwell had had rather a lot to drink the night before, and was in custody in relation to a number of serious (but fairly typical for an Aboriginal community) alleged domestic violence offences. Thus, no doubt his evidence would be seriously attacked if a case against Hurley had been put to trial. Nevertheless, his evidence is clear and graphic, and to my mind has the ring of truth:
Roy was sitting in the station’s yellow chair when Chris Hurley dragged Cameron Doomadgee into the hallway. Roy heard [‘Mulrunji’] say, “I am innocent, don’t lock “¦ Why should you lock me up?”
Chris dragged him in and he laid him down here and started kicking him. All I could see [was] the elbow gone down, up and down, like that “¦ “Do you want more, Mister, Mr [‘Mulrunji’]? Do you want more of these, eh, do you want more? You had enough?”
Roy’s view was partially obscured by a filing cabinet, but he could see [‘Mulrunji’]’s legs sticking out. He could see the fist coming down, then up, then down: “I see knuckle closed.” Each time the fist descended he heard [‘Mulrunji’] groan.
Cameron, he started kicking around and [called] “leave me go,” like that, “now”. “Leave me go I’ll get up and walk.”
But Roy says Hurley did not stop:
Well, he tall, he tall, he tall, you know “¦ just see the elbow going up and him down like that, you know, must have punched him pretty hard, didn’t he? Well, he was a sober man, and he was a drunken man.
Doomadgee was then dragged into the cells. Moments later, Chris Hurley came back and Roy saw him rubbing his chin. Hurley had a button undone. “Did he give you a good one?” Roy asked. “A helluva good one,” Hurley apparently replied. Then Hurley asked Roy if he had seen anything. Roy said no, and Hurley told him to leave. Roy went to get his social security cheque, along the way telling some friends, “Chris Hurley getting into [‘Mulrunji’].” They told him, “Go tell someone, tell the Justice Group.” But none of them did anything. They went on drinking.
The cell’s surveillance tape shows [‘Mulrunji’] writhing on a concrete floor, trying to find a comfortable position in which to die. He can be heard calling, “Help Me!” Another man, paralytic with drink, feebly pats his head. Before he dies [‘Mulrunji’] rolls closer to the man, perhaps for warmth or comfort. The camera is installed in a high corner, and, from this angle, when Hurley and another police officer walk in they look enormous. The officer kicks at [‘Mulrunji’] a few times later referred to as “an arousal technique” then leans over him, realising he is dead. At 11.22 am Senior Sergeant Hurley called an ambulance. Three minutes later the ambulance arrived and paramedics determined that [‘Mulrunji’] had been dead for at least twenty minutes. The tape records Hurley sliding down the cell wall with his head in his hands. [‘Mulrunji’], it would turn out, had a black eye, four broken ribs and a liver almost cleaved in two. His injuries were so severe that even with instant medical attention he was unlikely to have survived.
Hurley’s original statement denied striking [‘Mulrunji’], and claimed that he had fallen beside [‘Mulrunji’] when both had tripped while coming into the police station. Hurley changed his evidence after seeing the autopsy report showing the injuries and cause of death, and claimed that he must have fallen on top of [‘Mulrunji’] (thereby explaining the injuries) and then rolled off him! An Aboriginal police aide originally claimed to have stayed outside and seen nothing, but later changed his story and admitted he’d gone inside, but still maintained he hadn’t seen what had happened. There had been several previous allegations of violence against Aboriginal suspects made against Hurley, though no charges have ever been laid.
Surely there is enough evidence against Hurley to warrant charges being laid on this occasion and allowing a court to decide where the truth lies. Roy Bramwell’s evidence might conceivably be successfully impugned before a jury, but the credibility problems of Hurley and the police aide must mean that any such conclusion would be far from certain.
This isn’t the first time DPP Leanne Clare has made a controversial decision not to pursue charges in a high profile case. She elected not to proceed against swim coach Scott Volkers in 2004 after he had already been committed to stand trial on charges of indecet dealing involving an under-age female swimmer in his care (although the evidence was later re-examined by NSW DPP Nicholas Cowdrey, who concurred with the decision to withdraw the charges). It’s not even the first time Clare has controversially refused to pursue charges in a case involving the killing of an Aboriginal person in questionable (at the very least) circumstances. On the other hand, Clare enthusiastically pursued utterly misconceived charges against Pauline Hanson and former Queensland Chief Magistrate Di Fingleton. Both convictions were thrown out on appeal.
The Beattie government re-appointed Clare as DPP for a further term of three years in June 2005 despite all these controversies. Then Opposition Leader Lawrence Springborg criticised the decision, somewhat hypocritically one might suggest given the federal Coalition’s prominent role in fitting up Pauline Hanson. I don’t imagine the Opposition will be protesting too loudly at this decision by Leanne Clare. Like Beattie, they won’t want to antagonise the powerful police union.
You could hardly blame Palm Islanders for concluding that nothing has really changed in the Queensland justice system since the Bjelke Petersen days and earlier.