Queensland’s justice system: has anything changed?


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 1 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 2 the elbow gone down, up and down, like that “¦ “Do you want more, Mister, Mr 1? 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 1’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 1 groan.

Cameron, he started kicking around and 3 “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 1.” 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 1 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 1 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 1 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 1 had been dead for at least twenty minutes. The tape records Hurley sliding down the cell wall with his head in his hands. 1, 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 1, and claimed that he had fallen beside 1 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 1 (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.  

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About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Mark Bahnisch
17 years ago

Thanks for the post, Ken. I really hope it isn’t as a result of a fear of offending the bloody police union.

The decision not to prosecute is at great odds with the findings of the coroner:

The Queensland Deputy State Coroner, Christine Clements, last week published findings concerning the death of an Aboriginal man on Palm Island, about 70 kilometres off Townsville. He was found dead in a police cell in November 2004 less than an hour after being arrested for swearing as he was walking home.

Clements found that Snr Sgt Chris Hurley angrily punched the man a number of times while he was still on the floor and “that these actions of Hurley caused the fatal injuries.” She noted that his “liver was virtually completely ruptured … cleaved in two”. His cries for help as he lay dying on the cement floor were either unheard or ignored by police in the station.

Clements also found that this man (referred to as Mulrunji in the proceedings) should never have been arrested, and severely criticised the entire police investigation. She added that “clear directives from the Police Commissioner and a commitment to ensure proper standards of investigation are required to restore public confidence.” She was referring to the palpable lack of interest and obstructiveness of some senior police called to give evidence at the inquest.

That’s from an article by Brisbane defence lawyer Andrew Boe.


The Police Union president was summonsed to appear in court by the Attorney-General, Kerry Shine, on 29 November for contempt over his remarks about the Coroner.


But I haven’t seen any report of the court proceedings against him.

Mark Bahnisch
17 years ago

I’m at a loss to understand, Ken, how the DPP gets from what appear to be very clear and unambiguous findings by the Coroner to a conclusion that the evidence shouldn’t be tested. As you say, surely, the credibility issues of Hurley and others are relevant.

Mark Bahnisch
17 years ago
17 years ago

Rally for justice, Midday, Wed December 20…

Ken Parish at Club Troppo has written an article about today’s decision. He has also quoted fom an online essay by Chloe Hooper called The Tall Man, from the Monthly magazine, about Mulrunji’s death….

17 years ago

No charges over Palm Island death…

The news that the Queensland Director of Public Prosecutions has decided not to lay charges against the police sergeant involved in the death of an Aboriginal man on Palm Island two years ago will seriously damage any faith Indigenous people have in th…

Mark Bahnisch
17 years ago

Andrew makes a very good point:

Just last week, an appeal Court decided to extend the jail sentences of Aboriginal men involved in the riots after the death in custody, in part because the Judges decided “there was a need for a message to be sent to deter similar behaviour.”

David Jackmanson
17 years ago

On Wednesday, December 20, at midday, there is a rally in Queens Park, Brisbane City – the rally will call for DPP Clare to be dismissed, and S/Sgt Hurley to be charged.

Queens Park is on the corner of George and Elizabeth Sts.

Ross James
Ross James
17 years ago

The case is so very sad.

It has been discussed at length (from a laypersons point of view) on the Hot Copper site and there are many thoughts on the question as to why (they should have) or, why they didn’t (the DPP), proceed with a charge.

I feel that the following (taken from one of these posts on this thread) has given me a strong enough reason to now understand things a whole lot better.

Let me share it with you:

“I am far from convinced of his innocence

17 years ago

I read the acting coroner’s report and took a view on certain things. However I don’t feel at liberty to comment if Wilkinson is getting charged for contempt for expressing his view. Was it his criticism or his expression in doing it that was a problem?

In the hypothetical is it contempt if a judicial decision is made that is implausible based on the evidence and is obtuse to expert opinion and someone comments? I thought judges decisions get commented on all the time. Surely once judgement is handed down it is fair game? What is the line where judicial censorship kicks in?


dan mcguinness
16 years ago

someone better wake up that we are telling the whole world about the concealment of criminal offences and confusion of the truth, and denial of justice to white and black.