Last September, Queensland’s
acting state coroner Christine Clements ruled that Senior
Sergeant Christopher Hurley, a police officer working on
the Palm Island Aboriginal community, had caused the death
of Aboriginal man Mulrunji while in his custody.
When the Queensland Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP),
Leanne Clare, later refused to lay charges against Hurley,
it wasn’t just the state’s Indigenous community
who was shocked. Clements’ coronial report was very
clear about Hurley’s role, but Clare ruled in her
review that Hurley had no case to answer.
Queensland Labor Premier Peter Beattie insisted that he
was powerless to overturn the DPP’s decision, but
the subsequent outcry forced the state government to ask
that Clare seek a second opinion. Clare initially refused,
but in the face of a mounting furore, which was creating
a crisis for the state government, she relented and offered
the government the file on the case.
Why the DPP ruled that Hurley was innocent of any wrongdoing
is not open to public scrutiny. However, with the file available,
Beattie appointed a former chief judge of the Queensland
District Court, Pat Shanahan, to review the case.
Mulrunji’s family, the Queensland Murri community
and their supporters insisted that any review of the circumstances
of Mulrunji’s death be conducted by someone independent
of the Queensland judiciary and police force. Beattie ignored
this appeal when he appointed Shanahan. However, soon after
his appointment Shanahan had to resign after it was revealed
that he had sat on the panel that appointed Clare to the
position of DPP.
On January 3, Acting Premier Anna Bligh announced that Sir
Laurence Street, a former NSW chief justice, had been appointed
instead. Bligh stressed that Street “would not be
reviewing the DPP and was simply providing a second opinion
on the case based on the evidence”.
Lex Wotton, who is facing charges over his alleged role
in the riots on Palm Island in November 2004 that resulted
in the burning down of the watch-house and court house,
says that the Palm Island community had to push hard to
have the review conducted by someone outside of Queensland.
“But we won’t be satisfied as a community until
this matter actually fronts a judge and jury”, he
told Green Left Weekly.
Wotton explained that the four Palm Islanders who have been
jailed for their role in the 2004 riot had decided to plead
guilty to their charges in order to put the matter behind
them. But after their initial court cases, the DPP appealed
against the “leniency” of their sentences.
“The community on Palm”, Wotton added, “is
a very strong group of people and we are committed to making
sure we get a better outcome, and we appreciate the support
we’re receiving. In the end it’s about better
But in Queensland this is still a long way off. On January
9, extra police were flown into Aurukun Aboriginal community
on Cape York after 300 people reacted angrily to reports
from a local man, Warren Bell, that he had been assaulted
by police while in custody. While Aboriginal elders worked
with the community to stabilize matters, assertions by the
police that no assault took place are being challenged.
As Brisbane-based Murri activist Sam Watson told GLW, “there
is substantial forensic material available that supports
the Aboriginal man’s claims that he was grievously
assaulted whilst in custody”. He added that senior
Aboriginal people are now coming forward with other material
clearly supporting Bell’s claims.
“Any police officer involved in that unlawful assault
needs to be identified and suspended, and charges need to
be laid”, Watson said. “We have this extreme
situation where a police officer actually fired a privately
owned [unlicenced] rifle at the crowd of people who were
confronting the police station.”
Bell has been charged with assault. Nine other locals, alleged
to be “ringleaders” of the January 9 protests,
have also been charged.
“Aboriginal people across Australia have lost all
confidence in the capacity of the criminal justice system
to address our needs. Mulrunji’s death in custody
happened in November 2004 — we have a brother who
has been buried long since and we still have the police
officer who is responsible for that unlawful killing walking
scot-free around Surfers Paradise. And yet Aboriginal people
who rose up in justifiable anger have since been charged,
convicted and sent to jail for allegedly damaging public
“You can always replace bricks and mortar, but we
have a man who met his death by an unlawful assault administered
by a serving member of the Queensland police force. The
deputy coroner found that Hurley bashed Mulrunji to death
on the floor of the Palm Island watch-house and we keep
asking: Why hasn’t Hurley been charged? Why is he
not before the courts?”
Watson concluded that Aboriginal people and their supporters
“are going to have to stand squarely behind this line
that has been drawn in the sand by the police on Palm Island
and that line has been drawn with the blood of Mulrunji.
We are going to defend that line and continue to fight for
justice because unless we can force the Queensland government
and judicial system to place a very real value on the life
of our brother, then the life of an Aboriginal person on
Australian soil hasn’t any value at all.”