White Law & Black Hearts

White LawTwo years after the death in custody of a Palm Island man, there seems to be no end of trouble in sight.

On the morning of November 19, 2004 at around 10 o’clock, Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley and Aboriginal Police Liaison Officer Lloyd Bengaroo were escorting Gladys Nugent to collect insulin from the home of her partner, Roy Bramwell. The police escort was for Nugent’s protection, as she had just been beaten by Bramwell. Nugent’s nephew Patrick Bramwell, drunk and high on petrol, began verbally harassing the officers, who responded by arresting him. Mulrunji Doomadgee, also drunk at the time, walked past and began berating Bengaroo for assisting the police: “You black like me. Why can’t you help–help the blacks?”

Bengaroo warned Mulrunji off, and he carried on down the road, but turned some twenty meters away and began speaking or singing. It’s unclear what he actually said, but the white officer, Hurley, responded by arresting Mulrunji for creating a public nuisance. An hour later, Mulrunji was dead. Exactly how he came by the injuries that killed him was not established until nearly two years later. The general outlines were known from the start, but details were contested.

When Mulrunji was removed from the police van at the station, he struck Hurley, who became incensed by this challenge. On entering the station, the two men continued to struggle. They fell to the ground. Much has been made of whether Hurley fell to Mulrunji’s side, or on top of him: the implication is that the latter scenario might have accounted for some of the serious injuries. But no-one witnessed the fall clearly.

Roy Bramwell was in the station at the time as a result of the investigation into the beating of Gladys Nugent that set off this chain of events. Although Bramwell’s view of the scene after the fall was partially blocked, he stated that he saw Hurley’s elbow rise and fall three times, as though he were striking Mulrunji. He says he heard Hurley saying, “Do you want more, Mr Doomadgee, do you want more?”

Tape from a video surveillance camera in the police station’s cells shows Mulrunji writhing in pain on the floor of the cell, calling for help, and being comforted by another drunken, Aboriginal man–Patrick Bramwell, whose arrest had led to Mulrunji’s. It also shows Hurley and another officer entering the cell and giving Mulrunji a few kicks; Mulrunji was unresponsive. At around 11:20 Hurley called for an ambulance, and the paramedics who responded determined that Mulrunji had been dead for at least twenty minutes when they arrived. He had a black eye, four broken ribs, and a liver nearly split in two, according to the post-mortem examination. 

Once the paramedics had removed Mulrunji’s body, Hurley called a colleague and friend, DS Darren Robinson, who in turn called in detectives from Townsville and Burketown. When these men, who are likewise known to be friendly to Hurley, arrived on Palm Island to investigate, Hurley picked them up at the airport. Robinson cooked dinner for them all at Hurley’s house that night. The police station was not sealed off as a crime scene. No forensic tests were carried out. Nor did they mention allegations of assault to the pathologist who carried out the first autopsy on Mulrunji. Perhaps that wasn’t necessary.

Four days later the coroner judged that Mulrunji’s death was not the result of police brutality. On November 26, after the verdict was made public, the community on Palm Island rioted, burning down the police station and the courthouse. Eighty police officers in riot gear were flown in to restore order. Hurley had gone to the mainland, fearing retribution, and did not return. (Lloyd Bengaroo, the Aboriginal Police Liaison Officer also left the island, but was assaulted in Townsville in April 2005 in a revenge attack for his role in Mulrunji’s death. His attacker, Albert James Wooten, was sentenced to two years in jail on December 11, 2006 according to the National Indigenous Times.)

Almost two years after the riots, in September 2006, Acting State Coroner Christine Clements issued the Finding of Inquest into the death of Mulrunji. This report contains the clearest narrative of the events surrounding Mulrunji’s death, and yet the critical details of the fall are still impossible to ascertain. What is certain is that up until the moment of the fall, Mulrunji was aggressive in his behavior towards Hurley, and that afterwards he was passive and unresponsive. What is also clear is that Clements believes Mulrunji should never have been arrested in the first place: “The arrest of Mulrunji was not an appropriate exercise of police discretion.” More importantly, she assigns the blame for Mulrunji’s death to Hurley’s actions. After taking into account all the testimony related to Hurley’s behavior in the critical moments after the fall and the descriptions of his anger at being struck by Mulrunji, additionally accepting his statements that he did not fall on top of Mulrunji and Bramwell’s evidence that Hurley repeatedly punched Mulrunji while he lay on the floor, she bluntly states: “I conclude that these actions of Senior Sergeant Hurley caused the fatal injuries” (Finding of Inquest, p. 27).

This past week, Queensland Director of Public Prosecutions Leanne Clare announced that no charges would be laid against Hurley, citing the lack of evidence to achieve a conviction. The Crime and Misconduct commission agrees, finding no evidence to support even disciplinary action. (Earlier this month, The Australian reported that the Crime and Misconduct Commission similarly failed to find sufficient evidence to convict–and therefore to pursue charges against–police in northwest Queensland who were found to have “punched a mentally handicapped, partially blind and deaf Aboriginal man so hard his eye was swollen shut.” Instead, the victim will face charges of “occasioning actual bodily harm … and serious assault” in relation to the incident.)

In what is most likely a meaningless political gesture, Aboriginal Affairs Minister Mal Brough has called for an independent review of the decisions, while maintaining that both Clements’ and Clare’s rulings were correct. My understanding of Crown Law is rudimentary, but in concluding the Finding of Inquest, Clements notes: “An inquest does not encompass charging any person with a criminal offence or a committal to another court for trial or sentence. That is the responsibility of the prosecuting authority according to the relevant test.” (She is clearly not happy with this restriction, and presses the concerns of Mulrunji’s family at some length.) So she is correct in her finding that Hurley’s actions resulted in Mulrunji’s death. But perhaps according to a strict interpretation of the rules of evidence, since no-one actually observed the fall or saw Hurley’s fist connect with Mulrunji’s body immediately thereafter, there is no eyewitness evidence on which to convict.

In a sheerly absurdist political gesture, Queensland Premier Peter Beattie has responded by requesting that DPP Clare–yes, the woman who has just ruled to quash the whole business–initiate a review of her own findings. Beattie says he will brook no interference from the Commonwealth government. Queensland’s Police Minister, Judy Spence, has deemed such an independent review “inappropriate,” while a spokesman for the state’s Attorney-General has asserted that his office is “powerless.”

The Brisbane Socialist Alliance has called for a “Day of Action” next Wednesday, December 20, with a march on the Queensland Parliament. They are demanding Clare’s dismissal. So far, news reports of the reaction on Palm Island to the DPP’s announcement have been sparse. A great silence seems to have descended over the island, but extra police are on standby.

Black Hearts

On November 17 of this year, ABC-TV’s Message Stick broadcast a documentary, Line in the Sand (Palm Island)Towards the end of the feature came these words from Mulrunji’s teen-aged son Eric:

Every time I think about it, I just go quiet and that. Feel a bit no good. But to me, he’s not gone. It’s like his blood’s running in my veins, you know? That’s him. I am him, you know? They see his face on my face. Sometimes when I’m sleeping, I want to dream about him but I can’t. I can’t dream of him, you know? It’s a bit too hard too, you know, to think about it. Because I don’t like to cry too, you know? Because, ah, I don’t know. Can’t think about it much. It hurts my feelings too, and I don’t want to make it do that. They told me to be strong, you know? So I try to be strong. But when I think about him, it just take that strongness away from me, make me go all hollow inside.

The program was taped a few months before the September release of the Finding of Inquest. On July 31, the boy committed suicide; friends found him hanging from a tree. 

Back in March 2006, Chloe Hooper published a long essay in The Monthly, entitled “The Tall Man.” In it, she artfully explores the psychology of the residents of the Island, both black and white. She details the emotional toll that the death and the riots have taken on the Aboriginal community. One of the most interesting stories she relates comes from a group of young boys she met on the streets of Palm Island during a visit there early in 2005 to research her essay. Driving into town on her arrival, she sees a large boulder with the words TALL MAN spray-painted on it.

We ask the boys about TALL MAN. In all sincerity, they point to a nearby light post to show the Tall Man’s height. “His feet as big as a giant’s,” one says. “You can see his red eyes when the lights turned out on the football field.” Later, I ask other children about the Tall Man and they report he’s covered in hair, with shrivelled skin: “He smells of stinkin’ things.” “He smells as bad as a bin.” “A bin tipped over.” The Tall Man lives in the hills but comes down and watches people while they are sleeping. For no reason he will slap you across the face.

Chris Hurley is a tall man: He tall, he tall, he tall, you know. In one witness statement, an old woman recalled: the tall man get out and arrest him. I saw the tall man grab him by the arm.

Headlights warn a police van is approaching and the boys bolt; they are gone before we say goodbye.

Hooper tells no more about this bogeyman: whether the legends are old or new, whether the boys make the association she does between the 200-centimeter tall Hurley and this devil from the hills. The suggestion that the residents make the connection seems clear, however. The boys’ fear of the police requires no further explication. It is all part of life on Palm Island, part of culture, like drunkenness and violence, garbage and fear.

Mulrunji’s partner, Tracey Twaddle, is said to be considering civil action against Hurley. In this she may be joined by his sisters, Jane, Elizabeth, and Valmai. Here is Tracey, from the Message Stick documentary:

It’s still like my life is on hold. I can’t really do anything. I can’t move forward. I’ve got to… I’m waiting for all this to finish, you know? I can’t do anything. I feel, you know, I get depressed sometimes. Get down in the dumps when I think back to what happened to Cameron. We’ve got to get justice for him. Because he’s gonna die in vain otherwise.

Black hearts have been broken, and white law cannot heal them.

Postscript

I finished writing this late on the night of Saturday, December 16. Sunday morning brought much news. Labor Party national president Warren Mundine has announced that he will lead the protests being planned for Palm Island on Tuesday or Wednesday. Premier Beattie has asked for the assistance of his Solicitor-General in explaining the apparently contradictory judgments of the coroner and the DPP to the nation and to the residents of Palm Island. Sadly, the same article in the Courier-Mail tells us that Beattie believes that race relations in Queensland are now better than ever: “In terms of indigenous affairs … we have made more advances in the last eight-and-a-half years since I have been premier than we have in the last 200.” Perhaps he is nearer the mark when he says, “Queensland has a disgraceful record in the way it has treated indigenous people.”

 

Palm Island is the largest of the four shown here. Townsville lies to the south.


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