Police racism in the dock as new inquest opens into Aboriginal man's death

Five years after a 36-year-old died in custody in a former penal settlement in Queensland, his family hope to get justice
Click to follow
The Independent Online

An Aboriginal man named Mulrunji Doomadgee was found dead on the floor of a police cell on Palm Island, off the Queensland coast in November 2004. Six years on, his family are still grieving, and questions about racism, justice and the value of black lives in Australia remain unanswered.

Mr Doomadgee, a healthy 36-year-old, died of massive internal injuries following a struggle with the officer who arrested him, Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley. An inquest found that Sgt Hurley punched him in the stomach. However, the only people jailed have been islanders who rioted after being told that Mr Doomadgee's death was probably an accident. In 2007 an all-white jury acquitted Sgt Hurley of manslaughter after reviewing the complex medical evidence for less than four hours. Now the powerful Queensland Police Union (QPU) – which some believe virtually runs the state once known as the "Deep North" – is returning to court in an effort to clear his name completely.

A fresh inquest, which will open tomorrow, is the latest twist in what one Australian newspaper has called "a shameful, protracted saga of errors and ham-fisted justice". Meanwhile, authorities are braced for escalating tensions on Palm Island, a former penal settlement for Aboriginal people, nowadays a byword for dysfunction and despair.

Mr Doomadgee, who had never been in trouble with police, was arrested by Sgt Hurley for being drunk and swearing. During a scuffle, the two men tripped and fell through the doorway of the police station. Sgt Hurley told investigators that he landed beside Mr Doomadgee. At the trial, he changed his story and said he must have landed on top of him. After the fall, Mr Doomadgee lay on the concrete floor, inert and unresponsive. Sgt Hurley and a fellow officer dragged him by his wrists into a cell. Footage from a security camera showed him writhing in pain on the ground. Less than an hour after being arrested, he had bled to death. He had four broken ribs and a ruptured liver – the kind of injuries normally seen after a high-speed car crash.

The riot, during which the police station and courthouse were burnt down, erupted a week later. For Mr Doomadgee's family, and the Palm Island community, the legal and political saga was only just beginning. Despite the coroner's conclusions, the Queensland Director of Public Prosecutions ruled there was not enough evidence to charge Sgt Hurley. An independent judicial review, ordered after a public outcry, overturned that decision. Last year, after being acquitted, Sgt Hurley appealed against the inquest findings. Mr Doomadgee's family, who have launched a civil case, then appealed themselves.

The state's anti-corruption watchdog, meanwhile, has yet to finalise its review of a police investigation into the affair. But the Crime and Misconduct Commission has hinted that its report will be scathing. The investigating officers included two friends of Sgt Hurley, whom he picked up from the airport and with whom he shared a meal and a beer at his home on the evening of Mr Doomadgee's death.

For Aboriginal leaders, and for the wider community, the case demonstrates that little has changed since a royal commission into indigenous deaths in custody. The commission, which reported in 1991, found that while black prisoners did not die at a higher rate than whites, Aboriginal people were much more likely to be incarcerated in the first place.

It recommended that police should make arrests only if absolutely necessary, and suspects should be imprisoned as a last resort. If Sgt Hurley ignored that advice, he was not alone. Sam Watson, deputy director of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit at the University of Queensland, says: "In every single Aboriginal death in custody since 1991, police officers across the six [Australian] states and two territories routinely and fundamentally ignored the royal commission's key recommendations."

At Sgt Hurley's trial, three doctors testified that Mr Doomadgee's injuries were probably caused by being kneed in the stomach. The defence argued that this must have happened during the fall. The Mayor of Palm Island, Alf Lacey, says that a verdict of accidental death at the new inquest would be "yet another slap in the face". "The law was very quick to move on the black fellas after the rioting and make sure they got locked up," he says. "But we're still waiting for justice on the other side of the fence. That's the reason why Aboriginal people in this country will never have faith in the system: it doesn't treat us equally."

The island is blighted by problems common to many remote indigenous communities: unemployment, alcoholism, overcrowding, domestic assaults. Founded in 1918 as a penal settlement where Aborigines were sent for such crimes as falling pregnant to a white man or being "disruptive", it is home to about 3,500 people.

The QPU believes Sgt Hurley should never have been put on trial. It staged mass rallies after he was charged, and members wore blue wristbands in support of their colleague. Two other officers who were in the Palm Island police station refused to co-operate with the prosecution until ordered to do so. Mr Watson is convinced the culture of the Queensland police – which has a history of corruption and brutality – has hardly changed. "They close ranks and defend their own," he says. "They refuse to accept any responsibility or acknowledge any wrongdoing."

A QPU spokesman paints all the players as victims. "It's been trying times for Chris Hurley, but we also acknowledge that it's been a very trying time for the Doomadgee family," he says. "Everyone involved has suffered quite a lot, and the best thing that can happen for all concerned is that we finally get to the end of it.

Sgt Hurley has been transferred to the Queensland Gold Coast. He received compensation of more than $100,000 (£60,000) for property destroyed in the riots.

The Doomadgee family, meanwhile, lurches from one tragedy to the next. Mr Doomadgee's mother died of cancer two weeks after her son's death. His only son, Eric, hanged himself 18 months later; he was 18. Mr Doomadgee's cellmate, Patrick Bramwell, who tried to comfort him as he died, also committed suicide. Gracelyn Smallwood, an indigenous activist based in Townsville, the nearest mainland town to Palm Island, says the family is "just numb". She says: "If this was all happening to a non-indigenous family, there would be a public outcry. It's like this is normal behaviour for this to happen in Aboriginal Australia."

The new inquest might not go Sgt Hurley's way, particularly now that he has admitted causing Mr Doomadgee's fatal injuries. Meanwhile, Mr Doomadgee's sisters and his widow, Tracey Twaddle, are determined to pursue the civil case. Their lawyer, Andrew O'Brien, says: "They just want to know why their brother was arrested and 40 minutes later was dead on a watch house [police station] floor."