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Palm Island cops dodge justice again


Chris Hurley and Mulrunji Cameron DoomadgeeOn Monday I was in Townsville meeting with people about the latest saga in the police cover up of the death of Mulrunji Cameron Doomadgee, the Aboriginal resident of Palm Island who never emerged alive from the Palm Island Police Station after the burly Sergeant Hurley fell on top of him in November 2004.

The Aboriginal community has had to endure: three separate coronial inquiries; a decision by the Queensland Director of Public Prosecutions not to prosecute; the reversal of that decision on advice from Sir Laurence Street who said, 'A jury could well find that the only rational inference that can be drawn as to the fatal injury is that it was inflicted by Hurley deliberately kneeing Mulrunji in the upper abdominal area'; the trial of Sergeant Hurley who was acquitted with his barrister telling the jury that Hurley was the 'instrument of another young man dying and that is a cross he will carry for the rest of his life'; a detailed hearing before the Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC) which recommended 'that consideration be given to commencing disciplinary proceedings for misconduct' against six named police officers; a Supreme Court case denying the Queensland Police Commissioner the right to conduct the disciplinary proceedings on the grounds of apprehended bias; and now a decision by the deputy police commissioner that there was no need for any disciplinary action against any Queensland police officer.

All is well again in the state of Queensland. Or at least it is back to business as usual in Aboriginal-police relations.

The public is well familiar with the fact that the investigating police officers were treated to a barbecue at Hurley's residence on arrival on Palm Island before they commenced the inquiry into the death caused by Hurley. The barbecue was just the beginning of the chummy police cover up of their own negligence and dishonesty.

Here is just one example of the CMC's observations about the extraordinary behaviour of officers Kitching, Webber and Williams:

Kitching agreed that he only offered to pathologists information that he considered reliable and relevant. This seems in stark contradiction to his inclusion on the Form 1 of hearsay evidence about Mulrunji drinking bleach and his exclusion not only of [Palm Island resident Patrick] Bramwell's evidence but also of [resident] Penny Sibley's allegation of assault (the credibility of which had not been questioned). In effect, Kitching seems to have informed the pathologist of information adverse to Mulrunji but excluded allegations adverse to Hurley.

The pathologist Dr Lampe had been told by the investigating police that the deceased had swallowed bleach (which he had not) but not that he had been assaulted (which he was). The CMC stated that the police officers who then conducted the internal review of this behaviour 'appear to be simply providing reasons to justify Kitching's failure to make this information available to the pathologist, and Webber's and Williams' failure to check the Form 1'.

The CMC, chaired by respected retired Supreme Court judge Martin Moynihan concluded that 'the investigation into the death of Mulrunji was seriously flawed, its integrity gravely compromised in the eyes of the very community it was meant to serve. The way in which the investigation was conducted destroyed the Palm Island community's confidence that there would be an impartial investigation of the death.'

Last month, the Queensland police deputy commissioner Kathy Rynders published a 410 page report finding that no officers needed be disciplined. For example, she made these observations about Kitching's Form 1 report:

I consider Kitching's failure to inform Dr Lampe of the assault allegations (whether reliable or not) a significant departure from Service requirement and in the circumstance would warrant the commencement of disciplinary action. I note that Kitching included unconfirmed information concerning Mulrunji taking bleach. Similarly, he should have included information of the alleged assault made by Bramwell and Florence ['Penny'] Sibley.

She then noted that the pathologist did a fine job despite Kitching's failures. Without further ado, she then says, 'I do not consider Kitching's failure to inform Dr Lampe of the assaults constituted misconduct. However, for reasons already outlined and Kitching's acceptance that the allegations of assault should have been brought to the attention of Dr Lampe, it is not my intention to commence disciplinary action, but to provide managerial guidance.'

Overall, she agreed with the CMC that there had been 'failings in the initial investigation' but concluded that all her boys needed was 'managerial guidance'. She thought that the serious flaws highlighted by the CMC related only to matters 'incidental to the investigation'. In her report, she wrote, 'The actions of the officers must be viewed objectively, not with the benefit of hindsight'.

Addressing the Palm Island community's perception of the police misconduct she observed, 'There continues to be strong feelings amongst many in the community. The danger, however, is that strong feelings tend to cloud sound judgment. Issues are prejudged.' She concluded, 'The evidence simply does not support action for misconduct or official misconduct.'

Moynihan described Rynders' decision as 'almost incomprehensible'.

Three years ago, Mike Reynolds who had been the long time mayor of Townsville before becoming a minister in the Queensland Government and then speaker of the Parliament, called for a royal commission into the matter: 'The four-year legal history of this case has become so convoluted and tainted that I now believe truth and justice can only be obtained by a wide-ranging royal commission headed by an eminent jurist.'

On Monday Reynolds repeated his call for a royal commission, telling me that there was no other way for Queenslanders to put this matter behind them. 'We need another Laurence Street,' he said.

After the jury acquitted Hurley in September 2007, Aboriginal leader Gracelyn Smallwood said: 'This has not ended the way we wanted it to, but it has been a win on our slow climb up the Everest of justice.' On Monday she told me, 'People are just so tired and drained. We have lost hope in the Queensland justice system. We've stopped climbing.'

The Everest of justice is still well beyond the reach of Queensland Aborigines who happen to get in the way of the Queensland police. Meanwhile the Queensland police remain a law unto themselves.

Three years ago Premier Anna Bligh dismissed out of hand Mike Reynolds' call for a royal commission. She was confident that the legal processes would produce a transparent, just result. We are now at the end of the legal process line. The Bligh Government needs to listen again to responsible citizens like Reynolds and Smallwood. There must be a royal commission. 

Frank BrennanFr Frank Brennan SJ is professor of law at the Public Policy Institute, Australian Catholic University and adjunct professor at the College of Law and the National Centre for Indigenous Studies, Australian National University. 

Topic tags: Palm Island, death in custody, Mulrunji Cameron Doomadgee, Hurley, Crime and Misconduct Commission



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Existing comments

I agree. How about getting behind the 'Federal' Human Rights Commission's push to be allowed to investigate human rights abuses by 'state' bodies because all the abuses are being perpetrated only by state bodies.

It makes no sense to have a Federal Human Rights Commission when the 'federal' agencies have next to no direct dealings with the public. The situation at present appears to be nothing more than the appearance of a watchdog. In reality, we have nothing.

Greig WIlliams | 06 April 2011  

For those of us who have read "The Tall Man" we can do no more than agree with Fr Brennan. For those who haven't read it yet - it is a must read for those who want to have some understanding of Queensland policing.
My heartfelt sympathy goes out to the family and friends of Mulrunji.

Tina | 06 April 2011  

This a succinct presentation of what responsible Queenslanders believe, and at each step of the process we have been appalled at the continuing injustice towards our Aboriginal people, to whom we owe so much in enjoying this beautiful country. We need to keep this matter open. A dreadful example has been given to our young or aspiring police officers, and minority groups rightly fear discriminatory treatment.

MARJORIE, BRISBANE | 06 April 2011  

Imagine the level of corruption when you have the deputy commissioner of police in QLD making the statement that she has recently made. I have seen the movie about steve bico, the south african civil rights man, and it tells vividly of how he died in police custody. At the end of the movie they show a long list of 'black' deaths in custody and the reasons for their 'deaths'. The only way i could describe watching that list of names was a strong sense of disgust. If in the future a movie is made of Doomadgee's death will the movie also reflect a long list of 'black' deaths unresolved? I am ashamed of the outcome.

rhonda | 06 April 2011  

Many thanks for a clear retelling of what is a very murky tale. I suspect a complete reading of Queensland police deputy commissioner Kathy Renders’ 410 page report has lead to long term head shaking. One sentence from this report that has left me truly puzzled is … 'The actions of the officers must be viewed objectively, not with the benefit of hindsight'. This is a cloak and hanker statement that does little to cover the fact that falling on a person does not cause death. Just two questions: During the past four years, has there been a considered attempt to link people who are concerned about this injustice? Where can I go if I desire to swell numbers and raise awareness of this matter?

Vic O'Callaghan | 06 April 2011  

Thank you Frank, Mike and Grace. Any fairminded person would be outraged at what has been allowed to happen. I for one will email the Premier and other relevant ministers requesting/demanding a Royal Commission into the death, police inquiries,etc. I also believe it should be able to be turned into a full scale "Fitzgerald Inquiry" depending on what is uncovered. If Anna doesn't act decisively now she's giving the Terry Lewises and Hurleys in the force carte blanch.

Malcolm Campbell | 06 April 2011  

All hope gone! And such gross injustice in all this. Can we not see and hear the cry of the first people of this land?
Mulrunji Cameron Doomadgee was a human being, and continues to treated in death appalling under our current legal and Queensland policing system. His death must not and cannot rest hear. Truth and justice must prevail so that he, his family and community, and the very consciousness of our nation may truly rest.
Little seems to have changed in 20 years - we have seen too many other black deaths in custody since and, the incarceration rates of Indigenous Australians remain a real blight on our nation, a sign that there is something grossly wrong under the current laws of our land.

There must be a Royal Commission headed by an eminent jurist.

Georgina | 06 April 2011  

Many thanks for an excellent summary of a truly disgraceful situation. May your call for a Royal Commission succeed.

Presumably other readers watched Monday's edition of Four Corners, which presented the failure of the NSW justice system in relation to the 1981 murders of three aboriginal children at the town of Bowraville. It too cries out to be revisited by competent and impartial authority.

I weep that the legal systems of our country still sell our aboriginal people short.

Richard Olive | 06 April 2011  

Although I have nothing to add after another succinct summary of events from Frank Brennan, I must add my name to his call for a royal commission into yet another Aboriginal death in custody.

Ian Fraser | 06 April 2011  

Dear Friends , we just can't sit by and let this injustice continue. I'm ready to sign up for something to push for a Royal Commission , right now. Please excuse mixed metaphors, my blood boiled when I read this and my spirit sank as I contemplated this unjust event . It brings back memories of South Africa in years past.

David Sykes | 06 April 2011  

Unfortunately twas ever thus. Since colonial times the poor and aboriginal people were not treated the same as the white person does not matter which country they are in. We feel we are so superior to them. Thank God that He does not treat us the same way.

irena springfield | 06 April 2011  

This is so true of the attitude towards the aboriginal people which still happens today. Hasnt the queensland police heard about the apology?

maryellen flynn cowra n.s.w. 2794 | 07 April 2011  

I read "The Tall Man" by Chloe Hooper and the arrogant disregard for the rights and humanity of aborigines was very evident.

It is a distessing story indeed and typical throughout the country.
No-one was charged over the killing of Mr Ward in WA. No-one was charged with the deaths on the Malu Sara and so on.

It's cases like this that makes us small people indeed.

Marilyn Shepherd | 07 April 2011  

What was notable during the recent floods in North Queensland is that the people from Palm Island were told by police that they were not to be taken off the island for safety before the awaited Tsunami.

Bev Smith | 07 April 2011  

Thanks again Frank for a timely summary of this tragic litany. Yes - we need a Royal Commission because the instruments of government have failed not only the Murri people - but all of us.

Wayne Sanderson | 07 April 2011  

Professor Brennan is right to call for a royal commission, but this problem is Australia-wide and has been going on for far too long. I remember the Aboriginal deaths in custody in the early 1980's in NSW. It's appalling that some of our police can laugh at our justice system, and get off scot-free for crimes which shocked us when South African police committed them.

Annabel | 08 April 2011  

Many thanks Fr. Frank for not letting this appalling saga be swept under the carpet.
I too have read The Tall Man, am ashamed of the outcome and offer my sympathies to Doomadgee extended family and community.
We are judged as a community by how we treat our most vulnerable,so bring on a Royal Commission ,poste haste.

Justin Halpin | 10 April 2011  

When the report of the Deputy Commissioner of Police was released to the public, the Chairman of the CMC said, "I am astounded at this failure. How can the police service find that the conduct of these officers does not meet the threshold to even commence disciplinary proceedings for police conduct? It is almost incomprehensible that the police service has decided that there is no case for these officers to answer."

In response, the Deputy Commissioner of Police who conducted the Police review said, “The CMC needs to be reviewed by an external body. Clearly in my mind as a result of having a look at their review into the Palm Island issue, there has been a failure of quality control in that organisation in terms of that report. There has been a failure of corporate governance at the senior level."

The Premier then said, "No-one's covered themselves in glory here - not the police, not the CMC. It should have and could have been handled better.”

In relation to the death of Mulrunji, Tony Koch has reminded me, “It should not be forgotten either that his cellmate has since hanged himself in shame; his son hanged himself because he missed his Dad; and his wheelchair-bound mother died without seeing justice for her son. It has claimed several black lives, and seen 14 or more imprisoned for the riots”.

Not one police officer is to be disciplined. And there is no way the QPS and the CMC can work together. Thus my joining the call for a royal commission.

Frank Brennan SJ | 10 April 2011  

Nothing surprises after ten years as the research officer for the Deaths in Custody Watch Committee, other than good people like Frank devoting time to appeals to shame a system that is demonstrably broken. Read Fitzgerald, Chapter 7, nothing has changed. What is needed are funds to conduct a civil case, for obvious reasons...and to take the boats and four wheel drives out of the guilty ba*tard's driveways. ...civil...civil...civil...

SapperK9 | 13 April 2011  

Wonderful article. Someone continues to speak up for Palm Islanders. Bring on the royal commission.

Joan Wharton | 05 May 2011  

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