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 the justice system.
It is not for me to dispute the reasoning behind the DPP’s decision, but you don’t need to be Einstein to know that the failure to charge a police officer found by a Coroner to have caused the death of an Aboriginal man will look very much like white man’s justice.
Just last week, an appeal Court decided to extend the jail sentences of three Aboriginal people who pleaded guilty to one charg of rioting 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.”
It is pretty obvious what sort of message the residents of Palm Island – and Indigenous people throughout Queensland – will get from the DPP’s decision, particularly when it is combined with harsher sentences for those convicted of rioting in response to the flawed initial investigations. Not to mention combining it with the history over more than a century of a justice system that has repeatedly failed to protect Indigenous people.
The DPP’s statement referred to what the “admissible evidence suggests”, which may be an indication that some of the evidence the Coroner relied on for her findings would not be admissible in a criminal prosecution.
The Queensland government has a big task ahead of it to repair the damage this will do to confidence in the impartiality of our justice system. It is a task they must start on immediately, by listening to the Palm Island community and showing a willingness to address their concerns promptly.
The disadvantages faced by people of Palm Island stem directly from decades of government maladministration, exploitation and neglect. That does not mean that they don’t have to take some individual responsibility for improving their situation. However, in my experience from meeting with people on Palm Island, there is a great desire to move things forward. What they need is for the state government (and the federal government where appropriate) to assist in removing some of the barriers, and to listen more openly to what is needed and what will work at a local level. Unless that is done, genuine justice will continue to be in short supply on Palm Island.
Implementing – in a genuine ongoing way – the recommendations of the Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody would be a good start, but there’s a lot more than that needed.
UPDATE (15/12): Queensland Indigenous leaders, Murrandoo Yanner and Noel Pearson have both slammed the DPP decision. The federal Indigenous Affairs Minister, Mal Brough, has called for an urgent independent review of the decision – a call I wholeheartedly endorse. I did an interview on Brisbane radio 98.9FM this morning on Tiga Bayles’ show, which is syndicated through the National Indigenous Radio Service and heard former National party Senator Bill O’Chee also expressing strong concern about the matter. Tony Koch in The Australian is scathing. The MP whose electorate covers Palm Island, Mike Reynolds, (who is also the Speaker in the Qld Parliament), is also scathing. The transcript of the 7.30 Report’s story on the issue is here.
The Qld Government Police Minister, Judy Spence, has already ruled out a review of the DPP decision, using what seems to me to be the bizarre reasoning that a review would be “political intervention”. I’m not sure why the Police Minister would be commenting on this, rather than the Attorney-General. I’m also not sure why requiring a review of the DPP decision is “very inappropriate”, but (as mentioned above) the Qld Government was happy to seek a review of the sentences given to indigenous people from Palm island because they felt the sentences were inadequate.
This page on lawyer Andrew Boe’s site has a large number of background documents on the death of Mulrunji in police custody on Palm Island. Understandably, he has also expressed major concerns at the DPP’s decision.