No charges over Palm Island death

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.

ELSEWHERE: Brisbane’s Courier-Mail website blog seeks public comments. Club Troppo also examines the issue.

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.

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  1. Does the DPP have to give detailed reasons for her decision? At the moment there is a one-page press release (pdf file) that contradicts the coroner’s findings without really saying why. In particular, the fact that Hurley changed his story appears to have been ignored.

    Is the DPP saying that no one has ever been convicted on flimsier evidence than this?
    This is the same DPP who refused to charge Scott Volkers with child abuse, in part because it was not ‘plausible’ that a 13-year-old girl could experience an orgasm while being sexually assaulted. A forensic physician quoted in the story behind that link explains that it is very plausible indeed.

    The case should be put in front of a jury, no matter what the DPP’s opinion.

    At a rally on November 18th, local Aboriginal activist Adrian Walker said that black people should ‘police the police’. I think he is on the right track.
    I’m keeping track of the story at my blog.

  2. There will be a rally about this decision in Queens Park, Brisbane City, corner of George and Elizabeth Sts at midday on Wednesday December 20th.

    The rally will call for the dismissal of the DPP.

  3. Effing disgraceful.

    Having lived in Qld for 12 years we were just at the point where you stop saying “Oh but I’m really from (anywhere but here)”.

    We’re thinking about going back to claiming to be here on holidays instead. There’s less shame in it.

  4. I am saddened by all this ,but I am not sure the ALP. or ayone else knows how to build confidence in any judicial system in Australia,more so for our original inhabitants.Beattie is a moron to me.I think they should encourage Palm Islanders to maybe find someone in their ranks to do coronial work,in the modern legalistic sense and with any traditional views or language overview.So scholarships to study forensic matters and coronial matters would seem to me the order of the day.If they,the government dont want people to endlessly be disatisfied with justice,and then protest,then the only other solution is real empowerment at the point of severe conjecture. And the sooner the States get round to insuring their Police know other parts of the country as Police the better.Get off your arse Beattie the Palm Islanders do not need your poisonous words?

  5. I am assuming that the outcome makes sense legally, in that there was not enough admissable evidence.

    That does not mean there has been a gross miscarriage of justice.

    The system; tis not perfect :(

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  7. I was stunned when this turned up on tv tonight and had to switch of the telly for a while.
    It is the most despicable yet, of a number of decisons to arise out of the legal system in Australia recently.
    If the government is involved it is a senseless decision that is as damaging for the ALP as per reputation as some of the nonsense that has gone on over PPP’s, the Beddall decision on approving RFA’s made in the teeth of the advice of Environemt minister Faulkner back in the nineties, and the disgraceful antics of the ALP in gerrymandering the electoral system in Tasmania, in concert with the equally corrupt
    Liberals there, on behalf of Gunns.
    I could add the Cubbie Creek debacle, since Joh’s time.
    But one thing is for sure.
    When someone with as criminally appalling a record as Mal Brough can take the high moral ground against Peter Beatty, the once youthful hero of the anti apartheid demos of the early seventies, you KNOW something has radically gone wrong with the system!

  8. Stuart

    the the reason for the lack of evidence was because the other cop on duty – according to his evidence to the coronial enquiry – was outside the room because he did not want to see what was happening in case he got into trouble

    And the Public prosecutor – a public servant has overuled a court decision

    The coroner said unambiguaously that the death was a result of Hurley’s assault

    The DPP has unilaterally dismissed this court ruling saying it was a tragic accident

    these things are not just the tolerable downside of a less than perfect system but a clear hijacking of due process to cover up an unlawfull killing

  9. EP
    this is indeed the same chief prosecutor that reccomended charges against Pauline Hanson and Di Fingleton – two other examples of how she has made wrong decisions which are out of step with the courts

  10. Are Queenslanders still frightened of government and justice systems..hasnt Beattie got some oath of office to live up to as well as these decision makers? I think Beattie loves skating on the thin ice of Constitutional Crises,thus making him look better than what he is.The Police generally just need a good holiday and probably to find some personal way to gain respect in the aboriginal communities again.Perhaps the Queensland government should send Police and Palm Islander spokes persons on a combined holiday and fact finding mission in other countries including troubled ones.Communities are always breaking down and some of these places are holiday destinations.

  11. Given the evidentiary admissability flaws in the process of a coronial enquiry as previously pointed out the decision of the DPP is not entirely unexpected and equally the distress casued by the decsioin is also not unexpected.

    Thats the strenght and weaknes of the law and legal system – all those in high dudgeon may one day need those flaws themselves. In the meantime onece the system begisn to make decisions on the basis of public opinion or quite rightly heartfelt beliefs then we might as well forget having a system at all.

  12. I can understand what you’re saying Ken, and it was always a possibility that the tighter rules for admissability of evidence could have made a conviction difficult.

    What I do find very perplexing about the DPP’s decision is her apparent certainty that the death was just a ‘tragic accident’ that couldn’t have been caused by assault.

    I could understand her saying that she didn’t believe there was much prospect of a conviction (because of the likely inadmissability of various evidence), but I can’t see how she could also determine that the cause of death had to be accidental.

  13. Did you see the DPP making her announcement on the news? She was shaking and her body language conveyed the opposite to what she was saying. As she charged off, a journalist asked, “Why won’t you answer any questions….”

  14. Tell me this again, because its not making any sense.

    The Queensland DPP has said that an aboriginal man died in custody from falling down the steps in a police station?

    And the DPP expects rationally minded people to accept a statement that sounds like a racist joke?

  15. Andrew – i do see the point, my personal view from reading both reports would have been to send it to trial, and then at least let the arguments be tested in the public legal jurisdiction.

    DPP’s are one of the most widely abused species both by the public and the politicians (just ask Nicholas Cowdrey down here) – what drvoe that decision is not my guess. i cant think it could have been for purley poltical or self bias reasons as seems to be indicated by soem of the posters here, I guess if you lose some shred of belief in these sort of peopl we might as well all pack up and go home.

  16. Agree that if there was too much doubt, that should have been expressed as the reason and the facts laid out.

    We are back to the 80s, the thin veneer of respectability has worn off.

    Queensland: beautiful one day, concrete (blocks) the next.

  17. Everyone:
    Just for a change, let’s try a different approach ….. otherwise similar tragedies are going to keep on happening. David Jackmanson mentioned that Adrian Walker spoke about Aborigines policing the Police; that’s a good start.

    Having Police and Aborigines argueing with one another has got us nowhere …. and so long as it goes on, more good Blackfellas will die.

    My own suggestions are:
    [a] The Police Union is very effective in looking after their own …. so encourage the Police Union to help bring about improvements in attitudes and methods by running practical courses for their own members on how to become more effective in the job. Such courses should be carried out away from public gawking and given innocuous titles.

    Right-wingers will freak right out at the very idea of a “union” being paid out of the public purse to run training courses but they think nothing about private companies doing exactly the same thing – so let’s ignore their whinges; lives are at stake here and that’s more important.

    Why not use the Police Union to do things so that everyone benefits: Police, Aborigines, the general public.

    [2] Recruits enter the Police Academy with a few thousand hours of Hollywood’s perverted view of policing crammed into their brains. And yet nothing is done about de-programming them. Why all the surprise when young police get out to stations – still chock-a-block full of the rubbish they picked up off TV when they were growing up – and then get into trouble because of their inappropriate attitudes and actions?

    No matter how much time it takes or what it costs, police recruits must be put through cult-busting de-programming to get rid of all the unnecessarily violent and counter-productive brain-washing they acquired from TV..

    We need police who are fair and firm, who stand for no nonsense, who are respected by all. We don’t need or want either sissies or Hollywood “action-hero” clones.

  18. The DPP ought have sent this case to trial on public interest grounds.

    One big worry for me is the way the DPP’s announcement has been so clouded in secrecy. No questions allowed. No information about the “extra evidence” condidered.

    No Justice.

  19. Everyone:
    I am neither “pro-police” hor “anti-police” but we all have to face up to the reality that neither the Police nor the Aborigines are going to solve their many problems by simply vanishing in a puff of smoke. Both of them will still be here next week, next year, next century.

    There are a lot of things they have to work out between themselves and that will take a lot of time, effort and patience by all concerned.

  20. And a bit of symathy for the family of the man who died in custody would be nice too …. they seem to have been forgotten in all the noise.

  21. A shameful day. Beattie and the QLD police are corrupt.

    Like Ken, I believe that this case should have gone to trial, at least it would look as if justice is being seen to be done rather than a murderer being seen to get off scot free.

    I am outraged, and I am only a Qld resident, I can only imagine the emotional pain, despair and anger that the Palm Island residents and family of Mulrunji must be feeing.

    This travesty was orchestrated to ensure that Hurley was never to suffer any penalty for his actions. The DPP is again forced into declaring innocence without trial, manufactured purely for public consumption.

    I hope Sgt Chris Hurley does not get further promotion in his career, he should not still have a career in the force.

    Just as an aside why does Beattie always drag his ‘silent on any political issue’ but perk happy, wife Heather into things when he’s in trouble or trying to sound honest and ‘folksy’ eg his quote from the Courier:

    “There are seriously intelligent people, including my wife, who say to me ‘Well, hang on, a lot of people are not going to understand why a coroner does one thing and a DPP does another’,” he said.”


    “I say to the mayor we are going to turn the page. I have offered my hand of friendship and offer a new start.”

    – just forget about the wrongful death of a person? If it was the police officer that was killed in the scuffle, what do you think the outcome would have been for Mulrunji? (seems if you are an Aboriginal, and you come in contact with the Qld Police, it’ll always end in a lose/lose situation for you)

    I hope that the resignation and public comments from Col Dillon have been embarrassing for Beattie – although he’s already trying to spin the story of Col having resigned prior to the DPP verdict and his motivation being only the abolition of the Department of Aboriginal and Islander Affairs.

  22. It is deplorable that no charges are laid.
    The fact that Hurley’s size precipitates his falling couldn’t have caused these injuries is abundantly clear. Phonebooking is an antiquated method of assault and bullying. If Hurley is let off the hook, it will continue ad infintum.Shame Beattie big fat shame on you!!!!

  23. How is it that every one in Australia is pressured into duty of care obligations except police when interviewing aboriginals at Palm Island. It’s a sad day when an Australian can’t make it of a police station alive.

  24. I used to really like Peter Beattie but have lost >50% confidence in him. Even if along the way he was given the wrong advice, he should be able to make a moral judgement on something pretty obvious like Doomagee’s death and before the DPP’s decision was made public, intervene. He will have to work very hard now to obtain justice for Doomagee and indigenous australians and even harder to win back my trust.

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