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It is approaching a quarter of a century since the final report from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. The suite of expectations that were effectively promised by the Royal Commission have for the most part long been betrayed. The majority of deaths in custody are of natural causes but a significant proportion are attributed to external causes, with some having been homicide. Police prosecutors are steadfast that violence that leads to death – a single punch for instance – is homicide and that such violence must be punishable. How then is it possible for the police to stay silent or justify violence because it is by themselves and/or one of their own?

I am writing about the inexcusable violence that led to the death of John Pat. The unjustifiable violence that led to the death of Mulrunji Doomadgee. The obvious violence that led to the death of Eddie Murray. And there are the many others – and not just the violence that leads to death but that is injurious, that is unnecessary, unwarranted, that we are now increasingly viewing through CCTV. The violence that is damned by coroners but little is done about.

Police have a tough gig but the public trust is undermined by the putrid refusal to own up to the brutal and violent behaviours among them. The Kafkaesque conduct of the police is abominable and it would be fair to comment that the steadfast refusal of police to own up to the violent and murderous among them casts a dark pall upon the police. There are coppers who do not like what is happening in their ranks, who are appalled by the rogue violence and they will not work with coppers they reckon “are out of control” but still they stay silent, because they fear that the day they speak up “will be my last day in the job.”

The hypocrisy and cowardice on their part is not just their problem, it is our problem too, because of the impacts on society. Coppers that speak out, who whistleblow or who have led to Royal Commissions, well their lot is never again easy. There need to be bona fide whistleblower protection laws but in this nation there are no real whistleblower protection laws for anyone. Whistleblowing can finish up with you prosecuted and jailed. Then there is the damnation of litigation – a powerful tool that those who can afford it can misuse to suppress the public interest. The abominable misuse of litigation particularly by the wealthy and powerful has made a mockery of the rule of law and of its capacity to determine truth.

It is important to chase down the killers of Eddie Murray, John Pat and Mulrunji Doomadgee. If they are brought to account or if they own up – redemption – well then this is more likely to spark real change, to change laws and protocols. Change will not be coming anytime soon without the rogue police being brought to account, including those who covered their backs and those too who remained silent. Change will not be coming anytime soon while the police and their mouthpieces in governments dedicate all their efforts to deny wrongdoing. In my view, where police as a whole do the silent bit, reduce accountability, do not own up, then this is an obstruction of the intentions of justice, a perverting of the administration of justice – of the justice that they otherwise so claim to seek to uphold; it is corruption. An ordinary citizen who knows of a crime can be charged – police let you know this. Someone should tell them it goes for everyone.

We need to name the killers of Eddie Murray. We need the killer of John Pat to come clean despite his acquittal by an all-white Karratha jury three decades ago. We need the justice sorted in Mulrunji Doomadgee’s death. It is not too late. If the killers and those others who were brutal in their silence are finally brought to account so too will others. If this were to occur the violence will be reduced. The public trust may be rebuilt in the ways it should. Good coppers will not be tarnished by bad coppers.

The fact that coppers are protected is corruption. And then there are the structural and institutional biases – the systemic classicist and racist biases. Because of the deplorable protection of wrongdoing among the police and the lameness of Governments to do something about this, society instead is shovelled classicism, racism, one stereotype after another – we divide, fracture society.

The fact there has never been a successful prosecution of an Australian police officer – of any unnatural hand in an unnatural death – illuminates a darkness that haunts us all, that damns us all.

It is said that no lie lives forever but I do not believe this. The damage done by a lie is often told in many broken lives. Lies outlive generations. The toll is not hidden even if it is denied.

Investigations into the deaths of Eddie Murray, John Pat and Mulrunji Doomadgee must be reopened. Political climates aided the protection of the (police) killers of Murray, Pat and Doomadgee. Let us test the political climate of 2015.

In my view, it is indisputable that Wee Waa police killed 21 year old Eddie Murray on June 12, 1981.

Eddie Murray was not arrested but detained under the NSW Intoxicated Persons Act. The coppers, one of whom killed him, said that they found Eddie Murray hanging in the police cell less than 100 minutes after he was first detained. But no other person was witness to this – including the ambulance officers who were called in. At the 1981 Coronial Inquest, the verdict was inconclusive – that Eddie “died at his own hand or the hand of person or persons unknown.”

Counsel for the Murray family, Kevin Coorey said it better when he submitted to the Royal Commission in Aboriginal Deaths in Custody that Eddie “died at the hand of a police officer or police officers unknown.”

Wee Waa Constable Rodney Fitzgerald was one of the three officers who took part in the detainment of Eddie. Three witnesses presented testimony towards this. I raise this because at the Coronial Inquest Mr Fitzgerald testified that he was not one of the officers present in detaining Eddie, he claimed he had been elsewhere in Wee Waa. But three witnesses were steadfast that he was one of the officers. His whereabouts at the time of Eddie’s death remain an unresolved issue.

At the time, members of the Murray family, including father, Arthur Murray, “recalled conversations with Eddie in which he stated that he had been pressured and threatened by Constable Rodney Fitzgerald.”

At the time, Wee Waa was in the heart of a belt of racism. Eddie’s father, Arthur, had copped a lot of racism, as had just about anyone Aboriginal in Wee Waa. Arthur had been a stalwart as a rights advocate for Wee Waa’s Aboriginal peoples, Aboriginal workers, especially the cotton-pickers who were being exploited by the town’s robber barons, and for the disadvantaged. Arthur pissed off the exploiters and the racists.

At the time of Eddie’s death, according to the 1981-82 Bureau of Crime Statistics report, the rate of detention of Aboriginal people in north-western NSW under the Intoxicated Persons Act was 93 times the overall State rate – astonishingly 1266 per 1000 of the Aboriginal population! They were being locked up around the clock.

The original post-mortem examinations by Dr Eric Mulvey have long disappeared – mysteriously so. They were therefore never presented to the Muirhead inquiry.

Former Wee Waa ambulance officer, Harold Lewis gave evidence that Wee Waa police did not call the ambulance service till after 3:30pm. But police records state the ambulance left with Eddie’s body at 3:10pm. This reminded me of the death of Roebourne’s John Pat two years later – where the coppers washed his body to cover up their crime. It is indeed fact that John Pat was bashed to death and it does not matter that an all-White jury acquitted the bastards.

If the coppers lied and indeed the ambulance officers are correct, then more than twenty minutes have never been accounted for. The clothes that Eddie died in, the clothes he was arrested in, the clothes that I believe he was bashed in, they disappeared. The family has long asked for his clothes. “Where are my brother’s clothes?

On the 28th of September 1983 a young life came to an end and which moved a community to tears and then rage. A mother lost her eldest son, 16 years young.

John’s mother, Mavis said, “My son did not have to die, they did not have to kill him, none of our children should be dying.”

The community of Roebourne has never forgotten John Pat. Roebourne, for the most part an impoverished community is surrounded by the mining boom and native title that have both forgotten Roebourne’s people.

John died because he was ‘Black’, because of the colour of his skin, because of racism. Four off-duty police officers and an off-duty police aide laid into half a dozen Roebourne youth. Only minutes before, one of the coppers had said to one of the youth, Ashley James, “We’ll get you, you Black cunt”. The copper followed him out of the Victoria Hotel and laid into him, a brawl took shape. John Pat tried to step in and pull his mate Ashley out of harm’s way. The copper then laid into John.

John Pat died at the hands of the copper, his aorta torn, broken bones, bruised and battered he fell backwards to the red earth. Roebourne became to Western Australia what two decades earlier Birmingham had become to Alabama.

The young Yindjibarndi John Pat, was then tossed it was said by a witness like a dead kangaroo into the back of a police van.

The coppers washed down his body and changed his clothes at the police cell before investigators could view him. The five coppers were charged but despite various evidence including that the charge-sheets and testimonies were falsified, an all-White jury in another bullshit decision found them innocent.

Western Australia is the mother of all jailers of First Nations peoples, and from a racialised lens when it comes to Aboriginal people, it has the highest arrest and imprisonment rates of First People in the world. If this is not racism then what is?

At the commencement of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, John’s mother, Mavis, said, “I don’t know what is going to come out of the Royal Commission but I hope it makes everything better for Aboriginal people.”

Many years later Mavis told me, “Nothing has got better, if anything it is worse.”

The late Dr Jack Davis wrote an ode, “Write of life, the pious said, forget the past, the past is dead. But all I see, in front of me is a concrete floor, a cell door, and John Pat. Agh! Tear out the page, forget his age. Thin skull they cried, that’s why he died! But I can’t forget the silhouette of a concrete floor, a cell door, and John Pat. The end product of Guddia Law is a viaduct, for fang and claw. And a place to dwell, like Roebourne’s hell, of a concrete floor, a cell door, and John Pat. He’s there – Where? There in their minds now, deep within. There to prance, a long sidelong glance, a silly grin, to remind them all, of a Guddia wall, a concrete floor, a cell door, and John Pat.”

Those who say that racism does not burn bright throughout this continent know not what they are talking about. For from that racialised lens it is fact that for far too many much has got worse.

We were not put on this earth to betray one another, we were not put on this earth to bury our children. But we are betrayed, again and again and again. It will take the marches on the streets, it will take the people to call for the justice, for the light of day. We have to stay solid-in-our-thinking and in-our-actions to bring on the cultural shift, to bring on the justice, because it will happen no how else, no way else.

Social justice stalwart, Sam Watson has often said, “We know who was responsible for many of these deaths, for Mulrunji, for John Pat. Let us call a spade a spade, the coppers killed them.

Ten years ago, Mulrunji was the 147th Aboriginal death in custody since the end of the Royal Commission in 1992.

On November 19, 2004, Mulrunji was walking his dog on Palm Island, and he was singing ‘Who let the dogs out?’ Seargent Craig Hurley who was driving by slowed down and took exception, instead of moving on.

Only a little while later, Mulrunji would lay dead on a police cell floor. The autopsy by Coroner Michael Barnes reported Mulrunji suffered four broken ribs, a ruptured spleen and ruptured liver. He died from “an intra-abdominal haemorrhage caused by a ruptured liver and portal vein.” He died because he was bashed.

Earlier in the morning, Mulrunji visited his new baby niece. He had a little to drink. He had been carrying a bucket with a mud crab which he intended to sell. The walk from his sister’s house was fateful. He was singing “Who Let the Dogs Out?”

Officer Hurley was with Police Liaison Officer Bengaroo. Mulrunji sang out to Officer Bengaroo, “Why do you help lock up your own people?” Mulrunji then walked away. It could have ended there but Officer Hurley drove up to Mulrunji and arrested him for ‘creating a public nuisance’. Mulrunji was bundled into the back of the police vehicle.

Everyone knows what really happened in the police cell. The 36-year-old Officer Hurley would be responsible for causing the death of the 36-year-old Mulrunji. Less than an hour after Mulrunji was ‘thrown’ into the police cell he would be pronounced dead. Mulrunji was more than likely dead less than fifteen minutes after being bundled into the cell and then beaten.

Despite the fact that other officers were present at the watch-house, “none of them heard or saw anything.” Officer Hurley said he noticed Mulrunji “motionless” and “cold” when touching him. He applied an “arousal technique” by “kicking him twice” but Mulrunji remained motionless. An ambulance took fifteen minutes to arrive and in that time not once did any of the police officers attempt to resuscitate Mulrunji.

One week later, Coroner Barnes’ autopsy report was handed to the family. A riot followed – more than 400 people raced to the Palm Island Police Station, half of them were children. The local courthouse, police station, Hurley’s home and the police barracks were burned. More than 80 police officers from the mainland would be sent to the island, dressed in balaclavas and riot gear to back up the island’s eighteen police officers.

Palm Islander Lex Wotton copped jail time but Officer Hurley was protected effectively by the Queensland Government and the Queensland Police Union. This business of police investigating police ensured that Senior Sergeant Hurley was not charged and instead he received various confidential payouts from the Queensland State Government. After three months of paid leave, Sergeant Hurley was appointed as a duty officer on the Gold Coast. However in September 2006, Coroner Christine Clements found that Mulrunji died of the punches inflicted by Sergeant Hurley.

The cover-ups including police officers telling investigating pathologist Guy Lampe that Mulrunji had swallowed bleach.

Coroner Clements stated that the police failed to rightly investigate the death of Mulrunji. Importantly, Coroner Clements stated that Mulrunji should never have been arrested – just as Mr Ward should never have been, just as Mr Briscoe should never have been, and just as the 340th death in custody since the Royal Commission, Ms Dhu should never have been

On January 4th, 2007 the review commenced, however the key witness, Mr Bramwell was found hanged on Palm Island, January 16.

On January the 26th, the Street review overturned the Department of the Public Prosecutor decision to not lay charges. The review recommended that Sergeant Hurley should be charged with manslaughter. But like the four police officers and the police aide who were acquitted by an all-White jury of killing 16-year-old Yindjibarndi John Pat in 1983 so too was Sergeant Hurley acquitted in 2007 by an all-White jury in Townsville.

So once again, it was okay for a copper to step out of line, go rogue and thrash punches into a Black person. It is not enough that Mulrunji was arrested for next-to-nothing but we have to accept that the crimeless Mulrunji for some reason deserved the beating he got. First People endure the highest arrest and imprisonment rates in the nation, many of them for poverty related or low-level offening. Aboriginal Legal Services are stretched to the hilt in having to represent far too many for next-to-nothing offences.

So yep, Sergeant Hurley was acquitted.

Grievous injustices carry a burdensome legacy. They say from little things big things grow – good and bad. Mulrunji was arrested for singing a song and then resulted a litany of broken lives. Mulrunji’s 12-year-old son, Eric, led his father’s funeral cortege. At 18, Eric was found hanged in Palm Island bush – July 19, 2010.

On May 14th, 2010, another coronial inquiry found that police colluded to protect Sergeant Hurley and shortly after a Queensland Crimes and Misconduct Commission report leaked to the media stated that up to seven police officers should be charged. None have ever been charged. The Commission’s chairperson Martin Moynihan clashed with the Anna Bligh Government in that there is a “culture of self-protection” for police. Premier Bligh dismissed calls for a Royal Commission and instead accepted the April 2011 410 report by Queensland Deputy Commissioner Kathy Rynders – that no police needed to be disciplined over the death of Mulrunji. She recommended “managerial guidance” for one of the officers. So it’s not a crime to cover-up, to lie, to bash someone if you’re a police officer.

Deaths in custody are the tip of the iceberg – they bespeak of a dirty underbelly. Much needs to change. It will take much to get that change. Black and White lives are lost in custody. 18 per cent of deaths in custody are Black deaths. But they die in custody younger. If you are 50 years of age or more and White and in jail you are more likely to die from natural causes. If you are 20 years of age and Black and in jail you are more likely to die from unnatural causes. Whether Black or White and in a prison, you are more likely to die of natural causes than if in custody in a police cell. One is usually held in a police cell 24 to 96 hours before being released or transferred to prison. If someone dies in a police cell during a short stay then of course it is nearly always the case that the death was of causes unnatural.

Coppers as a whole will do themselves a favour, do us all a favour, if they scrub up as they want of all of us. There is no right for anyone whomsoever to bash someone. No place for a copper who fabricates charge sheets, who railroads someone into prison, who has lost the confidence of the people.

The deaths of Murray, Pat and Doomadgee must be reopened.


Further reading:

Aboriginal deaths in custody bring focus to disturbing rate of imprisonment