Thursday, January 17, 2013





Chloe Hooper has written her account of a riot and subsequent trial based on a black death in custody on Palm Island, QLD, a short distance from the Townsville mainland. It has stayed with me for several days. It is a journalistic novel in the vein of Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’ and I keep thinking it would be an especially good book for high school aged Australian’s to read.

On Friday, November 19 2004, Senior Sergeant Cameron Hurley, on Palm Island, drove a woman named Gladys home after she was released from hospital, after being bashed along with her two sisters, by her partner. Hurley, at 34, was the senior policeman on the island. He was accompanied by his black liaison officer, Lloyd Bengaroo. A man named Nugent walked by the police car, shouting abuse. He was high from sniffing petrol and his mother had just been beaten by the same man who laid into Gladys. He was quickly arrested and placed into the police van. Then Hurley could hear another voice, belonging to a man he said he didn’t know, Cameron Doomadgee. Hurley said he heard Doomadgee swear at him, but this was not corroborated by anyone else in the vicinity. They could only hear him singing. Hurley says the abuse was aimed at Bengaroo, for being in the invidious position of both being black and helping a white man arrest black residents.

Outside the station, Doomadgee hits Hurley on the jaw. Hurley drags him into the station. He later claims they both fell into the station after a struggle, but the facts are very murky here because of contradictory evidence. The man who bashed the three sisters says that Hurley was delivering a series of punches to Doomadgee’s body. In court it is difficult to place much credence on this because this man had drunk over 40 cans of beer overnight, and half a dozen more in the morning. Doomadgee, and the other man newly arrested, Nugent, are placed in the same cell. Doomadgee is crying out for help, in pain. About half an hour later both men are checked, and Doomadgee is dead.

Following all of this, as told in ‘The Tall Man’, there is an investigation which results in a riot on the island- the investigation has found the death has been caused by accidental fall with no evidence of police brutality. The black people on Palm Island are naturally appalled. Doomadgee’s sister came to collect her brother the next morning- why was he suddenly dead? She was told only to come back in the afternoon. The investigation, as outline by Hooper, was seriously flawed. For example, Hurley was initially investigated by none other than two of his close police mates. The emphasis in the interview it appears was the fact that Hurley was punched in the face by Doomadgee. Hurley admitted he saw a ‘small’ amount of blood coming from Doomadgee’s ‘small’ injury above his right eye, but claimed he didn’t know how it got there. Hurley spoke of wrestle and resultant fall, but was strangely emphatic that he didn’t fall on top of the black man, a story he stuck to throughout. The three policemen, and a third more senior officer, again a strong supporter of Hurley’s, all had drinks and dinner together that night.

The riot was seriously dangerous and violent, and only managed when huge police reinforcements arrived. One of the first casualties was Hurley’s property and all his luxury goods- all razed to the ground. The man himself flew out quickly. The riot was precipitated by the actions of a local named Lex Wotton who, upon hearing his friend had supposedly died from an accidental fall, used a microphone outside the council buildings to say “Will we accept this as an accident? No! I tell you people, things going to burn…let’s do something!”

The inquest, which began three and a half months later, was riddled with complications but eventually found, some two years after Doomagee’s death, that Hurley was culpable: “ A simple fall through the doorway, even in an uncontrolled and accelerated fashion, was unlikely to have caused the particular injury.” This is when the police ‘closed ranks’,  up in arms about the fact that it was the first time a police officer had been found responsible for a death in custody.

This is a very well researched book. Hooper traces the background of the two key protagonists by venturing to the places of their past. These are terrible, in some ways shocking places like Burketown, North West of QLD, where Hurley was a popular and dominant character. Not surprisingly Doomadgee’s ancestral background is a place further west of Burketown called Doomadgee. Hurley worked here too. The best way for an ambitious policeman to accelerate through the ranks is to work in harsh, unpopular conditions.

This book exposes a number of important things. First of all we have interesting sections that reveal the part that faith plays in the desperate lives of many poor people. There is always the thought that there is something better in the future. Also, Hooper exposes in rich and unblinking prose what it means to live in places like Palm Island if you are aboriginal. The stories are incredibly sad, yet we have heard them before. Despair, extreme alcoholic abuse, sexual and physical abuse, any number of suicides (including Doomadgee’s own son found hanging from a tree not long after his father died), emaciated people, people prematurely ageing and reliant on insulin, any other number of health problems, poor housing and clothing, petrol sniffing, boredom and hatred, nihilism, and generally terrible health. One comment of a slightly different kind that stood out to me was of a young man bemoaning the fact that you see the same people every day. So this is a snapshot of the claustrophobic nature of life on Palm Island. Any yet tells us that there are attractive aspects of the island, that it is a place that is attractive for tourists. Cathy Freeman espouses the beauty of the island. There are evidently two sides.

Another important thread in the story is the way the police support each other through thick and thin. Even though none of the hundreds of officers who offer support to Hurley know what happened in that police station on Palm Island, the police union is unwavering in their support. Surely some, even many, would have doubted his story. It seems that support for the fellow officer, regardless, triumphs over anything else. I guess each officer feels it could be them who might in future need to seek similar support. Perhaps it connects with a kind of ‘us versus them’ mentality. Depressingly, for some, the death of a black man may be insignificant compared to the career of a white man.

However the key part of the story of course is the trial and the subsequent outcome. Some three years after the death in custody of Cameron Doomadgee the jury at the Townsville courtroom delivered a verdict of not guilty. This is despite the fact that it was beyond dispute that Doomadgee had received a black eye and bruised jaw, bruises on his right eye and eye lid, bruises on his forehead and the back of his head and both hands, four broken ribs, a ruptured portal vein and, most alarming, no less than a liver almost cleaved in two, probably caused by extreme pressure on the abdomen by something smooth like a knee.

Reading about the trial at the end of Hooper’s book, I am reminded of the trial in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird.’ In this book Atticus Finch holds some comfort for the fact that the case against Tom Robinson actually resulted in a reasonably lengthy deliberation of the fate of the accused by the jury, even if Tom Robinson was found guilty. In ‘The Tall Man’ a member of Doomadgee’s family takes some comfort from the fact that “we got this far.”

It is very difficult, it seems more and more to me, to prove murder or manslaughter without incontrovertible evidence. Many men get off rape charges for this reason. The parents of a woman named Elisabeth Membry pretty much know who murdered their daughter in Ringwood, as well as the jury I assume, but without forensic evidence how can they be absolutely sure? The witnesses to Doomadgee’s death were either lying, unreliable or frightened. Could a reasonable jury convict Hurley on the evidence before them? As it turned out they were unable to do so. And Hurley doesn’t go to jail.

I heard someone say recently that there were a lot of grey areas in this case. By this I mean that she found some reasons for why she might excuse Hurley. It goes back to the fact that his was a very difficult job, and he may have cracked. Some of us may have reacted the same way to provocation after policing on Palm Island for a period of time.

The way I see it is that Hurley was in a position in which he should not crack. If this was his mental state he should not have been on the island. His inability to provide any reasonable explanation for Doomadgee’s injuries was also not acceptable.  The tragedy of Doomadgee’s death was greatly enhanced because there was no justice for the taking of his life. Somewhere in the book I remember Hooper or someone else saying “What if it was Hurley, not Doomadgee who had suffered these injuries and this death. Would he have been believed?” it’s obviously a farcical question. There is something about the stench of different rules for blacks and whites lingering in the air, here. I can just see the fists going backwards and forwards, the knee going in hard: “Do you want more Mister, Mister Doomadgee?” But of course I wasn’t there.

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