Mulrunji Doomadgee's death has exposed deep institutional flaws when it comes to Aboriginal affairs

QUEENSLAND has finally done the right thing regarding the death in custody of Palm Island man Mulrunji Doomadgee after exhausting its options for cover-up, denial and plain incompetence. A speedy investigation by an outsider, former NSW chief justice Laurence Street, has demolished the political charade that has plagued Queensland since Palm Island erupted into violent riots following Doomadgee's death in November 2004. As a consequence, police officer Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley will face court, the first police officer in Australia charged over a black death in custody. The position of Queensland's Director of Public Prosecutions, Leanne Clare, who declined to recommend any charges despite a coronial finding that Sergeant Hurley was responsible for Doomadgee's death, is now untenable. The culture of indifference that permeates the Queensland Government in its administration of Aboriginal affairs has been exposed. And the reputations of the Queensland Police Service, and the Police Union, have been tarnished by the way in which they have handled the crisis from the start.
By contrast, The Australian has campaigned vigorously for a proper examination of the events surrounding Doomadgee's death and the official response to it. Responding to Sir Laurences' decision, Queensland's parliamentary Speaker and Townsville MP, Mike Reynolds said: ``In particular, I congratulate The Australian newspaper for the long fight and campaign they have waged on behalf of the most disadvantaged people in Australia.'' Sir Laurence's finding that a properly instructed jury could find a case of manslaughter against Sergeant Hurley follows the reasoning set out by Tony Koch in his Inside Story in The Australian on December 23. We have published comments by Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson that attempts to write off as an accident Doomadgee's death were comparable to the South African apartheid-era explanations given to cover up the murder of black activist Steve Biko. In doing so, we are defending the principle of equality under the law. On the facts, it is difficult to believe a death in custody would be treated in such cavalier fashion, had the victim not been black. Mr Pearson has said Aboriginal Australians had looked to the Doomadgee case as a sign that they could actually rely upon the legal system, that the legal system was capable of dealing with them. Instead, they got proof there was a different value of a white life and a black life in the state of Queensland.
The double standards in the Doomadgee case were evident from the outset. After hearing months of evidence, Assistant Coroner Christine Clements found Doomadgee, who was arrested for swearing, should not have been taken into custody in the first place. But within hours of being arrested, Doomadgee was dead following an altercation with Sergeant Hurley. Doomadgee suffered several broken ribs and his liver was split almost in half. The riot sparked by Doomadgee's death provoked a dramatic police response, including a call for the army in Townsville to send Black Hawk helicopters and soldiers. More than 80 police armed with riot shields, Taser guns, automatic shotguns and Glock pistols swarmed the island and arrested more than 20 people suspected of property damage. By contrast, the police investigation into Doomadgee's death could not have been more different. It was undertaken by friends of Sergeant Hurley, who met them at the Palm Island airport, cooked them a meal and shared a beer before their investigation got under way. Ms Clements found that some of the investigating officers were ``wilfully blind'' and that Sergeant Hurley's treatment of Doomadgee was ``callous and deficient''. Despite Ms Clements's findings, Ms Clare found there was insufficient evidence to charge Sergeant Hurley with anything, even of a disciplinary nature. Ms Clare made her decision on the basis of Ms Clements's finding that Doomadgee had died as a result of punches delivered by Sergeant Hurley. An alternative scenario, based on autopsy findings and published in The Australian in December, was that Doomadgee's fatal injuries were the result of Sergeant Hurley landing on top of him.
Ms Clare's decision not to recommend any charges sparked outrage, but she refused to explain it properly or, as she had done in other cases, seek an outside opinion. The Queensland Government was ultimately forced to act but attempted to keep the review inhouse with the appointment of former District Court chief judge Pat Shanahan. Mr Shanahan was forced to step aside because of a perceived conflict of interest after The Australian reported that he had been one of a three-person panel that unanimously voted for Ms Clare's appointment as DPP. The appointment of Sir Laurence to conduct a review has restored confidence in the process. Having received his advice, Queensland Attorney-General Kerry Shine has instructed the Crown Solicitor to initiate a prosecution of Sergeant Hurley. The affair has unavoidably undermined confidence in the Queensland DPP. The Australian considers it is unhealthy for the administration of justice that decisions of the DPP be reviewed, other than at the request of the office. But in this case, as we reported and Sir Laurence found, evidence of Sergeant Hurley falling on Doomadgee was open for anyone to consider but overlooked by Ms Clare in making her decision not to recommend charges.
The Doomadgee affair is but the latest in a long list of high-profile blunders by Ms Clare, including the conviction and jailing of One Nation leader Pauline Hanson, the conviction and jailing of chief magistrate Di Fingleton, and her decision not to prosecute national swim coach Scott Volkers, who was accused of child sexual abuse. The High Court quashed the conviction of Ms Fingleton on the charge of retaliating against a witness, ruling she should never have been charged because she had immunity under the Magistrates Act. The Court of Appeal also overturned the conviction of Ms Hanson. In April 2003, the Crime and Misconduct Commission found the handling of the Volkers case had been ``justly criticised''. In the wake of the Doomadgee case, she must resign immediately and avoid further damage to the dignity of her office. Sir Laurence's recommendation that Sergeant Hurley face a judicial process in the wake of Doomadgee's death is to be welcomed, whatever the outcome. It will go some way to restoring confidence in the equality of the administration of justice in Queensland. But the affair has again exposed how the state has lost its way on the management of Aboriginal affairs.