November 2006


Who let the dogs out?

By Chloe Hooper
Who let the dogs out?
Palm Island after the inquest into a death in custody

In video recordings of Cameron Doomadgee's funeral, hundreds of Palm Islanders walk with his coffin on the narrow road from the island's Catholic church to the cemetery. The journey is several kilometres and the sun blisteringly hot. At the front of the procession is Doomadgee's 15-year-old son, Eric, small for his age, holding a white wooden cross to place on his father's grave.

On the morning of 19 November 2004, Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, Palm Island's rangy 33-year-old officer in charge, had arrested Cameron Doomadgee (known sometimes as Mulrunji), 36, for committing a public nuisance. Doomadgee was drunk - "happy drunk", community members said - and singing his favourite song, ‘Who Let the Dogs Out'. But Hurley heard him swear and locked him in the divvy van. There was a struggle when they arrived at the police station, and Doomadgee punched Hurley in the jaw. Within 45 minutes of his arrest, Cameron Doomadgee was dead, with a liver almost cleaved in two, four broken ribs, a ruptured portal vein and a haemorrhaging pancreas. Senior Sergeant Hurley claimed that Doomadgee had tripped and fallen over a step.

Eric Doomadgee now has his own white cross. On 31 July, Cameron's only child was found hanging from a tree in bushland on Palm Island. The family friends who found him cut his body down and carried it into town.

On the morning of Eric's funeral, his body was laid out in a small outbuilding of the hospital. People lined up in single file to pay their respects. Eric's friends, Palm Island's young men, had dressed in long-sleeved maroon shirts and black trousers. Others wore maroon, yellow or white: the colours of his favourite football team, the Brisbane Broncos. His cousins had ribbons in these colours pinned to their clothes.

Inside the building there started a terrible keening. Slowly, the queue moved past Eric in the coffin, white silk around his neck. People touched his face and hair. In front of him sat his mother and his aunts and his stepmother, Tracy, all of them weeping. Grief had taken them somewhere far away. From the time he was a toddler, Eric had been passed constantly between households. Two of Eric's aunts, Elizabeth and Claudelle, had even breastfed him after his own mother, who had a drinking problem, left him.

As the hearse drove to the church, people stood outside their houses, bowing their heads. Drivers pulled their cars over and did the same. Inside the church, each pew was full and had plastic flowers attached with masking tape. Mourners stood outside, staring in through the cyclone-wire windows. "Jesus said, ‘Let not your heart be troubled,'" the black preacher announced. She did not address the circumstances of Eric's life, or why he may have ended it, nor his father's life and why it might have ended. The sermon felt perfunctory: apparently, recognising Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life could ease a troubled mind.

The sociologist Colin Tatz has written at length on Aboriginal youth suicide, which may be as much as 40% higher than in the non-Indigenous population. Although he warns of the impossibility of ever truly understanding why someone has ended their life, he has created an indigenous "typology". There is the existential suicide, the person who "sees no horizon and ... no means of altering such horizons as they have". Driving with an elder one day, I saw a group of youths in the hip-hop clothes of Black America, shoulders hunched: I will fail. The elder said, "Who knows the potential of these young men?" On the island, to reach puberty is to reach the abyss. The young inherit a community with 92% unemployment, where half the men are dead by 50, where they own nothing, control nothing, have sovereignty over nothing but their own bodies.

Then there is the grieving suicide, the person trapped in the cycle of mourning dead friends and relatives. On Palm Island, people are still mourning one death when the next occurs: one woman told me that she went to three relatives' funerals in two weeks; another said that she went to her mother's and sister's funerals on the same day. Outside the church, blank-faced women carried handtowels in case they had to wipe their eyes. Young men stood very still, crying. None of Eric's friends would consider counselling, just as he hadn't after his father died.

Eric's cousins told me he wanted justice for his father and was making a stand. The political suicide, according to Tatz, occurs where the young person has a score to settle, particularly with the police: "It is both a rebuke and a stand against authority." In North Queensland's Indigenous communities, hanging carries particular nuances, including "martyrdom, pathos, capital punishment, the legal system and injustice". Since the 1989 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, committing suicide in jail has come to be understood as "a powerful symbolic statement of oppression and injustice". Eric might have been communing with the dead. There can be camaraderie, intimacy, solidarity in imitating someone else's death. Had he in some way gestured towards the way his father died?

The Palm Island cemetery is a field of white wooden crosses. Most graves are carefully tended and adorned with colourful plastic flowers. Eric's friends had jostled so intensely to be pallbearers - from "Church to hearse", from "Turn off to last coconut tree", from "Last coconut tree to gravesite" - that the coffin almost broke. They passed around a shovel to fill the grave, covering the coffin swathed in maroon, yellow and white flowers.

After the burial, the young men all posed for photographs in front of the grave. They had a group shot, then took turns having single shots taken. They crouched close to the newly formed mound, touching it tenderly. There was something reminiscent of young Palestinians posing for the video camera before blowing themselves up.

The family then stood in front of the grave. There were separate shots of Eric's aunts, cousins and even the in-laws, the husbands and wives of Eric's cousins. "Smile! Smile!" called Dwayne, Eric's retarded cousin. It was the photographer, he thought, who was meant to smile.

During June and July this year, a market-research firm conducted a poll to establish a statistical profile of the Townsville community. Over four hundred people were asked about their perceptions of Aboriginals or Torres Strait Islanders in North Queensland. They were told there were no right or wrong answers: "We are interested only in what you actually think." Under "negative themed comments" are the following responses:

Ha ha - there are no wrong answers?! Well something needs to be done - they have no respect, they want everything for nothing and most of them are better off than me.

In my opinion they are a protected species. You can't touch them. You can't kick them.

As long as they stay away from me and leave me alone I don't care.

I have a pretty low opinion of them. I know there must be some good ones - but I have only come across the scumbags.

I'm tired of people being beat up due to being white.

Pass. I don't have an opinion except to shoot them all.

The "negative themed" comments took up 42.7% of the survey. Another 33% of the responses were "unsure", "neutral" or "ambiguous". The remaining 13.3% were deemed "positive":

They are alright.

Pretty good footy players.

They are just normal.

They have a right to be here.

Asked what they thought of Palm Islanders, 63.7% of the interviewees' comments were "negative-themed":

My father-in-law works there and says it is like a dump - the people are pigs.

The same story - they get too much.

Leave them on the island.

Glad they are over there.

It's disgraceful that they are given an island, and can trash it the way they have.

The poll, conducted by AECgroup, had been commissioned by the Sydney law firm Levitt Robinson, which is defending one of several Palm Islanders accused of rioting after the State Coroner declared in his preliminary findings that there was no evidence of foul play in the death of Cameron Doomadgee. The lawyers were seeking to have the trial moved from Townsville to Brisbane. With the help of the poll results, they were successful.

Tony Mooney, Townsville's Mayor, didn't dispute the poll's findings: "Townsville is no different to any other community and if you did that survey around the suburbs of Cronulla or Redfern, you'd find the same outcome." (Earlier this year, Channel Nine's Sunday alleged that in 1989 Mooney drove away after his car hit an Aboriginal pedestrian. A witness chased down the then Deputy Mayor. But the police, it was also alleged, let him go without even a breath test.) AECgroup is said to be Peter Beattie's preferred polling company, but the Queensland Premier wasn't buying the results of this survey: "Townsville people are not racist," he said. Lawyers at Levitt Robinson claim they were not surprised by the intense responses the poll drew; but some of the interviewers, they say, were shocked enough to cry.

Four days after Eric's funeral, on 16 August, the inquest into his father's death sat for the last time in Townsville. All evidence had been taken and the lawyers were making their final submissions. On the street outside, Elizabeth Doomadgee, one of Cameron's sisters, ran into two boys who were returning to their family on Palm Island. One had been in foster care with a white family, and had been beaten. Elizabeth told them that they would be welcome to stay at her house whenever they wanted, but there were two rules. "One: If you go out somewhere, if you go fishing or something, you tell someone. Two: Church on Sundays." She told me later that her house was always open to little children. She might have been thinking of Eric. With her youngest child now at school in Cairns, she cares for four foster children aged under ten.

Walking into the inquest, Elizabeth said, "A mustard seed can move a mountain." She was thinking of Matthew 17:20. The inquest was a mountain of legal precedent and sections and codes, of closed-rank police and rival personalities along the bar-table, of one-upmanship, adrenalin and ego. The mountain is the legal game.

Then Tracy Twaddle walked to the witness box. Her face had the same fine features as the Doomadgee women: bobbed hair, bow-lips. Her large body was hunched in old clothes, in widow's black with a print of white flowers. She kept her eyes down. Last year, she'd gone to hospital with pneumonia after sleeping at night on Cameron's grave. In a soft voice, she read out a statement. A lot of people cried. She said her piece modestly, without a hint of guile:

"I met Cameron, Mulrunji, in 1994 and we lived together soon after that. We had a simple but happy life together. He was unselfish, and he was caring, and he tried to do the right thing by the people. He'd help anybody. He didn't - he didn't care what colour they were. He wasn't mean. He was always caring. He was always there for me and his Mum and his family.

"And Cameron was always joking and ready for a laugh, you know, he always lifted our spirits. I think he saw the good and right in life. And he never sat around and brooded over things. And in a way he was an inspiration to me, because I used to watch him and, you know, think gee, he knew how to enjoy his life. He was content. It was a simple life and happy.

"Cameron was a hunter and he was proud to carry on that tradition. He was a proud hunter. He was always proud that he could provide food for us: goat, possum, fish and share it out amongst his family and friends.

"Cameron was, you know, more or less in his prime when this happened to him - when he lost his life. He was still a young man, and he had a lot to look forward to. He was especially proud of his son, Eric - he meant the world to Cameron. He was a proud father, and to watch his son grow and to be there when Eric became a man was something Cameron always talked about, but that's never going to happen now.

"My life is on hold. I get frustrated because everything's dragging on slowly. I think about if we're ever going to get real justice for him.

"Eric was even more in a state of anguish than I was and tragically, Eric killed himself just a couple of weeks ago. In spite of this, you know, I'll always try to be positive, because of Cameron. He's never far from my mind. That's all I can say."

In the course of the inquest, lawyers for Queensland's Police Commissioner and Hurley twice tried to prevent the Senior Sergeant's prior complaint files being seen by the other lawyers and used in evidence. Their applications to the Supreme Court failed but the inquest was slowed and a mountain of evidence was amassed. More than a dozen police were directed to appear at the inquest, but they had seen no evil, heard no evil and would certainly not be speaking of any evil. The inquest also heard from two men who claimed that Hurley had assaulted them during arrests for minor offences. Hurley denied both allegations. The most unfortunate testimony regarding a prior incident, however, came from Barbara Pilot. A Palm Island woman in her thirties, Pilot happens to be Cameron Doomadgee's first cousin.

On the night of 19 May 2004, Pilot and her partner, Arthur Murray, were drunk. Murray pushed her down some stairs and hit her in the back of the head with a screwdriver. While an ambulance took Pilot to hospital, Senior Sergeant Hurley arrived to perform his usual thankless task. He arrested Murray and put him in the back of the van. As he was driving away, Pilot returned. She approached the van, remonstrating with Hurley, who told her to go away. When she did not, she claims, he reversed over her bare foot. "She made the exclamation that I'd run her over," Hurley said. "She was singing it out. I can't recall whether she was screaming in pain but she was singing out, ‘You run me over!'" Hurley opened the door, looked Pilot up and down and, seeing no injuries, drove away. Pilot arrived back at the hospital with, the attending doctor said, "the bone clearly protruding from her foot in a very unusual manner".

At the Doomadgee inquest, that doctor, Clinton Leahy recalled that after he'd examined Pilot, Hurley was waiting for him at the hospital. He asked Leahy if he thought that the injury was caused by a car tyre, but "he seemed interested, to me, to find out that there was another cause for it. I told him that I'd never seen an injury like this before and, in my opinion, it required something quite profound to push a bone, not only out of its joint, but through the skin and out into the open. And I told him that such a great force would be well explained by a car tyre."

A bone specialist from Townsville, where Pilot needed surgery, and a forensic pathologist on retainer from Hurley's lawyers, also told the inquest that Pilot's injuries were consistent with her having been run over. In fact, even Hurley - albeit under privilege - admitted the possibility: "I'd be ignorant to do that; to exclude it 100%."

But the night it happened, that is exactly what he tried to do. He called his superior and family friend, Inspector Gary Hickey, to report the incident. At the inquest, Hickey read from a bound book the notes he'd taken of the conversation: "More consistent with kicking ground but possibly from car. Dr Clinton Leahy ... Hurley claims not possible from position near driver's window." Then, of the victim: "Intoxicated, playing up." Hickey ordered Hurley to start investigating the incident.

This relatively minor episode is like the Rosetta Stone of the death in custody, decoding a model of police recalcitrance. The Senior Sergeant invents an alternative story: she was kicking the ground. (Or, he tripped over a step.) He gets involved in the investigation himself. Then, his supporters step in. In June 2004, Warren Webber, who later headed the investigation into Doomadgee's death, commissioned Hurley's close friend Detective Darren Robinson, who also investigated Doomadgee's death, to look into Pilot's complaint. Robinson waited a month before he began. By this time, her foot had healed. Robinson did not speak to any of her doctors, or even to Barbara Pilot herself. Instead, he interviewed her partner, Arthur Murray:

Robinson: Is it fair for me to say and do you accept that a lot of people on the island do drunk talk?

Murray: Yeah.

Robinson: All right. You know, well, you've known Barbara, you know her better than me, when she was speaking to you the next day did she tell you this was just drunk talk?

Murray: Yeah.

Robinson: Do you know why she said it?

Murray: Drunk.

Robinson: She was drunk. Okay. So she actually said to you that "Hey, the police hadn't run over my foot."

Murray: No. She said, "The car just run over my foot."

Robinson: Do you think she's just trying to stir trouble?

Murray: Yeah.

Robinson: All right. Is it like her to stir trouble?

Murray: Yeah. Liar.

Robinson: She lies?

Murray: She lies all the time, she's so drunk.

Robinson: Have you asked her or has she told you how it happened?

Murray: Yeah, she told me next day the wheel ran over her foot.

Robinson: Yep. All right. A wheel ran over her foot. It was drunk talk that the police ran over her foot.

Detective Robinson reported to senior police that Pilot's claims were "fictitious". Then, after Doomadgee's death, he was questioned about his investigation by the Crime and Misconduct Commission, the body that investigates police. The transcript of the interview contains two closely typed pages of a monologue on alcohol and memory delivered by Robinson to the commission. It reads like a student's plagiarised term paper: "Today I wish to talk about the dangers for investigators when relying upon a person's memory ... This brings me to advise yourselves about a condition in which memory is disturbed known as amnesia." He told the commission that the Aboriginal witnesses had memory loss through alcoholism and that their evidence against Hurley and himself - theoretically Robinson could face charges for perverting the course of justice - should be treated cautiously. The witnesses should each have an electroencephalogram, a brain-function test often used to assess brain death; a computerised tomography scan to identify structural damage; and analysis by a psychologist. He warned the commission against "bias-ism": "your investigation is to be an accurate reflection of the truth in all matters."

On the morning that Senior Sergeant Hurley arrested Doomadgee, as he struggled to drag his prisoner into the police station, he did not notice another Palm Islander sitting inside, watching. Roy Bramwell had just beaten up his partner and her two sisters, and was waiting to be questioned. "I see knuckle closed," he later told the inquest. "Chris's elbow going up and down and, ‘You want more, Mr Doomadgee, you want more? You had enough, Mr Doomadgee?'" Each time the fist descended, Bramwell said, he heard Doomadgee groan.

Bramwell has since sworn a statement that the day after Doomadgee's death, Robinson came to see him, threatening, "if anything happens to his friend Chris Hurley he would come looking for me."

The first call Hurley made after Doomadgee's death was to Detective Robinson. The two men had worked together on the island over the last two years, and Robinson had cleared Hurley of other complaints. After the men spoke, Robinson called Detective Senior Sergeant Kitching of the Townsville Crime and Investigation Bureau. Kitching was also a friend of Hurley's, having served with him in another Aboriginal community, Burketown, near the Gulf of Carpentaria. Robinson then placed a call to Detective Inspector Warren Webber, the Northern Regional Crime Coordinator, who pointedly told the inquest that he held Hurley in high regard. Even the Queensland Police Commissioner, on the first day of the inquest, described Hurley as "a very fine officer".

On 27 September this year, Queensland's Deputy State Coroner, Christine Clements, handed down her findings from the 18-month inquest into the death of Cameron Doomadgee. That morning at the Townsville Court House, four armed police officers stood outside the small courtroom, and one armed officer waited inside with a gun, pepper spray, handcuffs: the full utility belt. Many Palm Islanders had travelled to Townsville to hear the findings, but there was only seating for 20. They were not feeling optimistic.

The Deputy Coroner quoted from the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody: "A death in custody is a public matter. Police and prison officers perform their services on behalf of the community. They must be accountable for the proper performance of their duties. Justice requires that both the individual interest of the deceased's family and the general interest of the community be served by the conduct of thorough, competent and impartial investigations into all deaths in custody."

"The investigation into Mulrunji's death," Clements said, "failed to meet those standards." She found that it was "unwise and inappropriate" for Detective Robinson to investigate Hurley, and for Hurley to pick up Robinson and the other investigators from the airport and drive them around; that it was "a serious error of judgement" for the investigators to share a meal with Hurley at his home that evening; that the investigation was "compromised" by Hurley having the chance to discuss the investigation with other witnesses; and that it was "reprehensible" that no allegation of assault was provided to the pathologist at the time of the first autopsy. The senior investigating officers, Clements said, were "wilfully blind".

Witnesses claimed that from outside the police station they had heard Doomadgee crying for help as he lay writhing in pain on the cell floor. The Deputy Coroner concluded that at least one of these cries must have been heard by Hurley and that his response was "totally inadequate".

Senior Sergeant Hurley has maintained that Doomadgee died as a result of tripping and falling over a step. After a fact-finding mission costing millions of dollars, the Deputy Coroner did not find this version of events credible: "The consensus of expert medical opinion was that a simple fall through the doorway, even in an uncontrolled and accelerated fashion, was unlikely to have caused the particular injury."

Her voice was quavering as she read out the last pages: "Despite a steady demeanour in court, Senior Sergeant Hurley's explanation does not persuade me he was truthful in his account of what happened. I find that Senior Sergeant Hurley hit Mulrunji whilst he was on the floor a number of times in direct response to himself having been hit in the jaw and then falling to the floor ... This is consistent with the medical evidence of the injuries that caused Mulrunji's death ... I conclude that these actions of Senior Sergeant Hurley caused the fatal injuries."

The courtroom took a deep collective breath. The Doomadgees all burst into tears. As one lawyer said, "You got the sense it was the only time in a courtroom anything had ever gone their way."

The police lawyers shook their heads. No police officer had ever been found responsible for a death in custody.

That afternoon, the president of the Queensland Police Union, Gary Wilkinson, went on the attack. A burly, red-faced man, he appeared on television full of righteous outrage, doing a fair impersonation of a pre-Fitzgerald Queensland policeman - or a Keystone Kop. "Senior Sergeant Hurley has been hung out to dry," he said. The Deputy Coroner had "conducted a witch-hunt from the start that's been designed to pander to the residents of Palm Island, rather than establishing the facts. Clearly she approached this inquest as a foregone conclusion despite the mountain of evidence in support of Chris Hurley that she deliberately overlooked."

Just what the mountain of evidence comprised, no one knew; but the following invitation soon appeared on the Queensland Police Union's website:

Send you [sic] support to Chris Hurley - click here
All messages of support are appericated [sic] and will be passed onto Senior Sergeant Hurley. [email protected].

After the Coroner's announcement, there was not a single official expression of shock or regret over a man being beaten to death while in custody. The next day, 28 September, the Police Commissioner announced that Senior Sergeant Hurley would not be suspended or stood down. Rather, he was to be taken off operational duties and given a desk job. Later that evening, on ABC TV's Lateline, Premier Beattie backed the decision, and added, "I regard our police service as one of the best in the world." He looked grave, harassed, nervous. Then, like a seasoned climber, he found a foothold familiar and secure: "Clearly, the issue of public drunkenness is one that's been raised ... I mean it is currently an offence, public drunkenness. I don't want to see, and I'm talking generally now, us move away from a position where it is an offence, because I don't believe that drunks should destroy our quality of life, regardless of who they are, black or white."

It was pure mischief and almost comic to talk like this about an island where alcohol consumption has dominated life. Cameron Doomadgee was not arrested for public drunkenness; he was arrested on a public-nuisance offence, the public being Senior Sergeant Hurley, who alleged that he heard Doomadgee swear. The Deputy Coroner found that the arrest should never have been made - in line with the 1989 Royal Commission, which recommended that offensive language "should not normally be occasion for arrest or charge".

The overwhelming impression given by Beattie and police officials was that Doomadgee's death was unfortunate, but not so unfortunate that it should ruin a young officer's career. As Hurley's barrister, Steve Zillman, told the inquest, "there is an element of unfairness to place under the microscope the actions of a police officer working at the coalface after the event." He went on: "There was a story, and I believe it was attributed to President Kennedy which bears some relevance to this ... he knew the greatest baseball player in the world, and that person could run faster than any other player, and he could pitch and catch better than them all, but as he said, he never took the time to put down his hotdog and his beer, come down from the grandstand to the diamond and play the game."

Senior Sergeant Hurley, in other words, was just doing his job. It is true that he sometimes seems like Everyman walking through a landscape where the characters are Death, Drunkenness, Violence and Despair. It's not impossible to feel sympathy for him, or to grasp the frustration and contempt he must have felt on Palm Island. Yet he is hardly Everyman, who through good works taught a lesson of Christian regeneration. Nor is he the victim, or just another copper doing his job, as his supporters portray him. Hurley is a policeman who left a man to die on a concrete floor.

On 7 October, Hurley announced that he'd decided "reluctantly" to stand down on full pay. Queensland's Director of Public Prosecutions is deciding whether to lay charges against him.

The Deputy Coroner's findings were greeted on Palm Island with a mix of jubilation and relief. "It's made us feel as if there is a God that cares about us," one woman said. On the evening of 27 September, the community held a prayer vigil on the shore by the island's jetty. In the twilight, 150 people gathered and sent candles and petals onto the water: "We were releasing all our hurts, all our pains, thanking God for Justice." The men on riot charges threw flowers alongside the community's new police officers, who attended in plain clothes.

A woman told me, "Everything is changing. Grass is growing, there are gardens, seating areas, a pergola." At the newly built Police Club Youth Centre, sports teams have to be mixed race so that white police and locals play together. "They're working hard to build a relationship within the community," she said. "It's so different from Hurley's regime."

In late June this year, the Beattie government had introduced an alcohol-management plan restricting the quantity and strength of beer allowed onto the island. David Bulsey, a close friend of Cameron Doomadgee who faces riot charges, said it was the best thing the government had ever done. He had stopped drinking. Now, he felt, his children had a future. When, after the 2004 riot, the police came looking for David, snipers had pointed rifles at his wife, Yvette, and told her to lie on the floor. Yvette, who was pregnant, developed high blood pressure. Their daughter, Cameron, was induced prematurely, and is now on heart medication. When she is upset, her mother can hear an irregular heartbeat. Cameron was Eric's goddaughter.

If Senior Sergeant Hurley is charged with murdering Doomadgee, it is likely he will face trial in Townsville with a jury drawn from a population that, racist or not, sees every day the ugly and pathetic signs of chronic dysfunction, dependence and despair, and - according to the AECgroup poll - is at best indifferent to Aborigines and more commonly angry and contemptuous towards them:

I see a lot of them hanging around parks and the mall.

They use the parks and bushes as public toilets.

They drink too much and they smell.

They are mongrel dogs.

When people live beyond the pale it is hard to see in them anything of ourselves. "About time they realise we have feelings too," Cameron Doomadgee's sister Valmai said when we talked about the findings of the Deputy Coroner. "We're human." I am struck by how often I've been told that by Palm Islanders: We are human too.

Chloe Hooper

Chloe Hooper is the author of The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire and The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island, and the novels The Engagement and A Child’s Book of True Crime.

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