No charges for cell death officer

Tony Koch and Michael McKenna
15th December 2006

THE police officer found by a coroner to have been responsible for the violent death of an Aboriginal prisoner in a cell on Queensland's Palm Island two years ago will escape even disciplinary action.

In a contentious decision, the state's Director of Public Prosecutions, Leanne Clare, travelled to Townsville yesterday to announce there was not enough evidence to convict Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley of any offence regarding the death of Mulrunji Doomadgee, 36, who died on November 19, 2004.

The decision was met by shock and anger in Townsville and on Palm Island, where tension was building last night after the Crime and Misconduct Commission announced Sergeant Hurley would not face disciplinary action either.

The coronial inquest had been told Doomadgee, who was drunk and had been arrested for swearing, struck Sergeant Hurley in the face at the watchhouse and a "scuffle" ensued.

Sergeant Hurley said he landed on the concrete floor of the watchhouse beside Doomadgee. However, the prisoner suffered four broken ribs and his liver was torn in two.

In her findings, delivered in September, Deputy Coroner Christine Clements said "these actions of Senior Sergeant Hurley caused the fatal injuries".

She also said his failure to check the prisoner's welfare in the cell was "callous and deficient" and that he "responded with physical force against Mulrunji while Mulrunji was still on the floor".

However, Ms Clare - maintaining she had to "act on evidence, not emotion" - yesterday described Doomadgee's death as a "terrible, terrible accident".

Ms Clare also said she had reviewed all evidence before "and pursued further lines of inquiry and received additional evidence".

"There were two autopsies. From them we know that neither kicks nor punches are likely to have caused Mr Doomadgee's death," she said. "On the evidence, the fall is the only satisfactory explanation for the injuries identified by the doctors.

"In other words, the admissable evidence suggest that Mr Doomadgee's death was a terrible accident."

While there were riots after Doomadgee's death in 2004, some of those responsible for the violence are in custody. The alleged ringleader, Lex Wotton, who is among several out on bail, was in Palm Island last night with Doomadgee's sisters.

"Aborigines recognise that our lives aren't valued by the Queensland Government," Mr Wotton said, ahead of his trial next year.

"Our people cannot get equal justice under the Queensland system but we will continue to fight for justice for them and also for our friend Mulrunji."

Senior Brisbane lawyers met last night to investigate a possible judicial review of Ms Clare's decision - a path which, if successful, could have it reversed.

Queensland Premier Peter Beattie had pre-empted the decision by calling for "calm" and asked those involved in the case to "accept the independent umpire's decision".

But the local member, and speaker of the Queensland parliament, Mike Reynolds, said he had "difficulty" understanding the difference in the findings of the Deputy Coroner and that of Ms Clare, and believed it should have been "decided by a jury".

Mr Reynolds also blasted reports from Queensland police that they had stationed specialist police in Townsville yesterday with helicopters at the ready to quell any "disturbance" on Palm Island over Ms Clare's decision.

Police Minister Judy Spence, when asked if she was proud of the way the police had handled the issues of the arrest and subsequent investigations, would not pass an opinion.

While Ms Spence confirmed that additional police were on "stand-by" in Townsville yesterday, she did not know of any action by the government to send counsellors to Palm Island to help locals understand the decision not to prosecute Sergeant Hurley.

Ms Spence said Sergeant Hurley would return to desk duties at the Gold Coast, but solicitors for the police officer yesterday said he would "consider his position" and that the past two years had been "a terrible ordeal for everybody including Sergeant Hurley and his family".