2004 Palm Island death in custody

2004 Palm Island death in custody

The 2004 Palm Island death in custody incident relates to the death of Palm Island, Queensland resident, Mulrunji on Friday, 19 November 2004 in a police cell. The death of Mulrunji led to civic disturbances on the island and a legal, political and media sensation that continued for three years culminating in the first trial of an Australian police officer for a death in custody. The officer was acquitted by a Townsville jury in June 2007.

The series of controversies had broad implications for the Palm Island community and their relationship with Government and the broader Australian people.

Two legal questions arise from the death, firstly whether the taking into custody of Mulrunji was lawful and were the injuries that led to his death caused by the arresting officer. Politically this event raised questions relating to the 1990 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody and whether its recommendations to prevent deaths in custody had been implemented by Government.


The death

Mulrunji, an Indigenous Australian was aged 36 when he died. The time of death was about 11:20am on Palm Island, one hour after being picked up for allegedly causing a public nuisance.

Mulrunji was placed in the two-cell lockup which was the back section of the Palm Island Police Station. Fellow Palm Islander Patrick Bramwell was placed in the adjoining cell.[1]

The arresting officer, Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, and the police liaison officer, Lloyd Bengaroo, were flown off the island the following Monday after receiving threats.[2]

This was the 147th death of an Aboriginal person in custody since the handing down of the 1990 Royal Commission.[3]

An autopsy report by Coroner Michael Barnes was produced for the family one week after the death. It stated that Mulrunji had suffered four broken ribs, which had ruptured his liver and spleen,[2] it also found that the body's blood alcohol content was 0.29 from a cocktail of alcohol including methylated spirits mixed with sweet cordial.[4] The family of the deceased were informed by the Coroner that the death was the result of "an intra-abdominal haemorrhage caused by a ruptured liver and portal vein".[2]

According to residents and relatives as reported in the media; Mulrunji visited his new baby niece early on the morning of 19 November 2004, he was drinking beer at the time but was not considered to be drunk, he was carrying a bucket with a mud crab which he was going to sell. He then walked from his mother and sister's house to "D" Street where he was picked up.[5] Reports indicate that he was walking along the Street singing "Who Let the Dogs Out?" when Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley drove past.

Chris Hurley is a caucasian Australian who was aged 36 at the time of the incident.[6] He had spent the morning investigating complaints by sisters Gladys, Andrea and Anna Nugent that Roy Bramwell had assaulted them. One of them needed to be airlifted to Townsville Hospital. Gladys Nugent requested that Chris Hurley accompany her so that she could safely get medication from Bramwell's house. Chris Hurley drove her to the house in the police vehicle.

While Gladys Nugent retrieved her medication Patrick Bramwell, was outside appearing intoxicated and swearing at the police. His grandmother complained to Senior Sergeant Hurley who then arrested him. Meanwhile Mulrunji taunted Police Liaison Officer Bengaroo with words to the effect of why does he help lock up his own people. Chris Hurley then reentered the car and talked with Bengaroo briefly. Mulrunji who had walked off turned and swore at them. Chris Hurley drove over to him and arrested him for creating a public nuisance.[7] Mulrunji was then taken in the back of the police vehicle for the short trip to the police station.[5]

Doomadgee family spokesman, Brad Foster, claimed that 15 minutes lapsed before a seven-second check was done on the inmates. 42 minutes later a second police officer observed that Mulrunji was a strange colour and that he was cold to the touch, he could not find a pulse. On being alerted to this Arresting Officer Chris Hurley came in and thought he could detect a pulse. By all accounts an ambulance was then called which took 15 minutes to arrive during which time no attempts were made to resuscitate the prisoner, although the autopsy found that there would have been no chance of saving him.[1] Instead, the videotape footage from the cell shows Chris Hurley checking for breathing and pulse then "sliding down the wall of the cell until he sat with his face in his hands".[6]

Soon after Mulrunji's sister brought lunch for him to the front section of the police station, she was told to go away by the police and was not informed of events. The family and the state coroner were informed of the death at about 3pm that afternoon. Police began taking statements from witnesses however procedures for taking of statements from illiterate Aborigines were not followed, including that they are required to have representative present who understand the process (preferably a legal representation).[1]

The family later stated that the Government's response was not to provide counselling for the family but to send in 18 extra police from Townsville who "strut around this community, looking intimidating".[1]


For the following week public meetings were held on the Island, anger rising in the community about the death.[8]

On Friday 26 November 2004 the results of the autopsy report were read to a public meeting by then Palm Island Council Chairwoman Erykah Kyle. Although the autopsy report was medical and did not state what caused his death, it did list possible causes which included that the multiple injuries sustained could have been consistent with him falling on a shallow concrete step at the Palm Island watchhouse.[2][4] The deceased was 181 cm tall and weighed 74 kilograms. Hurley was 201 cm tall and weighed 115 kilograms.[9] The injury may have been caused by Hurley falling on the deceased.[10] The Coroner later stated that the autopsy was "far too sensitive and private" to be publicly released.[11] Subsequent to the autopsy report reading a succession of angry young Aboriginal men spoke to the crowd and encouraged immediate action be taken against the police. Mulrunji's death was repeatedly branded "cold-blooded murder". A riot erupted involving an estimated 400 people, half of them school children.[2][4]

The local courthouse, police station and police barracks were burned down. 18 local police had to repeatedly retreat; firstly receding from the station to the residential barracks, when the barracks were also set alight they (and their families) withdrew to the hospital and barricaded themselves in. Cars and machinery were driven onto the runway, blocking all aircraft movement. Even the (Aboriginal) volunteer fire brigade had stones thrown at them while they tried to put out the courthouse and police station fires.[2]

As the riot occurred during the school lunch break it was witnessed by many children. As a way of helping them understand and cope with the on-going trauma they had experienced children were later encouraged to express themselves through art, one of the resulting pieces was titled "We saw the police station burn. I want people to have love."[12]

The volatile situation was attributed to the lack of consultation with the family and community combined with the premature public release of the autopsy report.[2]

Police response

Later the same day approximately 80 additional police from Townsville and Cairns were flown to Palm to restore order,[2] they converted the Bwgcolman Community School into a headquarters and sleeping barracks and commandeered St Michael's school bus.[8] Included in the fly in police contingent was the 'tactical response group' who wore riot shields, balaclavas and helmets with face-masks, Glock pistol at the hip and a shotgun or semi-automatic rifle in their right hand.[8]

Over the weekend the tactical response group searched many homes, children as young as nine were forced to throw out their alcohol during late-night raids while their parents were arrested and taken to Townsville for committing crimes such as public drunkenness and common assault.[13]

Premier Peter Beattie visited Palm Island on Sunday the 28th producing a five-point plan to restore order to local leaders. There was much debate over the appropriateness of the police/government response to the riot, it was likened to acts of terrorists and storm troopers and complaints were made that Aboriginal Legal Aid had been denied access to the Island. On the other extreme Queensland Police Union President Denis Fitzpatrick demanded the rioters be charged with attempted murder of 12 police. The police who had been stationed on the island indicated through the Union that they did not wish to return.[13]

An "emergency situation" under the Public Safety Preservation Act 1986 (the Act) was declared by police on the afternoon of the riot, and was lifted two days later just before the Premier's arrival. However the timing of the "emergency" was later disputed by lawyers for the Palm Island community who maintained that the emergency could only last for as long as the riot itself and that the police did not have the extended search and detain powers under the Act that they were relying upon.[14]

The Queensland Government has admitted it may be difficult to find police prepared to serve on the island at this time but has repeatedly stated it is committed to a continued police presence on the island.[citation needed]

Court proceedings

A total of 28 Indigenous Australians were arrested and charged with offences ranging from arson to riotous behaviour in the weeks following the riot.[4]

Initially thirteen Palm Islanders were arrested and charged, they appeared before the Townsville Magistrates Court on Monday 29 November, the first business day after the riot.[13] The Palm Islanders faced charges of riot, arson and assault, it was determined by the Magistrate that due to the 'state of emergency over there' it would be too dangerous to allow the defendants to return to Palm and therefore bail was not considered.[15] On 1 December three more rioters were arrested, this time all women, a 65-year-old grandmother, her daughter, and the daughter of a Palm Island Councillor.[16]

All 19 charged with rioting by 6 December were granted bail by the Queensland Chief Magistrate although conditions were imposed such as not being allowed to return to Palm Island including for the funeral of Mulrunji. Another notable condition of bail was that they were not to attend rallies or marches over the death in custody. The circumstances leading up to the riot were taken into consideration when bail was considered and it was reasoned that if they stay in the different community of Townsville that there was a low likelihood of re-offending.[17]

Mr. Lex Wotton was warned by a Brisbane court in 2006 to comply with the original conditions of bail by discontinuing his public appearances at rallies and marches.

Four people were prosecuted for the riot and they were acquitted.[18] Mr. Wotton initially pleaded guilty to the charge of rioting, however after the others were acquitted he successfully challenged the legal proceedings and withdrew his guilty plea in May 2007.[19] Lex Wotton was found guilty at trial.

Political controversies

Air affair

In one of the more unusual political controversies of the Beattie Government, then Queensland Indigenous Policy Minister Liddy Clark offered for activist Murandoo Yanner and Carpentaria Land Council chief executive Brad Foster to accompany her to Palm Island in the weeks after the riot at taxpayers' expense.[20]

The Minister and her office told The Australian newspaper the Government paid for the tickets in order to expedite the purchasing of the tickets at such short notice; both Yanner and Foster had agreed to reimburse the Government later for the cost of the tickets. According to Yanner and Foster, Minister Clark's Senior Policy Advisor had asked them to fabricate a story for the public that they had agreed to reimburse the cost of the flights, while assuring them they would not have to pay.[20]

Premier Peter Beattie ordered the Minister to pay the $1 775 herself[20] although he would not go as far as to fire her over the controversy unless there was an adverse criminal or misconduct finding, he said that Mr Yanner had no credibility, the Minister immediately took unscheduled holiday leave.[21][22] A Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC) criminal and misconduct investigation was launched into the whole affair,[20][22] Mr. Yanner and Mr. Foster refused to cooperate with the investigation. Ms. Clark and her Senior Policy Advisor were interviewed at length by the CMC, Ms. Clark maintained that she had never spoken to Yanner or Foster, that she had not directed her Senior Policy Advisor to politically cover for her with the alleged deal and that Yanner and Foster were definitely told that they would have to pay the airfare back.[23] The CMC demanded that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) hand over the tapes and backup tapes of particular interviews with Yanner and Foster which were central to the investigation, the interviews then had to be deleted from ABC audio and computers.[24]

Even though the Minister had already personally paid the cost of the airfare the Queensland Government ministerial services still pursued Yanner and Foster for the money on behalf of Ms. Clark however they refused to pay.[25]

On 1 March 2005 the Crime and Misconduct Commission released its draft report, finding that the office of the Minister for Indigenous Affairs had lied over the airfare affair to avoid short-term political embarrassment, sending a deliberately misleading statement to The Australian. The Minister Liddy Clark, who was a former Play School presenter, immediately resigned from the Cabinet to become a backbencher. The Premier accepted responsibility for giving "a new minister such a tough portfolio".[26] Liddy Clark and the two ministerial staff denied deliberately misleading the public.[27]

The adverse finding was based on a media statement to The Australian which made the positive statement; "we agreed to assist with the airline bookings on the understanding that they would pick up the cost" when it was known at the time by the Minister that the possibility of the airfares being repaid was only mooted after the tickets had been booked. The CMC noted that it was not improper for the flights to have been paid by taxpayers, nor was it improper to ask for it to be reimbursed, the lying to escape political fallout was the only issue of misconduct. "The mischief lies in what was an abandonment of the truth to avoid the possibility of short-term political embarrassment."[26]

ALP branch revolt

Some months after the riot the 24-member Australian Labor Party (ALP) branch on Palm Island publicly revolted against Queensland Premier Peter Beattie, writing a letter to him through local State Member Mike Reynolds outlining grievances against the State Government Labor Party administration. The letter stated that the branch was active in organising protests against the Premier and his upcoming opening of a new Queensland Police Youth Club facility on Palm Island. The letter even hinted at a desire among members to defect to the Liberal Party of Australia, stating that under Labor living conditions have not improved on the island, and life expectancy had fallen.[28]

Police Youth Centre

In a general atmosphere where there was high levels of local animosity towards the police in the months following the riot, the Queensland Government coincidently had completed construction of a new multi-million dollar community centre which would be primarily under the control of the Police Youth Club Association. Premier Peter Beattie was due to open the new facility in February 2005, in the lead up to the launch (while the Coronial inquiry was just beginning) Mr Beattie was asked not to proceed with the launch by the Doomadgee family. Additionally the Palm Island Council moved a resolution asking that the Centre not be opened until its use and occupancy could be agreed upon between the State and Local Governments. The resolution specifically asked that the Centre not be in the possession of the Police Citizens Youth Club Association or the Queensland Police Service.[28][29]

The Government agreed in advance that the Centre would no longer have the word "Police" in its title however the opening by the Premier was to proceed as planned.[29] When the Premier opened the centre he was met with a generally hostile reception. The Council boycotted the ceremony and only thirty people attended the ceremony, half of whom were holding placards demanding more money be spent on employment and health services. Beattie said that this reaction was to be expected because of current tensions with the community about police, however facilities like this were a way of building better relations between the community and the police.[30]

In an extremely politically controversial grab for the nation's media attention, lawyer Andrew Boe, representing the Palm Island Council, sent a tape recording and statements by Councillors to the Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC). The tape was purported to be a recording of a "heated" meeting between the Palm Island Councillors, the Premier and several Queensland Ministers before the Premier's delegation moved on to the opening ceremony of the community centre. It was alleged that the Premier proposed to forgive a $800,000 Council debt to the Government in exchange for the Councillors cancelling their boycott of the opening ceremony. Lawyer Andrew Boe accused the Premier of blackmail.

Before the tape was sent, the Premier pre-emptively stated in Parliament that he had not offered an inducement and that he had actually offered a package of measures in exchange for the Council lifting its performance. Mr. Beattie stated that the Council needed to "get off [their] backsides and actually do something for [the] people" and then intergovernmental partnerships could be formed.[31] The CMC later cleared Mr Beattie of any wrongdoing saying that the tapes did not substantiate the quotes attributed by Mr. Boe[32][33]

The State Government has since been largely vindicated with the PCYC Centre having become a great success on the island where young and old participate in numerous sporting, educational and cultural activities in a safe and comfortable environment. The Centre is mostly staffed by community members and it has been the focal point of re-building positive relations between the police and the community.[34]


Because of suspicions about the results of the first autopsy by the Queensland government pathologist the family delayed Mulrunji's funeral and insisted that the Coroner order a second "independent autopsy" which would be observed by a pathologist on behalf of the Doomadgee family.[5][15]

The family also hired a private investigator to conduct an independent investigation of the death.[35]

Overturned Coronial inquiry

On 8 February 2005 an initial one-day directions hearing for a full coronial inquiry into the death in custody was held. It was decided by Coroner Barnes that the inquiry would take place on the island so that the people of Palm Island would have the opportunity to observe the process, however medical evidence and evidence given by police officers was to be taken in open court in Townsville due to logistical issues and safety concerns of the police. The inquiry would begin on 28 February.[36] Coroner Michael Barnes was assisted by two senior counsel. The directions hearing was held in a marquee because there are no other premises on the Island large enough for the expected audience. 16 barristers and solicitors appeared representing the Queensland Government, the Doomadgee family, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission and the Queensland Police Service.[4] During the directions hearing the Doomadgee family requested that the deceased be referred to by tribal name "Mulrunji" in line with Aboriginal custom, the submission was not opposed.[36]

Coroner Barnes had previously been the Aboriginal Legal Aid solicitor for two families before the Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody.[5] On the first day of the inquiry the Coroner also disclosed that he headed the complaints section of the Criminal Justice Commission in the early 1990s when several complaints had been made about Chris Hurley however he had not handle the investigation and could not remember the complaints.[37] Although he had not been involved in the investigation, Mr. Barnes was the officer who made the final determination that the complaints were unsubstantiated. Lawyers for both the Doomadgee family and Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley asked that the Coroner disqualify himself (although for different reasons).[38] The Coroner subsequently disqualified himself, Deputy State Coroner Christine Clements flew to Townsville and took over, she decided that the inquest would start afresh on 29 March with a three-day directions hearing in Brisbane.[39]

In late September 2006, coroner Christine Clements found that Doomadgee was killed as a result of punches by Chris Hurley.

Clements also accused the police of failing to investigate his death fully. In response to the coroner's findings, Queensland Police Union president Gary Wilkinson was highly critical, saying that the coroner's use of "unreliable evidence from a drunk" was "simply unbelievable".[40]

The coroner also said that Mulrunji should not have been arrested in any case, and that local police had not learned from the findings of a 1980s Royal Commission on the deaths of young Aboriginal men in custody. Largely supporting this conclusion albeit at the level of government rather than local police is the fact that Snr Sgt Hurley, the police officer in question over Mulrunji's death, had considered it necessary to raise similar concerns only a year prior to the death to the Federal Parliamentary Standing Committee on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs. In his submissions to the Committee, Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley pointed out the lack of an alcohol diversionary centre on Palm Island. He complained "If we attend a job in relation to alcohol where the person has not committed any other offences besides being drunk in public, the only option we have is to take them to the watch-house." [41]

Director of Public Prosecutions decision

Leanne Clare, the Queensland Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), announced on 14 December 2006 that no charges would be laid as there was no evidence proving Sergeant Chris Hurley was responsible for the Mulrunji's death.[42] She reportedly received advice from former Supreme Court Judge James B. Thomas before making this decision.[43]

Disciplinary prosecution

The incident also resulted in an investigation by the Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC). Included in the duties of the CMC is investigating allegations of police misconduct.[44] Included in the allegations made against Chris Hurley was the allegation that he wrongfully caused the death of Mulrunji. Although they were concerned with disciplinary proceedings rather than criminal court proceedings the CMC reached the same conclusion as the DPP in relation to Hurley being criminally responsible for causing the death. They advised that "The Commission has determined that the evidence would not be capable of proving before any disciplinary tribunal that Senior Sergeant Hurley was responsible for Mulrunji's death."[45] As a result they advised that "… no disciplinary action before the Misconduct Tribunal or by the Queensland Police Service can be taken against the police officer in relation to the cause of death..."[46]

Review of DPP decision

After several days of media and public pressure, Queensland state Premier Peter Beattie appointed retired justice Pat Shanahan to review the DPP's decision not to lay charges against the police officer, but Shanahan resigned after it was revealed he had sat on the panel that originally appointed DPP Leanne Clare in 1999.[47] Prime Minister John Howard commented on the situation, saying it would be a "good idea" to appoint someone from outside Queensland.[48] Former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, Sir Laurence Street, was selected to review the decision not to charge Chris Hurley over the death of Mulrunji.[49] The review resulted in the overturning of the DPP's decision, with Street finding there was sufficient evidence to prosecute Chris Hurley with manslaughter.[50]


The Townsville based trial of Chris Hurley on charges of assault and manslaughter took place in June 2007.[51] Chris Hurley was found not guilty after medical evidence was given which discredited claims by other witnesses of an assault by Hurley upon Doomadgee.[52] Public funded investigation and prosecution alone cost at least $7 million.[53]

District Court Appeal

In September 2008 Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley's lawyers appealed Coroner Christine Clements findings (September 2006) that he had killed Mulrunji with three fatal punches[54]

On 17 December 2008 District Court Judge Bob Pack, in Townsville, ruled that Coroner Christine Clement's finding "..was against the weight of the evidence..",[54] so upholding Chris Hurley's appeal, requiring a new Coronial Inquiry and outraging local Aboriginal peoples who fear this will "..only dig up buried bones.."[54][55]

Aboriginal activist Gracelyn Smallwood publicly criticized Chris Hurley's appeal and the District Court's decision, reportedly saying[54]:

"Here we are in the most racist part of Australia, with brother Mulrunji dead in a police station, with other brothers in jail over the riot, and the police and the government getting off scot-free ... This is simply a disgrace, bully boys getting their own way while Aboriginal people suffer."

Supreme Court Appeal

In May 2009 Mulrunji's family's lawyers attempted to have Judge Pack's decision ruled invalid in the Court of Appeal.[56]

The Court noted that because Mr Bramwell did not have a clear view of the incident the Coroner concluded that the punches described by Bramwell hit the abdomen or torso of the deceased rather than the head and this caused the death.[57] They further noted that the medical evidence before the Coroner allowed for the possibility that punches were one possible explanation for the facial injuries or bruises but the medical evidence unequivocally rejected punching described by Bramwell as a cause of death. They noted that the Coroner did not advert to that evidence in her report. They quoted the Coroner's observations about the cause of death and that "The consensus of medical opinion was that severe compressive force applied to the upper abdomen, or possibly the lower chest, or both together, was required to have caused this injury." and that "Medical witnesses were asked to consider whether the application of a knee or an elbow, whilst [the deceased] was on the hard flat surface, either during or separate to the fall could have caused the mechanism of injury. This was accepted as a possible means by which the injury could have occurred".

They concluded that the Coroner's finding that Chris Hurley caused the death by punching was not reasonably open on the evidence.[57]

The Court then addressed the Attorney-General and the appellants argument that only the Coroner's finding that punching caused the fatal injuries should be set aside as a result of the medical evidence.[57]

The Attorney General and appelants submitted that if punching is set aside there should be an inevitable finding that the fatal injuries were due to a deliberate application of force by Chris Hurley after the fall eg. a knee drop. The Court did not accept that inevitably follows and pointed out that Bramwell's evidence could be said not to "leave room for such an occurence" (Bramwell was an exclusive witness for only 6 to 10 seconds and volunteered incriminating evidence that Hurley punched Mulrunji at the Coronial hearing. However he made no claim that 201 cm Hurley did a knee drop during that time.[58]) However they emphasised that they were merely addressing the submission not making findings on fact as that is not their function in hearing the appeal.

Instead they ordered that the Coronial Inquiry be reopened to re-examine the facts as the original Coronial Inquiry findings were set aside.[57]

Coronial inquiry

On 14 May 2010 a new full coronial inquiry into the death in custody concluded.[59] During the course of the coronial enquiry it was revealed that a police witness Senior Sargeant Michael Leafe originally estimated that Chris Hurley was alone with Mulrunji for 10 seconds but changed it to 6 or 7 seconds after reenacting his actions during that time and timing it on the request of Chris Hurley's lawyer. At trial he only gave his revised estimate.[60] Prosecutor Peter Davis suggested that this was an attempt to sabotage prosecutors. However Sen Sgt Leafe said he believed Hurley's prosecution was a cynical political exercise.[61]

In his findings Coroner Brian Hine disagreed with the Supreme Court of Appeal regarding the knee drop. He believed that the evidence left room for a finding that a knee drop may have occurred. He found that the injuries could have been caused by Sen Sgt Chris Hurley accidentally falling on top of Mr Doomadgee or by the officer "dropping a knee into his torso". He said that due to the unreliability of police and aboriginal witnesses he could not make a definitive finding. However he found that Chris Hurley punched Mulrunji in the face and abused him while attempting to get him into the station and found that police colluded to protect Chris Hurley. A CMC report leaked to the media reportedly recommends that 7 officers will face charges. [59]

Palm Island Select Committee

In April 2005, Premier Beattie established the Palm Island Select Committee to investigate issues leading to the riot and other problems. Their report [1] was tabled on 25 August 2005 (Hansard page 2764). It detailed 65 recommendations which seek to reduce violence and overcrowding, and improve standards of education and health. In achieving these objectives, issues such as drug and alcohol abuse and unemployment would also be addressed.[62]

Police union and Aboriginal activists

Soon after the riot the Queensland Police Union President Denis Fitzpatrick demanded the rioters be charged with attempted murder of 12 police. The police who had been stationed on the island indicated through the Union that they did not wish to return.[13] Former Premier Wayne Goss dismissed as "cheap politics" the union's demand for attempted murder charges to be laid, he said their comments since the death in custody had been consistently unhelpful.[63]

After the alleged rioters were granted bail Denis Fitzpatrick criticized the magistrate's decision to grant bail saying that the safety of the community had been put last and that the decision amounted to a "betrayal" of the police.[17] His comment was criticized as hypocritical and systematic of "one rule for us and one for whites and that's a racist legal system where the cops get their way" by Burketown Aboriginal activist Murrandoo Yanner and relative of the Doomadgee family who was at the centre of controversy over his calls for Aboriginals to bash all "racist cops" and for all police stations to be burnt. Yanner said that Hurley was no racist, that he was loved by the Indigenous communities he had previously worked in, and that he identified with Hurley in that "he was a thug and a mug. I am the same", and that they would both respond with fists when confronted or challenged, portraying a cop who some years ago had confronted and overcome his own inherent racism while working in the Torres Strait. Yanner said his anger was with the legal system in general and particularly the police's role in justice for Indigenous people, saying that Chris Hurley was an exception to these problems, but that he had probably gone too far in giving Mulrunji a hiding.[64]

Sen. Sgt. Chris Hurley received a confidential payout of A$100,000 from the Queensland Government in February 2005.[65]

In mid-February 2005 Chris Hurley resumed duties after three months on paid leave. He was appointed to a duty officer position at the Broadbeach police station on the Gold Coast, effectively a promotion.[66]

When Coroner Barnes disqualified himself from the inquiry the QPU called for him to be sacked immediately from the position of state coroner for the indiscretion of drinking with one of the lawyers during the inquest.[39]

When Coroner Clements made her findings QPU President Gary Wilkinson was highly critical.[67] As a result he was charged with contempt of court by the Attorney General.[68] Wilkinson later publicly apologised and pleaded guilty to the contempt. He was ordered to pay costs with no other punishment.[69]

After the Attorney Generals decision to prosecute was made public members of the Union held rallies in every major city in Queensland protesting against the political intervention, and in support of Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley.[70]

Related events

In 2007 Tony Koch, The Australian's chief reporter in Queensland, won the Graham Perkin Australian Journalist of the Year award for his coverage of the 2004 Palm Island death in custody and related events since.[71]

Brisbane based band Powderfinger wrote a song Black Tears which was said to mentioned the Palm Island death in custody by the words "An island watch-house bed, a black man's lying dead". The song was to be released as part of their 2007 album Dream Days at the Hotel Existence.

Fearing that the lyrics of the song might prejudice the case against their client, Chris Hurley's legal team referred the song to Queensland's Attorney-General, Kerry Shine, in an attempt to get the song banned or the lyrics changed.[72][73]

The band's management claimed that while the lyrics of the song reference the Chris Hurley case, that they were not specific enough to warrant a ban.[74]

The band's response to the issue was to use an alternate version of "Black Tears" on the album, one that had differing lyrics to the originally intended version, but to keep the launch date the same as originally intended.[75] In contrast to the report from the band's management, the band reports that the song was originally influenced by offences relating to people climbing the Australian attraction Uluru (deemed sacred by indigenous Australians), acknowledging nothing relating to the legal case.[75]


Date Event
8 July
Chris Hurley points out lack of alcohol diversionary program on Palm Island meaning that the only option for drunk and disorderly Palm Islanders is to take them to the watchhouse.
19 November
Mulrunji, 36, dies in custody at Palm Island police station after being arrested for being drunk and causing a nuisance.
26 November
Palm Islanders riot. Police officers seek refuge at the island's hospital and are airlifted to safety. Rioters burn down the police station, courthouse and the home of officer-in-charge Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley.
1 December
State Coroner Michael Barnes orders a second autopsy be conducted.
3 December
Private investigator hired to carry out an independent investigation into Mulrunji's death.
11 December
Doomadgee funeral, Palm Island elders call for justice rather than division.
11 February
Chris Hurley receives a confidential payout of A$102,955 from the Queensland Government.
28 February
Coronial inquiry into Mulrunji's death begins.
1 March
The inquest proceedings are stalled after allegations of bias are made against Mr Barnes.
4 March
State Coroner Michael Barnes stands down from the inquiry after claims of bias.
30 March
Second inquiry begins with Deputy Coroner Christine Clements as Acting Coroner.
27 February
The inquest resumes on Palm Island for two days, and then for the following three days in Townsville
27 September
Deputy Coroner Christine Clements finds Snr Sgt Hurley responsible for Mulrunji's fatal injuries.
7 October
Senior Sgt Hurley stood down following the coroner's findings.
14 December
Queensland Director of Public Prosecutions Leanne Clare announces that no charges will be laid against Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley over Mulrunji's death.
14 December
Criminal Misconduct Commission announces that no disciplinary charges will be laid against Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley over Mulrunji's death.
4 January
Former NSW chief justice Sir Laurence Street starts review of DPP's decision.
16 January
Witness Patrick Bramwell hangs himself on Palm Island.
26 January
Sir Laurence advises there is enough evidence to prosecute Snr Sgt Hurley, who is officially suspended.
5 February
Snr Sgt Hurley faces Supreme Court charged with manslaughter and assault.
6 February
Queensland police halt plans to march on state parliament over Snr Sgt Hurley being charged after Premier Peter Beattie accedes to demands for closed circuit cameras in watchhouses in Aboriginal communities.
16 March
Justice Kerry Cullinane sets down a two-week trial to start on 12 June in the Townsville Supreme Court for Snr Sgt Hurley.
22 March
William Neville Blackman, John Major Clumpoint, Dwayne Daniel Blanket, and Lance Gabriel Poynter are found not guilty of rioting with destruction by a Brisbane Supreme Court jury.
Crime and Misconduct Commission announces a review of policing in indigenous communities.
8 May
Terrence Alfred Kidner sentenced to 16 months in jail in Townsville District Court after pleading guilty to rioting on Palm Island.
31 May
Accused rioter Lex Wotton succeeds in Brisbane District Court application to be released from custody on bail with strict conditions, formally entering a plea of not guilty to rioting with destruction on Palm Island.
5 June
State budget announces boost to police numbers in indigenous communities, more CCTV cameras for watchhouses.
10 June
Queensland Police Minister announces an extra 29 police officers for indigenous communities.
12 June
Hurley case begins in Townsville Supreme Court. Large group of Palm Islanders and police turns up to watch.
15 June
Snr Sgt Hurley breaks silence, testifying in his own defence. Says he has come to terms with the fact he caused the death, but strongly denies any intention to cause harm.
20 June
Jury acquits Hurley on manslaughter and assault charges.
Lawyers for Chris Hurley appeal to Queensland's District Court to overturn Deputy Coroner Christine Clement's 26 September 2006 findings that he had fatally injured Mulurunji
17 December
Townsville District Court Judge Bob Pack hands down a ruling upholding Chris Hurley's appeal and ordering a fresh inquest in Mulurunji's death.
16 June
Queensland Court of Appeal hands down a ruling affirming that the Coroner's findings be overturned, revealing that the Coroner's report failed to mention that medical evidence unequivocally rejected that punching could have caused the death, and ordering a fresh inquest in Mulurunji's death.

See also

Further reading

  • Waters, Jeff (May 2008). Gone For A Song - A death in custody on Palm Isalnd. Sydney, Australia: ABC Books. ISBN 978-0-7333-2216-7. 
  • Hooper, Chloe (2008). The tall man: death and life on Palm Island. Camberwell, Australia: Penguin Group. ISBN 978-0-241-01537-7. 


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