Known after death per Aboriginal custom as ‘Mulrunji,’ the man had been arrested for swearing at police, purportedly while he was intoxicated, and was taken to the Palm Island police watchhouse.
Witnesses who were being held in the watchhouse at the time said Mulrunji cried out for help while they observed him being savagely bashed by Queensland Police Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley.
The first autopsy of Mulrunji was conducted on 23 November 2004 at Cairns Base Hospital by Dr. Guy Lampe. Dr Lampe’s report concluded that Mulrunji died due to an impact to his chest region, causing four broken ribs and severe injury to his liver. Dr Lampe claimed that Mulrunji’s fatal injuries were caused by a fall on the concrete steps leading into the watchhouse.
Dr Lampe’s ‘police friendly’ coroner’s report, released on 26 November 2004, sparked rioting among the residents on Palm Island. Outraged community members burned the police watchhouse, court house and police residences to the ground, forcing police to be evacuated from the island. Queensland Premier Peter Beatty had more than 100 police reinforcements flown to Palm Island to restore order.
Due to public outrage on and off Palm Island, the case was taken up by the Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC), which ordered a second autopsy of Mulrunji, performed in Brisbane on 30 November 2004 by Associate Professor David Ranson. Professor Anthony Ansford and Dr Byron Collins were also in attendance, together with Dr Lampe.
Professor Ranson concluded that a mere fall onto a concrete surface could not have caused the injuries which killed Mulrunji. In his findings, Ranson writes:
In my opinion the death occurred from blood loss as a result of the liver being torn. I believe the liver injury was the result of forceful pressure being applied to the front of the upper abdomen or stomach area. This force squeezed the liver by pushing it up against the front of the spine so that it was nearly split in half.
A complicated fall where the two individuals fall together from a standing position would not usually cause the liver laceration seen in this man unless during the process of the fall a small area of direct crushing pressure was applied to the front of the upper abdomen with the back or posterior lateral aspect of the body fixed against a hard
If a large person were to fall in an accelerated or uncontrolled fashion on top of an individual who was lying on their back on the ground, such that a small part of their body, for example a knee applied a crushing type force to the upper abdomen, it is possible that such a liver laceration might be caused.
Acting Queensland State Coroner Christine Clements has now ruled that Mulrunji did not die of a fall as first claimed by Dr Lampe. Clements found that Mulrunji died as a result of powerful blows to his midsection, adminstered by Sen Sgt. Hurley’s fists or knees. Clements’ ruling states that Hurley had lost his temper after Mulrunji had struck him in the jaw and had then struck the Aboriginal man while they both were on the floor of the police watchhouse.
Clements further finds that Mulrunji should never have been arrested. (ABC Podcast, MP3)
Despite clear cause to investigate possible excessive use of force by police, Queensland Police Union President Gary Wilkinson claims that the pursuit of Hurley is a “witch hunt“:
“Senior Sergeant Hurley has been hung out to dry by [Clements],” [Wilkinson] said.
“He’s done nothing wrong and he has the full support of the union. Every police officer involved in this inquest has the full support of the union.
“She has conducted a witch-hunt from the start that’s been designed to pander to the residents of Palm Island, rather than establishing the facts.”
Mr Wilkinson says he is dumbfounded by the findings.
“Clearly she approached this inquest as a foregone conclusion, despite the mountain of evidence in support of Chris Hurley that she deliberately overlooked,” he said.
“She’s used unreliable evidence from a drunk to support these claims. It’s simply unbelievable.
“Hopefully the see through this rubbish, throw it out, throw in the bin where it belongs.”
Sen Sgt Hurley remained on regular duties with full pay during the nearly two years that this matter has been under investigation. It took a full day of public pressure on Queensland Police and the Beatty Government after Clements released her findings which directly implicate Sen Sgt Hurley in the death of Mulrunji for the officer to be suspended from enforcement duties.
The flippant attitude of Queensland Police Minister Judy Spence (ABC Podcast, MP3) in terms of her acceptance of Acting Coroner Clements’ findings and the initial refusal to suspend Sen Sgt Hurley by Queensland Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson leave me with little faith that there are paradigm shifts imminent within the Queensland Police Service regarding treatment of Aboriginals in custody.
Sen Sgt Hurley remains working for Queensland Police on full pay, simply having been shifted to a plainclothes desk job on the Gold Coast. Both Queensland Premier Peter Beatty and Police Commisioner Bob Atkinson have defended the retention of Hurley on administrative duties as Hurley has yet to be charged in the matter.
I’d like to extend a warm welcome to the Queensland Police Service into the 21st century.
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