Blak lives betrayed—Mulrunji Doomadgee
Megan Krakouer and Gerry Georgatos work extensively in the suicide prevention space. Here they continue to shine light on one of many Blak lives betrayed.
Content warning: This story contains reference to suicide and details that may be distressing to some readers. Please refer to the services at the bottom of this article for support.
Please note this story contains reference to someone who has died.
Following the death of Mulrunji Doomadgee, the Palm Island Police Station was burnt to the ground.
Sixteen years have passed since that fateful day—November 19, 2004. In the years since, there have been nearly 300 Blak lives lost in prison or police custody.
On that summery November day on Palm Island, Mulrunji was walking his dog. He was singing “Who Let the Dogs Out”. Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, slowly driving by, took issue. He could have smiled or growled and drove on. Less than three-quarters of an hour later, Mulrunji was dead.
The autopsy by Queensland Coroner Michael Barnes described Mulrunji’s injuries; four broken ribs, a ruptured spleen, and a split liver, among others.
Mulrunji died from “intra-abdominal haemorrhaging caused by a ruptured liver and portal vein”.
Earlier in the morning, on the last day of his life, Mulrunji visited his newborn niece. He celebrated with a little to drink. He had been carrying a bucket with a mud crab which he intended to sell. The walk from his sister’s home would be his last, though he had been in a joyous mood.
Senior Sergeant Hurley was working alongside Palm Island’s Aboriginal Police Liaison Officer, Lloyd Bengaroo. Mulrunji sang out to Officer Bengaroo, “Why do you help lock up your own people?”
Mulrunji kept on walking. It could have ended there, but Hurley drove up to Mulrunji and arrested him for ‘creating a public nuisance’.
Mulrunji was bundled into the back of the police vehicle. There would be no mud crab selling, no further walk with his dog. Thirty-six-year-old Senior Sergeant Hurley would soon be responsible for the death of Mulrunji, also 36-years-old.
It is likely Mulrunji was dead less than 15 minutes after being locked up and bashed.
Despite the fact that other police officers were present at the watch house, “none of them heard or saw anything”. Senior Sergeant Hurley had gone back to check on him soon after the beating, and noticed Mulrunji ‘motionless’ and ‘cold’ when touching him.
Senior Sergeant Hurley applied an ‘arousal technique’ by ‘kicking him twice’. Mulrunji remained motionless. The Island’s ambulance took 15 minutes to arrive.
During those fifteen minutes no police officer attempted resuscitation.
A week later, Coroner Barnes’ autopsy report was handed to the family. A riot ensued—over 400 Palm Islanders raced to the police station. The police station, local courthouse, police barracks and Hurley’s home were all burned.
More than 80 tactical response police officers—dressed in balaclavas and riot gear—were rushed from the mainland to the Island to back up the local police force of 18.
Palm Islander public figure and former councillor, Lex Wotton, was dealt jail time for his part in the riot.
In our view, Senior Sergeant Hurley was effectively protected by the Queensland Police Union and the Queensland Government. He took time out with three months’ paid leave and upon return was appointed a Duty Officer on the Gold Coast.
In September 2006, Coroner Christine Clements found Mulrunji died of the punches inflicted by Hurley.
Clements found police had failed to properly investigate the death and said Mulrunji should never have been arrested.
Mr Ward should never have been arrested. Mr Briscoe should never have been arrested. Ms Dhu should never have been arrested. Countless others should not have been arrested.
Patrick Bramwell had been locked up in a cell near Mulrunji’s cell. Bramwell claimed Mulrunji cried: “Help, help, please help me”. Bramwell claimed Hurley responded: “Do you want more?”.
The Queensland Crimes and Misconduct Commission into Mulrunji’s death argued no charges could be laid. The public outcry was relentless. A former Justice from New South Wales, Sir Laurence Street, was appointed to review the death.
On January 4, 2007, the review commenced. On January 16, the key witness, Patrick Bramwell, was found dead.
On January 26, Sir Street’s review overturned the Public Prosecutor’s decision to not lay charges. In 2007, Senior Sergeant Hurley was acquitted by an all-white jury in Townsville.
Blak lives did not matter.
On the other hand, Lex Wotton was sentenced to seven years jail despite not laying a hand on anyone. He would serve nearly three years.
From one tragedy to the next, Mulrunji’s son, Eric, who at 12 years of age led his father’s funeral procession, would be found dead at 18.
On May 14, 2010, another coronial inquiry found police colluded to protect Hurley.
Soon thereafter, a Queensland Crimes and Misconduct Commission Report was leaked—seven police officers involved in the collusion should be charged according to the report; but none have been.
The Commission’s Chair, Martin Moynihan, clashed with the then Queensland Government led by Anna Bligh, claiming a ‘culture of self-protection’ by police. The then Bligh Government recommended only ‘managerial guidance’ for one of the seven officers.
The first page of the first coronial report into the death, opens with a summary of a statement by Mulrunji’s partner, Tracey Twaddle: “She described him as having a positive outlook on life—proud to provide for his family and friends by his skills as a fisherman and hunter. He was not a troublemaker and had never been arrested on the Island”.
They had looked forward “to growing old together”. Instead, it was found that Mulrunji’s liver had been split in two and was held together by a few blood vessels. He had lost at least one and a half litres of blood.
Elliot Johnson QC wrote in the Final Report by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, that police and prison officers perform their services on behalf of the community.
Johnson said a death in custody is a public matter and that society can only be served by “thorough, competent and impartial investigations into all deaths in custody”.
It is our view, that many cases of deaths in custody need to be reopened. The past cannot own the present. We should define our standards, values and decency in today’s world.
We must reform laws and practices to reduce the number of people arrested and locked up for certain presumed offences.
We must do away with public order offences such as offensive language and vagrancy.
We must invest more in improving the lives of the impoverished and marginalised and spend less on the supply of an expanding carceral estate.
Less jails, more love.
If you or anyone you know is struggling with mental ill-health, call or visit the online resources below:
- Lifeline – 13 11 14, lifeline.org.au
- Beyond Blue – 1300 224 636, beyondblue.org.au/forums
- MensLine – 1300 789 978
- Kids Helpline 1800 551 800
- Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 659 467
- Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet – healthinfonet.ecu.edu.au
By Megan Krakouer and Gerry Georgatos
Megan Krakouer is a Mineng Noongar woman from Mt Barker in Western Australia’s southwest. Presently, Megan is the Director of the National Suicide Prevention and Trauma Recovery (NSPTRP) and also works as a human rights legal practitioner for the National Justice Project.
Gerry Georgatos, the son of CALD migrants, is a suicide prevention and poverty researcher with an experiential focus. He has a Masters in Human Rights Education and a Masters in Social Justice Advocacy & Civil Rights Arbitration. He is the National Coordinator of the NSPTRP.