On Wednesday I attended a rally outside the Brisbane District Court, held to show support for Palm Island man, Lex Wotton, whose trial had been going for two weeks. The jury started deliberating on the Thursday. When I saw news that they still hadn’t reached a decision on the Friday afternoon, with Lex having spent the night in hospital, I decided to go to the court to bear witness and show support for him and his family as they faced the drawn out wait for the verdict.
The jury’s verdict was a long time coming, but it was unanimous when it was finally delivered at around 9.45 pm – guilty on the single count of rioting with destruction.
The disturbance on Palm Island from which the charge arose was back in November 2004, when local residents reacted to an initial pathologist report into the death in police custody of local man Mulrunji Doomadgee, asserting that he had died after tripping up a step into the police station.
I wasn’t present that day and I didn’t hear all the evidence at the trial, so I can’t make any legal assessment of the verdict. The National Indigenous Times has done extensive coverage to the evidence presented at the trial over the past couple of weeks. I have put a series of links to their reports at the end of this post.
I am disappointed, though not very surprised, at the verdict. I have met Lex Wotton many times over the last few years, on Palm Island and elsewhere. I mentioned him in some of the older pieces I wrote on my blog about Palm Island. In looking back through those, I am reminded just how long ago this seems and just how drawn out the case has been. Four years for Lex with charges hanging over his head, while the internal investigation into flaws in the original police investigation still hasn’t been released.
I believe Lex is a good man with leadership ability, who clearly wants a better future for his people and has put effort into helping others in making that happen. It’s hard to see what good will come from him being jailed. It is also obvious what message many people – black and white – will take in comparing this verdict and the police response to the uprising, alongside the lack of any consequences from the death of Mulrunji and the way the subsequent police investigations were conducted.
The sentence will be handed down on 7 November.
Links to reports in the National Indigenous Times:
- Jury retires as Wotton supporters rally
- Jury to retire this morning after warning from Judge about reliability of evidence
- Defence and prosecution wrap up their cases
- Evidence phase completed; defence and prosecution prepare for summing up
- Police witnesses tell of moments leading up to Palm Island uprising
- Court resumes, with police witnesses still to come
- Accused directed a stream of foul language at police, court hears
- Wotton turned off water supply before fire: court
- Key police witness accompanied to trial by officers, court hears
- Second teacher tells court she saw petrol tin carried by another man
- Palm teacher witnesses Wotton carrying red petrol drum, court hears
- Wotton ordered Palm man to burn Hurley’s house down, court hears
- Court hears of three assaults by Hurley in months leading up to death in custody and riot
- Police held pregnant woman in custody for entire day in nightgown with no food, court told
- Accused was trying to diffuse tensions, says Palm youth worker
- Day three of Wotton trial begins with a splutter
- Court watches videos of rallying cries from Palm Islanders
I will add links to any other post-verdict reports or commentary of value I find here:
- The Queensland Police Union show they’re happy to throw some rhetorical petrol into a flammable situation, getting stuck into Mike Reynolds, the Labor MP whose electorate covers Palm Island. Mr Reynolds reponds here.
from Chris Graham’s report in Crikey:
The scale of this injustice is hard to comprehend, and even harder to describe. So I won’t even try. I’ll just stick to the facts — the black and white of the issue.
These are the injuries sustained by black people at the hands of police in the days and months immediately surrounding the death in custody, and the uprising: Mulrunji Doomadgee suffered four broken ribs, a ruptured spleen a torn portal vein and a liver “almost cleaved in two” (it was held together by a couple of blood vessels). After his death, Mulrunji’s son Eric hung himself from a tree on Palm Island. The man who lay in the cell next to Mulrunji and comforted him as he died — Patrick Nugent — has also taken his own life. In the course of his arrest, Lex Wotton was tasered, as was a second Aboriginal man.
Now these are the injuries police suffered at the hands of black people during the November 26, 2004 uprising: One officer was hit in the stomach with a rock. Another was hit in the hip. Both suffered bruising.
Now to matters of criminality.
Lex Wotton has been convicted of inciting a crowd to move against police. It’s worth noting there was also substantial evidence presented at his trial — mostly by police — that Wotton ordered rioters to stop throwing rocks at officers and secured transport (later refused) to get police off the island safely. There was also video footage of Wotton trying to stop rioters from preventing a fire truck accessing the carnage.
Now here’s what we know the police did.
In June 2004 — five months before the killing and riot — Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley ran over an Aboriginal woman in a police vehicle. He didn’t stop to render first aid, and both he and a female officer present in the vehicle denied the incident had occurred.
In response, senior police in Townsville appointed a friend (and neighbour) of Hurley’s — Detective Senior Constable Darren Robinson — to investigate the matter. After doing nothing for a month, Robinson finally delivered his report to his superiors. His mate Hurley did nothing wrong, the entire complaint was fictitious. Robinson neglected to mention that he had not interviewed any witnesses, nor had he sought any medical evidence. Had he done so, he’d have discovered the injured woman, Barbara Pilot, had suffered a compound fracture to her leg, and her shinbone was sticking through her skin.
Robinson subsequently admitted on the stand during the Wotton trial that he lied in his report.
Three months later, in September 2004, Hurley assaulted a man — Douglas Clay — in the Palm Island police station. About half a dozen police — including his mate Robinson — witnessed the incident. Police denied an assault had occurred, but after the death of Mulrunji, the Crime & Misconduct Commission investigated, and found traces of Clay’s blood in the police cell.
In November, Hurley was implicated in the death of Mulrunji. Senior police from Townsville again appointed Hurley’s mate Robinson to the investigation. Robinson and several other police – including an Inspector of police from the Ethical Command unit sent to Palm Island to ensure the investigation was conducted properly – ate dinner and drank beers with Hurley that night. Mulrunji’s body was barely cold.
A few days later, detectives provided an interim report to the coroner’s office. They chose not to tell the coroner that an Aboriginal witness had seen Hurley assaulting Mulrunji on the floor of the police station. A pathologist’s report subsequently found Mulrunji had died as the result of a “fall”. It was some fall – his injuries were consistent with the sort of trauma you might see from a plane crash.
Chris Hurley — a white cop — was tried by an all-white jury, overseen by a white judge on a charge of manslaughter. He got off.
Lex Wotton — a black man — was also tried by an all-white jury, overseen by a white judge on a charge of rioting with destruction. He’s facing life. He may as well have a killed a copper — he’d be facing precisely the same jail time if he had. His family — wife Cecelia, and four children (two of whom are disabled) are without a father. His community is without a leader.
By contrast, police who lost property in the riot have been compensated.