500 words: history

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(I stole this pic from SBS)

OK bear with me.

A long time ago, about 2004 a middle aged Aboriginal man, MD (I’m not going to use his name because he’s deceased) was killed by a Sergeant Hurley of the Queensland Police, on Palm Island.  He’d been picked up and taken to the police station. Some kind of fracas took place between Hurley and MD and as a result MD died.

The Queensland coroner ruled that Hurley caused MD’s death. To be clear, this is not the same as nominating a ‘guilty perpetrator’ – coroners are not bound by the rules of evidence. Their job is not to decide if someone is legally culpable and send them to jail. However, often their findings form the basis of a case.

Now, usually, the law frowns upon people killing one another, it’s one of the quaint hangovers of ‘civilisation’. As a consequence, if there is good reason to believe that one person killed another person, that’s enough for the state to bring charges against the perpetrator. Now, obviously, the police have more powers than ordinary citizens – they are, after all, the purveyors of ‘legitimate force’. Without this, people would drink beer before noon and stop bringing cut-up oranges to netball. This is another way of saying police are allowed to be a bit more kill-y than say, me.

Still, it’s not ideal. And, sadly, the police have a bit of form in this department, especially when it comes to murdering Aboriginal people. So, the mood in Queensland, and on Palm Island in particular, got a bit tense.

I remember thinking – ah, I see, the coroner will refer her findings to the DPP (public prosecutor) who will lay charges. Hurley can then defend his actions in court, and we can establish his culpability. Causing the death and being culpable for it being two different things, you see.

But that didn’t happen. The DPP did not lay charges. This is because the DPP did not think there was a reasonable chance of Hurley being found guilty. In other words, The DPP was of the belief that a jury of average Queenslanders would probably not find a police officer guilty of intentionally killing an Aboriginal man, given the ambiguous nature of the evidence. In other words, although it was clear MD died as a result of Hurley’s actions, it was not clear whether this was largely accidental.

I protested about this at the time, because one of the key tenets of a justice system is that it should be seen to deliver something that resembles justice. Otherwise it’s the random discriminatory administration of violence against those the state deems as unimportant system. Justice has a nicer ring to it.

Cue; Shitstorm. The coroner resigned and Premier Beattie brought in Sir Laurence Street, former Chief Justice of the NSW Supreme Court. He disagreed with the QLD DPP, and said there was a case to answer.

A case was brought against Hurley. The police union cobbled together a case out of statements from Hurley’s childhood cricket coach and his Mum, and Hurley was found not guilty.

To be honest I’m still not sure what to make of this. I’m not sure I would have found him guilty either. But that’s kind of not the point. The point for me was that it required the intervention of the Premier to get a case up at all.

The reason I’m bring all this up that it I’ve recently noticed a few papers about the legal elements of this case, a good summary is this one by Ransley and Machetti. I liked it.

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