Australia: Police protect their own again (1)

A huge cop put his knee through a black guy's liver, killing him. But reluctant testimony of other police present cleared him of any wrongdoing. "The white O.J. Simpson"?

SENIOR Sergeant Chris Hurley, whose fatal watchhouse fall on Cameron (Mulrunji) Doomadgee sparked almost three years of racial tension and a string of legal and political battles, was yesterday acquitted of unlawfully killing the Palm Islander. After a trial lasting seven days in the Townsville Supreme Court, a jury took three hours and 45 minutes to find Sergeant Hurley not guilty of assaulting and killing Doomadgee in the Palm Island police station in November 2004.

The towering 200cm police officer was emotional, cuddling his crying partner after the verdict was delivered, and receiving the backslaps and congratulations of family members and more than a dozen uniformed police and police union representatives in the court.

But the verdict devastated Palm Island supporters of Doomadgee's family, and brought calls for "dignity and calm" from activist Gracelyn Smallwood and lawyer Andrew Boe, the Palm Island Aboriginal council's legal representative. Doomadgee's partner, Tracey Twaddle, had to be supported by friends after the verdict, and said she was "tired of fighting" and she did not "really have any faith" that there would be any other outcome. His sister, Valmae, equally upset, said she and other family members "just can't keep it up any longer".

The initial autopsy report into Doomadgee's death, which revealed he had died in police custody from massive internal injuries including a liver cleft in two, triggered days of rioting on Palm Island in November 2004. The police station was burnt to the ground.

In September last year, Coroner Christine Clements found Sergeant Hurley had caused the fatal injuries to Doomadgee and referred the matter to Director of Public Prosecutions Leanne Clare. In December, Ms Clare ruled there was not enough evidence to convict Sergeant Hurley of any offence, prompting outrage. Queensland Attorney-General Kerry Shine ordered a review of her decision by former NSW chief justice Laurence Street, who said Sergeant Hurley should face a manslaughter trial.

With the trial over, The Australian can reveal that the only police witnesses to the events surrounding Doomadgee's death - Sergeant Michael Leafe and Constable Kristopher Steadman - refused to provide statements to the prosecution "unless directed by the commissioner".

That direction by Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson was eventually given, and a statement provided by each officer. But at the trial, both remained with other police and the Police Union representatives rather than with the prosecution. A senior Queensland prosecutor told The Australian it was outrageous police could "even think about" withholding evidence in a criminal trial and said it should be investigated by the Crime and Misconduct Commission.

With Sergeant Hurley cleared yesterday, Queensland Premier Peter Beattie called for the community to "move on". Mr Atkinson revoked the suspension he had imposed on Sergeant Hurley in October and reinstated him to active duty at the Gold Coast regional police headquarters. "I know this is a difficult time in our history ... but the rule of law has prevailed here and it's important we accept the decision of the jury, and we move on," Mr Beattie said.

Mr Boe told Palm Islanders and family members after the verdict they had all "been on a long journey" and that the case had taken indigenous justice further than anything previously, particularly with the admission by Sergeant Hurley and his counsel that it was his actions in the police station that had killed Doomadgee.

Sergeant Hurley admitted under cross-examination by prosecutor Peter Davis SC that in a "tussle" with Doomadgee at the back entrance to the Palm Island police station the two fell to the concrete floor, and said he "must have come into contact" with Doomadgee, causing the injuries that killed him. On three previous occasions he had told investigating police he had fallen "beside" Doomadgee, and not on top of him. Medical evidence was that Doomadgee suffered four broken ribs and a liver split in two - cleaved when it was compressed on to his spine.

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