The Guardian 9 March, 2005

Bias challenge at Doomadgee inquest

Bob Briton

The barrister representing the family of Mulrunji (Cameron) Doomadgee, who died after being taken into police custody on Palm Island on November 19 last year, has asked that the coroner conducting the inquest into the death disqualify himself from taking any further part in proceedings. It turns out that coroner Michael Barnes had dealt with at least two complaints against Doomadgee's arresting officer when he headed the Queensland Criminal Justice Commission's complaints department in the 1990s. In all cases Mr Barnes found in favour of the police sergeant involved in the events that sparked rioting on the island last November.

Mr Barnes continued hearing evidence on Palm Island last week but has invited all parties to make submissions objecting to him continuing to conduct the inquest. He insists that, while he did deal with the matters involving Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, he does not recall the details. The police have refused to hand over the relevant disciplinary records to other counsel and Queensland Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson has contacted Sergeant Hurley to offer his full support.

The lawyer appearing for the Palm Island Aboriginal Council has called for the Commissioner's comment to be referred to the state coroner. The Doomadgee family's barrister, Peter Callaghan SC, has also complained of the coroner's "abject silence" over a newspaper article describing Senior Sergeant Hurley's emotional state in the lead-up to the inquest. Mr Callaghan believes the report could be considered contempt of court.

Mr Doomadgee died in the police watch house on Palm Island after a "scuffle" with Senior Sergeant Hurley.

An autopsy found that Mulrunji (the coroner has ordered that Mr Doomadgee's tribal name be used) suffered four broken ribs, a ruptured liver and spleen portal vein. Patrick Branwell who was arrested at the same time as Mr Doomadgee gave a statement to police that he had heard Mulrunji screaming for help outside his cell and had seen the Senior Sergeant straddling the detainee.

On the first day of the inquest, he repeated the allegation that "Chris went in [to the cell] and dragged him out and got into him... He was just singing out for help, 'Get some help', but I couldn't, I was in my cell."

Mr Branwell gave contradictory evidence before the inquest and has been protected by his family after he reportedly tried to set fire to himself in his bedroom. Meanwhile, tensions on the island remain high. Memories of the heavy-handed intervention by Tactical Response paramilitaries after November's riots are still fresh in the community. Thirty people were arrested in the wake of the disturbances sparked by Mr Doomadgee's death. Children as young as nine were reportedly forced to lie face down at gunpoint during the police raids.

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