Death in custody fury

Palm Island residents protest the death in custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee.
Photo: Paul Harris

Annabel Stafford, Canberra
December 22, 2006

Indigenous Australians have reacted with outrage to a senior prosecutor's defiant rejection of challenges to her decision not to press charges against a policeman over a death in custody.

Queensland Director of Public Prosecutions Leanne Clare yesterday ignored calls from both Premier Peter Beattie and Attorney-General Kerry Shine, who had urged her to review her controversial decision relating to the death of a Palm Island man.

Ms Shine sent a letter to Ms Clare yesterday saying a review of the decision would be "strongly" supported by Premier Beattie.

But Ms Clare said in a statement last night: "If this case had gone to a jury, no law abiding citizen - black or white, Christian or Muslim - would have found this man guilty."

Ms Clare provoked outrage last week when she decided not to charge Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley over the 2004 death of Mulrunji Doomadgee, despite an earlier coronial finding that he was responsible for the death.

Deputy Coroner Christine Clements found Senior Sergeant Hurley was responsible for the four broken ribs and torn liver Mr Doomadgee suffered during his arrest. His death led to riots on the island, off Townsville.

Ms Clare said she was "acutely aware" of the controversy surrounding her decision not to press charges. "It does not change the fact, however, that the evidence does not support a prosecution."

She said she would not submit her decision to external review because to do so would be to call her independence into question.

Palm Island Mayor Delena Foster said said she was "disappointed, angry and disgusted" at the decision.

"It makes you wonder, 'What has she got to hide?' It's cowardly on her part," Ms Foster said.

Labor President Warren Mundine said: "I don't think she's got it through her thick skull that she has jeopardised the reputation of the entire Queensland justice system."

Even judges had to explain how they arrived at their decisions when they handed down findings, but "this woman has put herself above the High Court in that she thinks she doesn't have to (explain herself)," he said.

"From the very beginning, this (investigation) has looked like an old boy's club . . . The whole system seems to operate on this matey-matey basis."

Mr Mundine warned that by refusing to have her decision independently reviewed, Ms Clare had "upped the ante".

"Now we'll have to go to Peter Beattie and ask him to change the law so that we have scrutiny of decisions by the DPP and an appeal mechanism put in place so that we can appeal if we're not happy with the decision," he said.

Ms Clare said Senior Sergeant Hurley could not be prosecuted even if she did order an external review.

"The firm assessment of my office was that the evidence fell considerably short of that which would be required to put anyone on trial. Therefore, no one in my office could prosecute this case regardless of any position adopted by an external review.

"Prosecuting is not about being popular. It is about taking on the admissible evidence without fear or favour and doing what is considered in good faith to be the right thing."

Ms Clare's decision may still be reviewed, however. Brisbane lawyer Andrew Boe is preparing to mount a challenge in the Queensland Supreme Court after advice from Bret Walker, SC, that her ruling was open to question.

Earlier, Mr Beattie announced that all indigenous deaths in custody in Queensland would be treated as suspicious, following claims an initial police probe was bungled and tainted with bias. Several of the investigating police were friends of Senior Sergeant Hurley and drank and dined with him at his house during the investigation.

On Wednesday, Mr Beattie travelled to Palm Island to placate the community but was snubbed by Mr Doomadgee's partner and his family.

"The family thought it was a waste of time to meet him," their lawyer, Frederic Cassis, said.

With AAP