A-G steps in over 'racist' jury fear

Chris Merritt and Ian Gerard
18th July 2006

QUEENSLAND Attorney-General Linda Lavarch has called for a report from the state's toplaw officers on why a trial involving the alleged ringleader of the riots on Palm Island wasmoved from Townsville to Brisbane.

Ms Lavarch has called for a transcript of the case -- in which a judge moved the trial on the grounds it would be difficult to find a jury in Townsville that was not racist.

Townsville District Court acting chief judge Tony Skoien made the ruling after being presented with a study that suggested most locals would be unable to put aside their prejudices against Patrick Lex Wotton and other Palm Island Aborigines accused in the case.

The study showed that less than 5 per cent of Townsville residents had a positive attitude towards members of the Palm Island community.

The study was based on a survey of 400 people in Townsville and cost Mr Wotton's solicitor, Stewart Levitt, "several thousand dollars".

Mr Levitt told The Australian his client had sought legal aid, which would go towards reimbursing some of the cost.

However, he said he was prepared to pay the bill if legal aid were not granted.

Six of Mr Wotton's 20 co-accused are expected to be sentenced later this month and will not submit to have their cases transferred to Brisbane. However, a number of the other men accused of burning down Palm Island police station, barracks and watchhouse two years ago may also apply to have their trials relocated.

Prosecutors now face having to conduct two trials -- one for Mr Wotton and one in Townsville for the other alleged island rioters.

The Australian understands the costs associated with running two trials has forced prosecutors to consider moving all the alleged rioters' trials to Brisbane. Eight of the alleged rioters -- Garrison Sibley, Russell Parker Jnr, Russell Parker Snr, Alicia Norman, Jason Poynter, William Blackman, Robert Nugent and a juvenile -- appeared in Townsville District Court yesterday.

Six will be sentenced on June 28 for their involvement in the island riot.

Ms Lavarch said yesterday she believed Townsville was not a racist town and that it was likely the report she had commissioned would show the survey was not central to the decision to move the trial.

"We need to look at the reasons for the decision before making further public comment," Ms Lavarch said.

The Attorney-General's spokesman said she had called for the report over the weekend.

Judge Skoien's decision in the case triggered calls for reform yesterday by former Queensland Supreme Court judge Angelo Vasta, who is now a criminal barrister in Brisbane.

Mr Vasta said it would be sensible to change the law to make it easier to check individual jurors for bias instead of moving trials to other cities.

He said Queensland courts did not allow searching examinations of individual jurors unless there were a prima facie reason to suspect bias.

"It is far too restrictive now, as there are so many cases where it is inevitable that strong views will be held over matters that stir emotions and passions."