A-G backs trial shift for riot accused
Ian Gerard
19th July 2006

QUEENSLAND'S Attorney-General, Linda Lavarch, has supported the decision of a judge totransfer the trial of the alleged ringleader of the Palm Island riots from Townsville toBrisbane.

Mrs Lavarch said the decision was prompted by "the nature of media coverage of events on Palm Island", rather than concerns it would be difficult to find a jury in the north Queensland city that was not racist.

After receiving a report from some of the state's top legal officers, Mrs Lavarch said the decision on Friday of acting Chief District Court judge Tony Skoien to move the trial followed accepted legal precedent.

"I ask that the court be left to get on with the job of dispensing justice in this case," she said.

In his online judgment, which was made available yesterday, Judge Skoien said the risk of prejudice was too high to allow the trial to go ahead in Townsville. "It is undoubtedly the case that in Townsville there was initially very heavy publicity about the events on Palm Island in November 2004, considerably heavier publicity than in Brisbane," he said.

"That publicity, on the material before me, was arguably highly adverse to the applicant accused person ... indeed it follows, it seems to me, that it cannot be confidently assumed that a properly instructed jury will act upon the instructions given to it."

On Friday, lawyers for alleged riot ringleader Lex Wotton presented a survey of 400 people to Judge Skoien that showed more than 50 per cent of respondents would be unable to put aside prejudices against the riot co-accused, even if directed to do so by a judge.

Mr Wotton's solicitor, Stewart Levitt, said yesterday his client was too easily recognised in Townsville because of media reports that followed the riot, during which Palm Island's police station, barracks and watch house were burned down.

The riot was sparked by the release of an autopsy report on the death in custody of islander Mulrunji Doomadgee.

"There had been so much vilification in the media that caused the judge to understand how these views were formed," Mr Levitt said.

Townsville Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community Legal Service lawyer Peter Coombe, who represents three alleged rioters, said he would consider making an application to move his clients' trials.

"If we plead not guilty, I would imagine we will probably follow the same pattern," Mr Coombe said. "It's not necessarily anything to do with racist impressions - it's to do with the notoriety of events, and people may well have formed personal views about it."

Australian Council for Civil Liberties president Terry O'Gorman said there were often strong community divides between indigenous and non-indigenous people in northern Australia, which made it difficult for Aboriginal people to get a fair trial.