VOICE FROM THE PAST: Unfinished Business – The Palm Island Outrage Rolls On


This special feature was first published in the National Indigenous Times newspaper on November 13, 2008, shortly after the sentencing of Lex Wotton on charges of riotous conduct. Mr Wotton led an uprising against Queensland Police on Palm Island over the 2004 death-in-custody of an Aboriginal man, Mulrunji Doomadgee. Written by New Matilda editor Chris Graham, it examines the reality that many of the people caught up in challenging police over their attempted cover-up of the death may never be able to move on with their lives. The story is being re-published by New Matilda in the lead-up to the Voice referendum on October 14 to help readers form a better historical understanding of the brutality and injustice routinely suffered by First Nations people, and how that might influence demands for a more effective way to be heard by government.

If you think the Palm Island tragedy is over, think again.

It’s 9am, November 10, 2008. It starts like any other day in Townsville, a large far north Queensland city with a growing population of around 160,000.

About 40 kilometres to the east, the Aboriginal community of Palm Island is also starting its day, although its population of about 3,500 people is a little depleted this particular morning.

This Monday is a ‘list day’ at the Townsville Magistrate’s court.

Of the several hundred faces inside and outside the court complex, about half of them are black. That’s despite Indigenous people making up just five percent of the local population.

Granted, not all of the black faces are Palm Islanders. There’s at least one Indian appearing in court that day, a medical student caught drink driving a few weeks earlier. And at least some of the black ‘defendants’ live on the mainland. But at the very least, Palm Island’s population is down by three. We’ll get to that shortly.

Next Wednesday marks four years to the day since the Palm Island community was plunged into a crisis from which it has yet to emerge. On the morning of November 19, 2004 Mulrunji Doomadgee was walking home from a party when he encountered police arresting a young man he knew.

Mulrunji Doomadgee, beaten to death by Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley at the Palm Island police station in 2004.

Mulrunji made a comment on the arrest, was told to move on, and did so. According to some reports, Mulrunji sang ‘Who let the dogs out’, a recent hit song, as he walked off, a less-than-subtle shot at the police.

Despite the fact he’d moved on as directed, Mulrunji was picked up down the road by police a short time later. Within an hour he lay dead on the floor of the Palm Island police station.

Mulrunji had suffered the sort of injuries you might expect to see from the victim of a plane crash. Four of his ribs were broken, his portal vein was torn, his spleen was ruptured and his liver had been “almost cleaved in two”. It was being held together by a few veins.

Mulrunji’s injuries were so severe, and catastrophic, that evidence presented to the subsequent coronial inquiry revealed that even if he’d suffered them on the table in an operating room, he would still have died.

The facts of the case are notorious – the arresting officer, Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley was subsequently deemed responsible for the death by the Acting State Coroner. He was eventually charged with manslaughter, and finally, acquitted by an all-white Townsville jury.

In the week after Mulrunji’s death, tension between Palm Islanders and police built rapidly. By the following Monday, Hurley was not only still on the island, but he was still working. He was confronted outside the police station by a group of furious locals, led by Lex Wotton. It was a loud, aggressive stand-off. By the end of the day, Hurley was removed to the mainland.

The following day, hundreds of residents attended a public meeting in the town square. The crowd heard from numerous speakers, one of whom was Roy Bramwell, an Aboriginal man who had been in the police station when Mulrunji was brought in. He told the gathering that he had seen Snr Sgt Hurley repeatedly punching Mulrunji, and yelling, “’Do you want more Mr Doomadgee? Do you want more?”

A day after he spoke, and despite all the additional work police obviously faced as a result of their direct involvement in a death-in-custody – Mr Bramwell was coincidentally arrested by police and held in custody on an unrelated domestic violence matter that occurred prior to the death in custody.

As far as the community was concerned, the fix was on. And they had good reason to believe as much. Police on the island already had form.

Disgraced former Queensland cop, Chris Hurley.

Six months earlier, Chris Hurley had run over an Aboriginal woman, Barbara Pilot in the station paddy-wagon. Ms Pilot suffered a compound fracture to her leg. Her shin-bone was sticking out through her skin.

Senior police in Townsville had appointed a close friend of Hurley’s, Detective Senior Constable Darren Robinson to investigate the matter. Despite the obvious injuries, and despite at least two independent eye witnesses, Robinson twice filed a false report to superiors which found that the complaint was fictitious.

One month after Robinson was ordered to rewrite his report, Hurley beat Mulrunji to death. And yet despite his recent dishonesty in the Pilot investigation, Robinson was once again appointed to investigate his mate Chris Hurley’s violence.

Within hours of the death, Robinson and Hurley were drinking beer together and eating dinner. Next to them was Detective Inspector Warren Webber form the Ethical Standards Command, sent specifically to Palm Island to oversee the investigation and ensure it wasn’t corrupted.

They had unrecorded conversations about the matter. Other senior police joined in. Robinson even joined in the arrest of Roy Bramwell.

By the start of the next week, investigating police had delivered an interim report to the forensic pathologist on the death in custody. Somehow, they forgot to mention that Roy Bramwell had already provided a statement to police accusing Chris Hurley of assaulting Mulrunji shortly before his death.

The pathologist’s report found that the death was an accident. Mulrunji had tripped up a single step entering the police station, fallen onto a flat surface, and then died within the hour.

A week later, those results were explained to community members at another public meeting. Residents were told by Mayor Erykah Kyle that the death was “an accident”. There had been “a fall”. All hell broke loose.

Decades of repression, oppression and depression finally erupted. The Palm Island police station was burnt to the ground. So too was the adjoining court house, a police barracks across the road and a police vehicle parked in the station. Police needed reinforcements and almost four hours to regain control of the island.

The man convicted of leading that riot appeared in the Townsville court complex last Friday for sentencing.


Jail for the blacks

Lex Patrick Wotton, a former Palm Island councillor, will spend at least the next 20 months behind bars for his part in leading the Palm Island uprising.

District Court Judge Michael Shanahan sentenced Wotton to six years jail, with a non-parole period of two years. Taking into account time already served, and pending good behaviour, Wotton will be released in July 2010.

In handing down his sentence, Judge Shanahan didn’t mince his words, but Wotton wasn’t the only one to get a spray.

“The history and disadvantage of Palm Island is not something [governments]could be in anyway proud of,” Judge Shanahan said. He noted that while many people had worked hard to improve life on the island, in the week prior to the riot “events were mishandled”.

Judge Shanahan was particularly critical of the appointment of Hurley’s mate – Det Sgt Robinson – to the investigation noting it “could hardly have given the perception of objectivity and independence”.

He also stated that Mayor Erykah Kyle had been “improperly and inadequately briefed” on the autopsy results. If the crowd had been properly informed that there would be an inquest and a Crime & Misconduct Commission investigation, he said, the riot may never have occurred.

“Not surprisingly, a large number of people at that meeting became angry, and they were justified in that anger,” he said. But that did not give them the right to take the law into their own hands.

“Police were stoned, attacked, threatened. Whatever the aggravation… society cannot accept that was an appropriate response.”

Leader of the Palm Island uprising, Lex Wotton, angrily address local residents after police publicly claimed the death-in-custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee occurred after he tripped and fell to the floor. Minutes after this video, the court house, police station and police barracks were set on fire.

He told Mr Wotton: “I am of the view you were a leader in this incident and the sentence imposed must reflect that.”

Judge Shanahan, however, noted that throughout the uprising Wotton had actively taken steps to lessen the risk of injury to police. He also noted a large body of references, some from very prominent Australians, who supported Mr Wotton. It was for that reason that Judge Shanahan fixed an eligibility date for parole. Supporters – and there were over 100 – had feared Wotton would go away for a lot longer.

Leaders, both black and white, expressed relief that the final Palm Island ‘riot’ charge had been dealt with. It was time to move on, many said.

It’s not hard to understand why they might say that. The people close to this tragedy must by now be almost numb with fatigue. But there are people trapped in this story who simply cannot progress.

Wotton’s mother, Agnes – who was also facing rioting charges at one time (they were eventually dropped) – said the sentence was a bittersweet moment for her family.

“I don’t believe he should have served any more time,” she said. “He should have come home with us on Friday. But I’m glad he didn’t get 10 years, or life.”

Mrs Wotton said her family can’t move on until Lex is back on Palm, out of custody and, in their minds, out of danger.

And they’re not the only Palm Islanders trapped. William Blackman is a long-time Palm resident, and was one of the ‘famous four’ who were tried in a Brisbane court last year on the same charge Wotton was ultimately convicted of – rioting with destruction. Along with Lance Poynter, Dwayne Blanket and John Clumpoint, Blackman faced life in prison. All four men were acquitted, but while Blackman may have beaten the charge, he says he hasn’t beaten the system. He now describes himself as a “marked man” in the eyes of Queensland Police.

And on Monday – the very next business day after the final Palm Island ‘riot’ matter was dealt with – Blackman was back in the Townsville Court defending himself from fresh charges involving local police. After Lex Wotton, he was the second Palm Island missing from the island after the ‘riot business’ was considered done.

It all stemmed from a birthday celebration staged for Blackman’s son, Isiah, who turned 18 in June this year. His family held a party to celebrate at his Aunty’s home in Townsville. The party was registered with police under the surname ‘Blackman’ (in Queensland, teenage parties can be recorded on an official police register so that local authorities are aware it’s occurring, and party-goers can rely on police assistance if gate-crashers cause any trouble).

An aerial photograph of the far north Queensland city of Townsville, a town renowned around Australia for its extreme levels of racism (IMAGE: gérard, Flickr)

Shortly before midnight, two police arrived at the party. They said they’d received a complaint from neighbours that the music was too loud. Over the course of the next hour, the officers returned three more times with complaints ranging from patrons talking too loudly to reports from neighbours of fights and violence at the party.

Each time they left, the officers were seen to simply drive around the block and park on a street corner 50 metres from the house, before returning a short time later.

On the fourth and final visit, William Blackman emerged from his house to find police had hand-cuffed his son, and were leading him to the paddy-wagon. Blackman asked why.

The cop who had hold of his son shot back, “Right, I’ve f**king had it with you.” He released Isiah and tried to grab Blackman. The two struggled briefly, then fell to the ground.

Face down in the driveway, one of the officers dropped his knee into Blackman’s back. Sound familiar?

The blow was so hard it caused Blackman’s body to go limp, and he immediately soiled himself. With his pants filled with his own faeces and his face drenched in capsicum spray, Blackman was dragged to a paddy-wagon, and driven to the local watchhouse.

Police did not attempt to apply water to Blackman’s eyes and he says that on at least three occasions, police caused his head to collide with various parts of the vehicle.

When Blackman arrived at the watchhouse, his request for a shower was refused. So instead, William Blackman slept on the concrete floor of the cell, which contained no blanket, no pillow, no bed.

He slept naked from the waist down. His soiled underwear lay in the corner and he used his partly soiled jeans as a pillow.

Blackman was released later that morning, after finally being allowed a shower. He was charged with ‘public nuisance’ (also sound familiar?), plus additional charges of obstruct police and assault police.

Now here’s the rub.

On Monday, the magistrate dismissed the public nuisance charge but Blackman was convicted on the other two charges. So the reason William Blackman was being arrested in the first place was invalid – he did not commit the offence of public nuisance, and nor, it seems, did his son who police only accosted, rather than arrested. But having reacted to an invalid arrest, William Blackman apparently did commit the offences of obstruct and assault police. He was fined $450.

Blackman says the death in custody – and everything that has flowed from it including a toxic relationship with local police – will probably haunt him and his family forever.

“I know it will stay with me and my children for the rest of our lives. We’ll try and move on, but it will still be there,” he said.

Blackman says Palm Islanders will not stop confronting police, although he rejects the suggestion they’re at war with the cops.

“I wouldn’t call it a war. We’re not warring with them. We’re just resisting. It’s a resistance.”


The more things change

The third Palm Islander missing from the island on Monday morning was John Clumpoint, another of the ‘famous four’ who beat the rioting with destruction charges. Clumpoint was at the Townsville Court to see a young relative who had been locked up by police on Sunday night, allegedly over the theft of a motor vehicle.

When the youth gave police his surname, officers asked him if he was related to John Clumpoint. He replied ‘yes’, and was promptly arrested. Two other youths in the vehicle were released without charge.

If you think Townsville Police don’t target black people, or youths, think again. This writer interviewed William Blackman on Monday in a park across the street from the Townsville court complex.

As we sat and talked, a Palm Island man, Joel Lenoy walked up to us. After brief greetings, Mr Lenoy revealed he would also be facing court soon.

“What for?” I asked.

“VB,” he replied.

Mr Lenoy had been caught on Palm Island carrying a six-pack of VB, which is a full-strength beer. Only mid-strength and light beer are allowed on the island. Mr Lenoy fully expects he may receive jail time for the offence.

As we spoke, Mr Lenoy suddenly excused himself. He called out over his shoulder, ‘Gotta go. There’s a copper coming.’

Sure enough, a lone police officer who appeared to be heading to the courthouse was ambling up the path, running through the centre of the park. As he approached a rotunda, where three black youths were sitting quietly, talking, he stopped.

And then he searched their bags.

Finding nothing, the cop continued on past me without batting an eyelid. I’m white. And I had a tape recorder in my hands.

The officer’s pace quickened a little. He seemed focused on Mr Lenoy, who was by this stage disappearing around the corner.

Mr Lenoy had committed no actual offence. At least, not yet.

[Ed’s note: Almost a decade after this story was written, Lex Wotton and his family successfully sued Queensland Police int he Federal Court for racial discrimination. It opened the way for a class action for 447 Palm Islanders, who subsequently shared in a $30 million settlement from the Queensland Government, which included an official apology. Police involved in the incidents, however, continued to demand an apology from Mr Wotton and others. Chris Hurley retired ‘medically unfit’ from the Police Service in 2017, after being convicted of a string of offences from three separate incidents, including numerous counts of assault. Last week – that is, September 13, 2023 – Hurley was charged with ‘common assault’ on a 14-year-old girl at a licensed premises on the Gold Coast, where he is reportedly working as a bouncer].

Chris Graham is the publisher and editor of New Matilda. He is the former founding managing editor of the National Indigenous Times and Tracker magazine. In more than three decades of journalism he's had his home and office raided by the Australian Federal Police; he's been arrested and briefly jailed in Israel; he's reported from a swag in Outback Australia on and off for years. Chris has worked across multiple mediums including print, radio and film. His proudest achievement is serving as an Associate producer on John Pilger's 2013 film Utopia. He's also won a few journalism awards along the way in both the US and Australia, including a Walkley Award, a Walkley High Commendation and two Human Rights Awards. Since late 2021, Chris has been battling various serious heart and lung conditions. He's begun the process of quietly planning a "gentle exit" after "tying up a few loose ends" in 2024 and 2025. So watch this space.