Aboriginal deaths in custody: Protests to demand justice

By Kathy Newnam

Protest actions are being planned for Brisbane in October when Lex Wotton faces court. Wotton has been portrayed by the Queensland police, government and establishment media as the leader of the “riot” that occurred on Palm Island on November 26, 2004. A police station and residence were destroyed after a police report on the death of community member Mulrunji Doomadgee was read at a public meeting; the report concluded that his death was an accident. The October protests will call for the dropping of all charges against Wotton and demand an end to Aboriginal deaths in custody.

Since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, there has been an increase in Aboriginal people dying in custody. During the commission itself, which ran from 1987 until 1991, just under one Aborigine per month was dying in custody. According to the Australian Institute of Criminology, there were 14 Indigenous deaths in custody in 2004; 15 in 2005 and 10 in 2006. In 2006, Indigenous Australians accounted for 30% of all deaths in police custody. These rates are higher than in South Africa at the peak of the apartheid regime’s brutality.

In the 1980s a strong campaign against Aboriginal deaths in custody was spearheaded by the National Committee to Defend Black Rights. In response to this campaign, the Hawke Labor government established the royal commission. It was presented with 124 deaths in custody between 1980 and 1989, of which it investigated 99. However, not a single police or jail officer was charged. The commission made 339 recommendations, half of which aimed at keeping Aborigines out of jail, with the emphasis being on prison as a last resort. Seventeen years later, those recommendations are still not being implemented.


According to a 2006 Australian Medical Association report titled Undue Punishment? Aboriginal People And Torres Strait Islanders In Prison: An Unacceptable Reality, Indigenous people accounted for 22% of prisoners in 2005 despite being only 2.4% of Australia’s population. Imprisonment rates are even greater for young Indigenous people, who are 19 times more likely to be imprisoned than other Australians. According to NSW-based organisation Justice Action, which campaigns on criminal justice and prison reform, in July 2006 Indigenous people made up 39.7% of the prison population; by January 2007, this figure had risen to 41.7%.

Over-policing is the main reason for this over-representation. Indigenous communities are routinely subject to a greater level of surveillance and intimidation. Police use certain laws to harass and intimidate Aboriginal communities; one example is known as the “trifecta” — offensive behaviour, resisting arrest and assaulting police. In this way, a charge can be concocted against people whose only “crime” is coming into contact with police.

Police powers, such as search and remove powers, are also over-used in areas with a high Aboriginal population. A 2001 study by the Aboriginal Justice Advisory Council (AJAC) found that in Bourke, police used their powers at a rate 492 times the NSW average, and Aborigines were searched at 30 times the average NSW rate. The study also found that police used their “move on” powers at 321 times the average NSW rate in Walgett, 173 times in Moree and 145 times in Broken Hill. The study also found that in 10 areas in NSW with high Indigenous populations, Aboriginal women were locked up for intoxication at 40 times the rate of non-Aboriginal women and that detention for outstanding warrants was 14.4 times higher for Aboriginal men, 16.5 times for Aboriginal women.

This racism continues throughout the “justice” system. According to AJAC, 10% of Aboriginal defendants were refused bail in 1999, compared with 4% of non-Aborigines. The majority of Aborigines in prison are serving short sentences for minor offences. According to Justice Action, if all the Indigenous people currently serving sentences under six months were given a non-custodial sentence, the number of Indigenous prisoners would be reduced by 54%.

Systemic racism

This systemic racism is justified by politicians and the corporate media in terms of “law and order”. Both major parties regularly resort to racist fear-mongering to justify increased police powers, or to whip up scare campaigns at election time. They readily attack the most marginalised in society, but never mention the devastating impact of the structural racism. They point to symptoms of this in Aboriginal communities — high levels of unemployment, poverty, homelessness, substance abuse — and turn it around to blame the victims.

The “justice” system perpetuates the dispossession of the Aboriginal people — according to the AMA’s Undue Punishment? report, more than 30% of Indigenous prisoners were taken from their parents as children and a third of those were never returned. Among Indigenous people in prison, 31% of women and 21% of men reported that their parents had been forcibly removed from their families as children.

Australia and its “justice” system were built on attempted genocide against the Aboriginal people and the theft of their land. Ongoing dispossession is at the heart of the high rate of incarceration of Aborigines and the continuing immunity of police and prison officers who kill Aborigines in custody. This immunity amounts to state-sanctioned murder, and is an important weapon of control and power.

It is not just a product of corruption or turning a blind eye to a few “bad apples”. Those responsible for deaths in custody are not only immune from punishment, but are often promoted. After the murder of Mulrunji on Palm Island on November 19, 2004, the police officer responsible, Sergeant Chris Hurley was transferred to a cushy post on the Gold Coast. Recently, he was awarded a $100,000 payout, ostensibly for “loss of belongings” in the fire at the Palm Island police residence that took place during uprising after the release, on November 26, 2004, of the autopsy results. These detailed the extent of Mulrunji’s injuries — four broken ribs, a ruptured liver, spleen, portal vein and internal bleeding that caused death — but whitewashed the injuries as being the result of a scuffle.

The resulting uprising of more than 400 Palm Island residents (10% of the population of the island) brought the death into public view — setting it apart from so many other black deaths in custody that take place every year. This public attention and pressure from the campaign eventually resulted in Hurley being charged with manslaughter. His subsequent acquittal, despite admitting in court to causing the death of Mulrunji, confirmed how rigged the “justice” system is against Aborigines. He was tried in the racist heartland of Townsville by an all-white jury, and key evidence in the case was disallowed.


The extent of the cover-up of deaths in custody was also revealed in a 2005 civil case brought by Letty Scott against prison officers involved in the death of her husband, Douglas Scott, in Darwin’s Berrimah prison on July 5, 1985. Letty Scott fought a 20-year battle for justice, gathering overwhelming evidence of murder that was presented in the court case, including the exhumation of her husband’s body and forensic examination which found that his injuries could have been inflicted only by prolonged assault and torture.

The trial bought to light that the cover-up went beyond the NT government, police and the prison system, involving complicity in the cover-up from the doctor employed to carry out the original autopsy, scientists called upon to give forensic evidence for the defence and the royal commission itself — Douglas Scott’s death was one of the 99 cases it investigated.

During the trial, Letty Scott stated that the royal commission was “a lawyer’s picnic on the blood of Aboriginal people”, that it had been “set up to cover [up] the murder of our people”. She detailed how she had been completely disempowered by the commission and not allowed to talk about any evidence of murder, but only about the “arguments and dysfunctions”. Further, she had not approved of the statement that was submitted to the commission by her appointed legal representative, supposedly on behalf of the Scott family. The commission did not hear from eyewitnesses to Douglas Scott’s murder. Other key evidence, including Polaroid photos of his body hung from the prison ceiling, was withheld from the commission.

Despite the overwhelming evidence presented in the 2005 trial, the court dismissed the case for murder while finding that it was “unable to be satisfied that the deceased took his own life”. The NT government took no action on this finding, despite the fact that it was contrary to the original inquest and the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, both of which found that Douglas Scott had committed suicide.

The case demonstrated once again how stacked the “justice” system is against Aboriginal people. While murderers walk free, the full weight of the law is brought to bear against those who speak out for justice. It is this system of injustice, not freedom fighters like Lex Wotton, that should be on trial.