After a trial lasting almost three weeks, and two days of deliberation, an all-white jury found Lex Wotton, an Aboriginal plumber from Palm Island, guilty of rioting with destruction. As a result, Chris Hurley, the police officer responsible for the death of an Aboriginal man is free, while someone who protested at this injustice sits behind bars.
The courtroom packed with media, friends, family and supporters met the verdict with stunned silence, before his mother, Agnes, cried out “No justice!” as Correctional Services officers led Wotton away.
Outside the court, Aboriginal activist and friend of Wotton’s, Sam Watson, told a media gathering: “There is no justice for Aboriginal people within the courts of Queensland.”
Lex Wotton will be sentenced on November 7 in the Townsville District Court, facing the possibility of life in prison.
Lex Wotton was charged for his alleged role in the uprising on Palm Island in November 2004 in response to the cover-up of the death in custody of respected community member Cameron Doomadgee (known in death as Mulrunji).
The Palm Island Protest
Video footage shown during the trial showed that the community protest was sparked by the announcement that the State Coroner had found that Doomadgee’s death was accidental, and that no charges would be laid against Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley.
Earlier that week Lex Wotton and others had attended community meetings at which eyewitness Roy Bramwell told them that after Mulrinji was arrested for swearing, Hurley had viciously assaulted him and left him, without medical attention, in a cell where he later died.
As the meeting learned of the injuries inflicted on Mulrinji–including a ruptured spleen, four broken ribs and a liver that had been almost cleaved in two from a huge compressive force–disbelief became anger.
Over ten per cent of the island’s population took part in the defiant demonstration, marching on the police station and courthouse, the symbols of racist injustice on the island.
The police station, the courthouse and Senior Sergeant Hurley’s house was burned down during the protests.
Queensland authorities immediately declared a State of Emergency and sent in Tactical Response operatives clad in balaclavas and armed with tasers and machine guns to quell the uprising.
Despite the early arrests of 19 protesters, over the next few days the Palm Island community was terrorised by police and the anti-terror squad. Homes were raided and families, including Elders and children, were interrogated at gunpoint.
Police—a law unto themselves
Throughout the trial successive police witnesses took the stand to give evidence against Lex.
One of them, Detective Sergeant Darren Robinson, had been labelled as wilfully incompetent by Queensland Deputy Coroner for his investigation into the murder of Mulrunji.
He said he saw Wotton threaten police officers with two stillson wrenches, smash windows of police buildings and provide others with flammable materials in order to burn the buildings down. A year earlier Detective Robinson gave contradictory evidence about Wotton’s role in the Supreme Court during the trial of four other Palm Island residents for riot with destruction charges.
During Wotton’s trial Robinson admitted that he had lied in previous investigations to help out his friend Hurley. One incident involved Hurley driving over Aboriginal woman Barbara Pilot’s foot. He drove off, despite Barbara requiring surgery for a protruding bone.
The Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC) found Robinson had declared the woman’s claims fictitious, and refused to interview the witnesses to the incident. Although the CMC recommended action be taken against Robinson, the Queensland Police have yet to take any disciplinary action against him.
Lex Wotton is a political prisoner–a community leader targeted by police for daring to demand that Chris Hurley be held to account for the murder of Mulrunji.
The trial has exposed the racist underpinnings of a state which allows police to kill with impunity. There has been no justice for Mulrunji in the Queensland courts.
It took a strong public campaign to overturn the first Coroner’s recommendation and have Hurley charged with manslaughter–the first charge to ever be brought against a police officer for a death in custody in Australia’s history.
But Hurley was found not guilty–he has been promoted, and received a payout of $100,000 for damages.
Astoundingly he is currently attempting to have his record expunged in the Townsville Coroner’s Court, despite his own admission during the manslaughter trial that he must have been responsible for Doomadgee’s death.
Now, in a clear provocation, the Queensland Police Commissioner Bob Atkinson, with the support of the Labor government, is handing out bravery awards on November 3 for the 21 police officers, including Darren Robinson, who were on Palm Island during the uprising.
Yet the community of Palm Island is still waiting for an apology for the brutality inflicted upon kinsman Mulrunji, and the community during the state of emergency. Mulrinji’s family continue to fight in the courts for compensation.
Lex Wotton and the fight to stop black deaths in custody
Far from being a riot, the actions of Lex Wotton and 400 others on Palm Island were an act of resistance to business as usual that had seen yet another racist police cover-up of a black death in custody.
The protest was crucial to bringing Hurley to trial. It brought the issue of Aboriginal deaths in custody to national and international attention. The protest that burned the symbols of racial oppression on Palm Island shook the system in 2004. That is why Lex Wotton is being scapegoated.
The conviction of Lex Wotton is a travesty of justice.
“I sat in the court as a priest and just listened to lies and more lies told by police”, Aboriginal prison chaplain Alex Gator told a Free Lex Wotton rally in Brisbane.
“Lex Wotton was a marked man by police for standing up for what he believed in … they [the police] fabricated evidence.”
“There is deep seated racism in the police and the courts. A white police officer admits he caused an Aboriginal man’s death yet he walks free. Yet Wotton faces life in a jail – this is Alabama-style justice”, Aboriginal activist Sam Watson told the rally.
A petition has started calling for the Queenland parliament to overturn Lex’s conviction and there are calls for a Royal Commission into Mulrinj’is death. Protests are set to continue to demand that Lex be freed.
Meanwhile, another death in custody in Capricornia prison in central Queensland has renewed calls to reopen the 1991 Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody. Seventeen years later, police are still getting away with murder.
By Lauren Mellor