The Racially Charged Crime That Rocked An Island In 2004, a respected policeman was accused of murdering an aboriginal man on Palm Island, a secluded territory off the coast of Australia. Chloe Hooper details the case in her new book, Tall Man: The Death of Doomadgee.
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The Racially Charged Crime That Rocked An Island

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The Racially Charged Crime That Rocked An Island

The Racially Charged Crime That Rocked An Island

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

One day in 2004 on Palm Island, in what's called the Deep North of Australia, a 36-year-old Aborigine man named Cameron Doomadgee was arrested for being a public nuisance; in this case, swearing at a police officer. He may have been swearing or may have been simply barking a song. He was brought into the police station for booking. Forty minutes later he was dead.

The policeman investigated for being him to death and perhaps rupturing his liver was a tall man, Senior Sergeant Christopher Hurley, a man who had been honored for his police work and was considered friendly and just in the Aboriginal territories where he'd served.

"Tall Man: The Death of Doomadgee" is the new book by Chloe Hooper, a novelist who lives in Melbourne. She was invited by the defense to witness and to write about this case. She joins us from the studios of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in Melbourne.

Ms. Hooper, thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. CHLOE HOOPER (Author): It's lovely to be here. Thank you.

SIMON: And begin, please, by helping Americans understand this place called Palm Island.

Ms. HOOPER: All right. Well, Palm Island is an absolutely stunning tropical island off the northeast coast of Australia, and it was settled in 1918, really as an open air jail for indigenous Australians who had been said to have misbehaved on a reservation around the state. And they would be sent for very small or even fabricated crimes. In the early 1970s this island was completely segregated and if you were black you couldn't walk down the streets where the white service providers lived.

And it's now a place where life expectancy is 20 years less than for a non-indigenous Australian. And there are vast issues of alcoholism and violence. And it would certainly be a very difficult place to police.

SIMON: Chris Hurley, it must said, does not fit the profile of a man, policeman or otherwise, who would beat a man in custody to death.

Ms. HOOPER: He is an enigmatic figure. When I first heard of what had taken place, and that Cameron Doomadgee, his prisoner, had sworn at Senior Sergeant Hurley and was then dead, as you mentioned, within 40 minutes with really horrific injuries, Senior Sergeant Hurley almost seemed to me to be a cartoon character - Deep North copper. And yet as I found out more about him and traveled to some of the remote communities around Queensland where he had chosen to work, I found he was someone regarded with deep affection by the local people, and he'd been decorated for his bravery and done extensive volunteer work with Aboriginal children and youths. So I guess I started to ask myself how had he turned into a killer.

SIMON: And when they arrived at the station - they got him out of the back of the car - he did hit Sergeant Hurley, didn't he, Cameron Doomadgee?

Ms. HOOPER: He gave him a quick jab to the jaw and no one had ever hit Senior Sergeant Hurley on the island before. And as the officer in charge of Palm Island, you're really someone of great power. You have a lot of control over people's lives. And to hit the chief cop is a big move.

SIMON: Let me ask you about a man who was in the station at the same time, who gave, I think it's safe to say, very damaging testimony to Senior Sergeant Hurley. And that was a man name Roy Bramwell.

Ms. HOOPER: That's right. Roy Bramwell had been arrested earlier that morning, the day before his welfare check had come in, and he had drunk 40 cans of beer. And he had assaulted his girlfriend and her two sisters, smashing one of the sisters' jaws. So he was sitting in the police station when Hurley brought in Cameron Doomadgee, and he has sworn several times that he saw an assault.

SIMON: Well, I think a lot of listeners will be asking, a man who had had 40 cans of beer to drink and had beaten three women would not be what we call a real sterling witness against anybody.

Ms. HOOPER: That's absolutely right. And this was the problem with this case from the beginning, that unfortunately so many of the Aboriginal witnesses in the case had been drinking heavily and their testimony was extremely easy to pick apart.

SIMON: That phrase, which becomes the title of your book, "Tall Man," which was, I gather, an unofficial nickname sometimes that Sergeant Hurley bore, that's a phrase that really fits into myth and history on Palm Island.

Ms. HOOPER: That's correct. The Tall Man is a mythical being on Palm Island and he was very feared by generations past and by people on the island today. And the Tall Man is believed to live in the hills of Palm Island and will come down and slap people for no reason and beat them up. And of course Senior Sergeant Hurley was a very tall man. He is six foot seven. And his defense was always that he had landed on Cameron Doomadgee and that because of his bulk, that was what had caused Doomadgee's horrific internal injuries.

SIMON: Deputy State Coroner Christine Clemens delivered her opinion and she found the initial arrest unjustified. And she said she was convinced that Sergeant Hurley caused Cameron Doomadgee's death by falling on him sharply with his knees and that ruptured his spleen.

Ms. HOOPER: It's certainly the case that a knee to the abdomen is a common police settler(ph), as it's called. And there was testimony we heard from other aboriginal prisoners who claimed that Senior Sergeant Hurley had treated them in a similar manner.

SIMON: Did the case get politicized?

Ms. HOOPER: Oh, the case became front page news in Australia. And it really divided people enormously, and people and police officers and also the general public took to wearing blue armbands with Senior Sergeant Hurley's registration number in support of his cause.

SIMON: And did that help the cause of justice?

Ms. HOOPER: Well, Senior Sergeant Hurley was tried two-and-a-half years after Cameron's death, and that was really an astonishing moment in Australian history. But it was an all-white jury in a town that is not exactly racially united. And the jury went out for three hours and came back - I'm giving the book away a little. The jury acquitted Hurley. And he is working now in Surfer's Paradise, which is a plum police posting just south of Brisbane.

SIMON: I'm intrigued by this. A novelist discovers everything they can about their characters, but juries in a sense have to disregard everything they know. How do you balance your responsibilities as a novelist with trying to see the case the way the jury did?

Ms. HOOPER: You know, I don't really know how to answer that question. I think that as a novelist you do have a different way of seeing the story. I suppose -when I first went to Palm Island, I became close to the Doomadgee family and I had to ask myself, what I do if this were my brother?

But you also have to ask yourself what would I do if Chris Hurley were my brother? And I guess he was this man who had worked very hard in communities and given perhaps the best of himself. And I guess I then ask myself, well, how could you not crack up? If you're in a place where you're despised, do you sometimes do something that is despicable? If you're in a place surrounded by great violence, are you corrupted? Do you become violent too? And the longer I spent in some of these remote places, the more extraordinary it seemed to me that this doesn't happen more often.

SIMON: Chloe Hooper, thanks so much.

Ms. HOOPER: Thank you.

SIMON: Chloe Hooper. Her new book, just published here in United States, is "Tall Man: The Death of Doomadgee." And you can find an excerpt from her book on our Web site at npr.org.

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