Part Twenty-nine of a history of European occupation, rule, and brutal imperialism of Indigenous Australia, by Dr George Venturini.
On 29 August 2016 Elijah Doughty, a fourteen-year-old Indigenous child, was involved in a fatal traffic collision with a utility truck whilst riding a stolen motorbike. There is no evidence that Elijah had stolen the motorbike. The driver of the Nissan Navara vehicle, a 56-year-old ‘white’ man, was also the owner of the motorcycle, that he had reported stolen the previous day.
The driver was subsequently charged with manslaughter but was acquitted by a jury on 21 July 2017 after a trial at the Supreme Court of Western Australia. Instead he was found guilty of the lesser charge of dangerous driving causing death.
On 28 August 2016 the driver and his wife had been out visiting friends and arrived at their front gate at 8.15pm. She had driven home, as they had earlier agreed that she would. While they were out he drank six Carlton Dry beers. The man suspected immediately that they had been burgled because the key that he said he always left at the front gate was gone. Break-ins were not unusual at the time in the twin cities of Kalgoorlie-Boulder, where thefts were the main topic of conversation. His wife posted about the thefts on the Facebook page dedicated to local crimes. A friend offered a $1,500 reward for the return of the Honda, and members of the ‘Whinge and Whine Facebook’ group began sending information.
Police had told the man that dirt-bikes often end up at Gribble Creek reserve, and suggested he check under bushes for the Honda. He searched the streets near his home by torchlight on foot until 10.30pm. He told his employer he would not be in the next day and started searching again soon after 6am on 29 August. He was parked at the edge of Gribble Creek shortly after 8.30am listening for motorbikes when he saw a person wearing a sweatshirt with a hood and riding the bike that his children used. He started his car and gave chase. The pursuit lasted no more than 26 seconds.
The driver was the owner of the stolen motorcycle that Doughty was riding. He had followed Doughty in his utility along a dirt-track in the Gribble Creek area of Boulder. Crash investigators stated that the man travelled at an average speed of 67 km/h as he gained ground on Elijah at a rate of 5.65 m a second. Elijah was on a 70cc bike – widely marketed as suitable for eight-to 11-year-olds – and travelled at an average speed of 46 km/h. A collision subsequently took place in which Doughty was killed after suffering severe injuries. The forensic pathologist explained to the jury that Elijah’s injuries included his skull split in half, brain stem snapped, spinal cord severed, most of his ribs broken, fractured pelvis, and leg and ankle mangled. Elijah’s body was found 9.5 metres from the largest piece of dirt-bike wreckage, while the utility had continued in a straight line for 34 metres.
The following day, a protest occurred outside the Kalgoorlie Courthouse. Approximately 200 people, some armed with rocks and bottles, broke down the gates of the court and surrounded the police. The police used pepper spray and riot shields in response. Twelve police officers were injured during the disorder, with one requiring stitches, while several demonstrators were arrested. Five police cars and a local business were damaged.
Dozens of Indigenous People were expected to be arrested. Media were calling the disorder a riot.
The event was similar to those which had occurred many times before in many parts of the continent.
In Queensland in November 2004 Palm Islanders had burned the local police station, court house and part of the police barracks to the ground. That happened after Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley – the most senior police officer beat an Indigenous person to death on the floor of the local watch house.
The victim, Mr Cameron Doomadgee, known as Mulrunji, was just over half Hurley’s size. Mr Doomadgee’s ‘crime’ was to walk past Hurley – who was arresting another Indigenous man – and swear, while singing, ‘Who let the dogs out’. Within an hour he was dead.
Doomadgee suffered a ruptured spleen, broken ribs, and his liver rendered into two parts held together by a couple of blood vessels. That is the kind of fatal injuries one might expect to see in the victim of a serious accident.
The body of Doomadgee was placed in the morgue, and Hurley went to drink beer and share a meal with police from the Ethical Standards Command – senior officers who had been sent to the island specifically to ensure that the police investigation into one of their own was not corrupted. One of the lead detectives assigned to the case was Hurley’s close friend and neighbour, Senior Constable Darren Robinson.
As tensions grew, and police spread rumours in the media that Doomadgee may have suffered his injuries prior to his arrest, calls for calm from community leaders grew.
Six days later a forensic pathologist’s report was read out to Palm Islanders at a public meeting. The report found that Doomadgee had died after tripping up a single step, and falling onto a flat floor.
Before that report, news of the event had been covered in a single media report. The story was presented as another ‘death in custody’.
Within an hour of the report being read out, the Palm Island police station, the court house and the home of Senior Sergeant Hurley had been burned to the ground. That was to make a more interesting story.
The event was written about, and even a film was made out of the story.
Palm Islanders were to suffer greatly: Doomadgee’s son suicided, a week before the coronial inquest into his father’s death was to commence; an Indigenous man who was sharing the cell with the dying Doomadgee suicided two years after the event.
An entire community of Indigenous People was terrorised by Queensland’s police. Dozens of Indigenous People were arrested and gaoled. Most claimed to have been assaulted in the process. Children were held at gunpoint by tactical police dressed in black, wearing masks. They sat scared in their homes with laser targets pointed at their heads.
The man who led the uprising, Mr Lex Wotton, spent several years in gaol. The morning after his conviction, Queensland Police announced bravery awards for officers who served on the island during the uprising.
Six of the police who received those awards were adversely named in a report by what was then the Crime and Misconduct Commission – 2002-2014, now the Crime and Corruption Commission. No real sanctions were ever imposed against them.
For his part, Senior Sergeant Hurley went on to defraud Queensland taxpayers of more than $100,000, after being given an ex gratia payment by the Police Service for property lost in the fire. He had already claimed $35,000 from his insurer for the very same property.
After authorities initially decided that Hurley had no case to answer, public outrage – driven in large part by outstanding reporting from a national newspaper – forced a criminal trial.
Hurley was acquitted, but as he left the court he declared to media his responsibility for causing the death of Doomadgee. Subsequently, Hurley was promoted briefly to Acting Inspector, moved to the Gold Coast, and took extended leave, on full pay.
The Queensland Police Service was forced to take action against Acting Inspector Hurley. In March 2016 Hurley was charged with two counts of assault of a female colleague. (White Man’s Manslaughter. Black Man’s Murder. White Man’s Riot. Black Man’s Uprising, Chris Graham, New Matilda).
As in most cases resulting from the death of an Indigenous person, the charge of manslaughter is a convenient escape for the defendant. And there is among Indigenous People an instinctive reaction to the very word: manslaughter as a presage of ‘white’ justice – always easy on the defendant. The charge Senior Sergeant Hurley beat was also manslaughter.
If one knows anything about the history of Indigenous deaths in Australia, then one might understand the reaction of Kalgoorlie protestors.
Mr. Edward James Murray, 21 years old, a descendant of the Kamilaroi people, was a rugby league footballer. On 12 June 1981 he was found dead in his police cell in Wee Waa, New South Wales within an hour of having been detained for being drunk and disorderly. Murray had planned to travel to Sydney, to join the Redfern All Blacks Rugby League team’s tour of New Zealand when he was detained.
Police claimed that they found Murray hanging in his cell around 3:30pm, and argued that he had suicided. This occurred prior to the majority of Aboriginal deaths in custody which were later examined in the 1987 Royal Commission. Mr Murray’s parents remained unconvinced that their son’s death was a suicide, and fought for a more extensive investigation into the death. That death, too, has helped to draw attention to the issue of Aboriginal deaths in custody.
Murray’s case drew the attention of several investigations, including the Muirhead Royal Commission, the N.S.W. Anti-Discrimination Board Report on Street offences; and his case was one of the first to be investigated by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1988.
In 1997 Murray’s body was exhumed and a new autopsy revealed a previously undetected smashed sternum. A forensic pathologist determined that the injury had most likely occurred immediately prior to his death. Despite this, the details of his death remain a mystery, and still no one has been officially implicated in his death. This has been to the dissatisfaction of Murray’s family, who have called for a more extensive inquiry.
On 6August 1987 Mr. Lloyd Boney was violently arrested by three police officers for breach of bail. He was found dead 90 minutes later, hanging by a football sock in a police cell in Brewarrina, N.S.W.
The Police Internal Affairs Branch conducted the investigation into Boney’s death. No attempt was made to separate Boney’s arresting officers between interviews, providing them opportunities for ‘collusion and reconstruction.’
The local Indigenous community was suspicious of the police for their role in the death and believed it to be physically impossible for Boney to have killed himself the way he did due to his intoxicated state.
But the Coroner found Boney had suicided with “no suggestion at all of foul play.” This led to widespread protests by the community in Brewarrina, as well as Indigenous organisations nationally.
Four days later Prime Minister Bob Hawke announced a Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. The Commission was scathing of police conduct, and what was the police response: a video of officers at a costume party in 1992, mocking Boney’s death. (The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody: timeline of events and aftermath, NITV).
Toward the end of 1990 and early 1991 in Bowraville, New South Wales, three Indigenous children were murdered. The first to disappear was 16-year-old Colleen Walker, who was reported missing on 13 September 1990. The second to disappear was Walker’s cousin, Evelyn Greenup, on 4 October 1990. The third victim was 16-year-old Clinton Speedy-Duroux on 1 February 1991.
There were several similarities between the disappearances which led police to believe that they were committed by the same killer: the murders all took place within the short time frame of five months. all three victims were Indigenous, autopsies of the two bodies which were found indicate both suffered blunt force trauma to the head, all three victims disappeared after parties in the Indigenous community in Bowraville, in an area known as ‘The Mission.’
The community was investigated for child abuse. In spite of two trials and a Coroner’s Inquest, no one has been successfully prosecuted for the murders. Almost three decades later, the serial killer remains free.
On 28 September 1983 when John Peter Pat, a 16 year old Indigenous boy, was killed in a fight with police officers of the Wickham and Roebourne police stations in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, the five officers tried over the death claimed to be acting in self-defence and were acquitted of manslaughter charges in May 1984. A Royal Commissioner in 1991 acknowledged that “The death of John Pat became for Aboriginal people nation-wide a symbol of injustice and oppression. Suspicion and a continuing sense of injustice in the Aboriginal communities throughout Australia saw the anniversary of John Pat’s death marked by demonstrations calling for justice.” (Death of John Pat – Wikipedia).
On 26 January 2008 Mr Ian Ward, an Indigenous elder from Warburton, Western Australia, was arrested by Laverton police and charged with driving under the influence of alcohol. He was then driven 570 kilometres to a courthouse, remanded in custody, and driven a further 352 kilometres to a prison. The journey was undertaken in a steel prison van in 42-degree heat. Mr. Ward was ‘cooked to death’, no-one was charged with anything, The van’s air conditioning was not working and the temperature was so hot that Mr. Ward had third-degree burns to his stomach from lying on the metal floor. It was noticed by the prison transport contractors G4S driving the vehicle that Ward was unconscious. He died shortly afterwards of heatstroke. No one has ever been charged with any offence, despite repeated warnings about the dangers of woefully inadequate prisoner transport.
After 25 July 2009, when five white youths kicked an Indigenous man, Mr Kwementyaye Ryder, to death next to the Todd River in Alice Springs, Northern Territory, they also faced manslaughter charges.
They bucked the trend and were convicted. Their sentences ranged from 12 months to three and a half years, despite driving up and down the dry river bed targeting homeless Indigenous People and firing a replica pistol at them.
The judge in that trial, Justice Brian Martin, the man initially appointed by the Turnbull government to lead the Royal Commission into the abuse of Aboriginal children in juvenile detention, described the boys as “otherwise of good character.” Martin resigned shortly after his appointment. (Five jailed for racist Alice Springs killing, A.B.C.).
On 4 January 2012 Mr. Kwementyaye Briscoe was dragged by police into cell of the Alice Springs watch house. His blood-alcohol reading was more than 0.3 and he had a head wound. Although police were required to visit him every 15 minutes, almost two hours passed before officers checked on the 27-year-old. When they did, he was dead.
On 17 September 2012 the Northern Territory Coroner found that “the care, supervision and treatment of the deceased while being held in custody by the Northern Territory Police was completely inadequate and unsatisfactory and not sufficient to meet his medical needs. This lack of care resulted in his death.” And again: “In my view, the catalogue of errors is so extensive and involved so many police officers of various rank as to suggest mismanagement for a period of time by police command at a level higher than just ‘local’.
Coroner Greg Kavanagh described police actions as heavy-handed and unnecessary and was dismayed at the continued practice of dragging prisoners by their limbs. Evidence given to the Coroner was that while officers should have been checking on Kwementyaye Briscoe, they were distracted by the internet, iPod and iPhone, ignoring the pleas for help from other prisoners.
Coroner Cavanagh said: “They were singing out to him, “Take him to the hospital and get him checked out. Ya know, he’s pissing out blood.” (Coroner delivers scathing report on death in custody – 7.30, A.B.C.).
The response from those in power to the death of Mr Doomadgee, and Mr Murray, and Mr Boney, and Mr Pat, and Mr Ward, and Mr Ryder, and Mr Briscoe is precisely what Indigenous People in Australia expect when one of their own is killed. They expect a manslaughter charge, if they are lucky.
And while those deaths are amongst the nation’s most infamous, they are far from the only examples of the spectacular failures of the criminal justice systems when it comes to the loss of black lives.
There are many, many more similar stories – and recent, too.
There’s Jack Sultan Page, an eight-year-old Indigenous child, run over and left to die in November 2014 in a hit and run by a man who was on bail for drugs charges. The killer, Matthew Alexander, aged 23, was sentenced to six months home detention, and an 18-month suspended sentence. During the course of Alexander’s committal hearing, Jack’s mother was warned by Magistrate Greg Cavanagh, “You’ll be arrested if you don’t shut up. This is a court of law. Not a pub where people can yell at each other.”
This is just a short roll call of the dead – a tiny proportion of the ever-growing list of Indigenous People, many of them children, who have been brutally killed, then let down by the system which is – so they are told – is there to protect them.
So the question now is not so much: will Elijah Doughty become the latest victim of a vulgar, corrupt, indifferent system? Rather, will Indigenous People have a logical reason whatsoever to believe he will not?
There is hardly no Indigenous family in Australia untouched by state-sanctioned violence. They well know that while black lives do matter, they do not matter as much. They expect that the deaths of their loved ones will mean less.
The most senior police officer on the ground in Kalgoorlie on 30 August 2016 was Acting Commander Darryl Gaunt. He has more than 30 years’ experience in the job, and told media he’s “never seen anything like this before.” Describing some social media commentary as “disgusting and racist”, he added, “It has absolutely inflamed the situation, without a doubt.”
And yet, a white man allegedly killed a black child, but the people being cast as animals in Kalgoorlie are those who reacted to a well-worn history of brutal oppression by clashing with police, and smashing some windows.
This is despite the reality that the victim’s family, and Indigenous elders, supported police and tried to calm protesters.
In the midst of all this, Elijah Doughty, a 14-year-old child was lying dead in a morgue.
Those condemning protestors in Kalgoorlie would do well to remember that he was someone’s son, brother, grandson, nephew, friend.
And they would do well to remember that the system entrusted to deliver justice for this young boy is the same justice system which freed so many killers. It is the same justice system which saw no response, no accountability, in so many clear cases. It is the same system which ignored the cries of Ms Dhu.
Meanwhile in Kalgoorlie Ms Debbie Carmody, a local Indigenous broadcaster from the Tjuma Pulka Media Aboriginal Corporation, accused local anti-crime Facebook groups of “inciting violence and murder” against Indigenous youth.
The utility driver was charged with manslaughter and pleaded not guilty after his offer to plead guilty to the lesser charge of dangerous driving causing death was rejected by the State.
The trial was held in the Supreme Court of Western Australia from 17 to 21 July 2017. During the trial, the utility driver stated that he had not intended to hit Doughty and claimed that Doughty had “veered in front of him.” The driver admitted however that he could not prevent the collision because he was driving too close to the motorbike.
On 21 July 2017 Doughty’s killer was found not guilty of manslaughter. He was instead found guilty of the lesser charge of dangerous driving occasioning death, and as a result could be out of prison as early as February 2018.
In a stunning display of the double standard in the criminal justice system, Elijah’s killer could be out of prison before a man charged over his involvement in the ‘Kalgoorlie riots’ which erupted in the wake of the killing. That protesting the death of a black teenager at the hands of a white man warrants almost as much time in gaol as the killing itself exposes the systematic prejudice of the criminal justice system.
It is no wonder that Indigenous People in Western Australia are twenty times more likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous people. In a recent address to the Criminal Lawyers’ Association of the Northern Territory, the Chief Justice of Western Australia admitted, “[A]t every single step in the criminal justice process, Aboriginal people fare worse than non-Aboriginal people.”
The police play an important role in entrenching this racism, this case being no exception.
After the crime, the police ignored usual crime-scene processes, failing to preserve or examine physical evidence in a way that would be inconceivable had a white person died as Elijah did.
During the trial, police maintained an overbearing presence in both Kalgoorlie and Perth. In spite of the fact that the trial was taking place in Perth, some 600 kilometres away, police formed a protective ring around the Kalgoorlie courthouse when the verdict was announced. In Perth police horses and bikes outnumbered those who had gathered in solidarity outside the court on the morning of the verdict. And glass barriers were erected inside the court in anticipation of violence from the Indigenous community members present. For the racist police, the grieving Indigenous community must be treated as the principal threat.
It would be remiss not to mention the media coverage of this case. Initially there was no interest in the death of Elijah; he was just another dead black child in a country town. What drew their attention was the protest which erupted in the wake of his death. A “violent mob”, as many news outlets described it, and a couple of broken windows were a more familiar narrative.
Following the verdict, members of the public gallery screamed abuse at the defendant and the jury. The court was briefly adjourned to allow their removal by security.
Supporters of Doughty, watching the proceedings in Kalgoorlie through video link, protested the verdict, many wearing t-shirts with the Black Lives Matter slogan. The protest was described by journalists as vocal but peaceful.
Following the jury verdict on 21 July a number of rallies and vigils were held across Australia to call for justice for Elijah Doughty. A crowd of approximately 150 protesters gathered outside the Supreme Court of New South Wales on 24 July 2017 while chanting “What do we want? Justice. What have we got? Fuck all.” Some protestors allegedly vandalised the windows of the Supreme Court by spreading red ochre, while one woman screamed “This is the blood of Aboriginal people, don’t wait for this to be your children’s.”
On 26 July 2017 protestors in Brisbane sat on the road to block the intersection of Albert and Adelaide Streets. Another protest took place in Melbourne on 28 July 2017, in which protestors marched to Flinders Street railway station then sat on the road and started a fire in a metal drum for the purpose of a smoking ceremony, blocking one of the city’s busiest intersections. One man was arrested and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade extinguished the fire.
On 28 August police charged Elijah’s father, Darryl Doughty, over an incident at the Kalgoorlie Magistrates Court. The distraught father was selected for a security search with a metal detector wand by a male Court Security and Custodial Officer, but police alleged he failed to comply and left the building. Police claimed that Darryl was seen ‘acting aggressively’ towards a member of the public and allegedly assaulted a court officer causing minor injuries. He was charged with assault and released on bail after appearing at court where he pleaded not guilty. He was due to appear in court again on 6 September 2017.
Gathering with friends and family for a vigil at Gribble Creek, Elijah’s grandfather Albert said the justice system had failed their family.
“We tried to get some healing at the end of this, some closure, but the justice system just opened it back up again,” Mr Doughty said.
Continued Monday with: Government’s institutional brutality (Part 5)
Previous instalment: Government’s institutional brutality (Part 3)
Dr Venturino Giorgio (George) Venturini, formerly an avvocato at the Court of Appeal of Bologna, devoted some sixty years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents. He may be reach at George.Venturini@bigpond.com.au.