The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island

By Chloe Hooper, Hamish Hamilton, $32.95

CHLOE HOOPER, a novelist whose first book won international praise, recently released The Tall Man, a book on the Palm Island inquest into the death in police custody of Cameron Doomadgee. She won a Walkley Award for reporting during the inquest.

Mulrunji, as Doomadgee is known since his passing, was killed in police custody on November 19, 2004 at the hands of Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley. Hooper met the Doomadgee family’s lawyer, Andrew Boe, and decided to follow him up to Palm Island in February 2005.

The result is an excellent report of the inquest but with a significant focus on the people living on Palm Island and the life and character of police officer Chris Hurley.

Having spent time with the Doomadgee family, she describes a group of people who attempt to survive amidst disturbing living conditions. The island was very familiar with death; they had already suffered the loss of many family members as a result of police brutality, suicide and an appalling level of health services. There is also a very good section about the history of Palm Island and how the effects of the Stolen Generation are still visible in the community today.

Throughout The Tall Man Hooper shows that evidence was clearly stacked against Hurley, but the cover ups and intimidation began immediately after Mulrinji was found dead. Once Mulrinji was found dead in the cell, Hurley and his police colleagues spent hours making up a story to save his career.

The coroners’ reports made it clear that Mulrunji could not have received the injuries that led to his death simply by tripping and falling over the step at the police station, as Hurley claimed. As Hooper reports, there were a handful of people who witnessed how Mulrinji was arrested for public nuisance after shouting, “Who let the dogs out?”

At least a quarter of the book is spent delving into Hurley’s past. She finds out that he was liked by a lot of people, black and white. Murrandoo Yanner was one of them. An Aboriginal activist living in Burketown when Hurley worked there, he campaigned against mining plans and called on black nations to boycott the Sydney Olympics. Yanner describes him as a mentor for black children, participating in school camps and sports activities. But others remember him as sleazy, a heavy drinker, and eager to participate in pub fights.

Another important fact was that Hurley had twenty complaints lodged against him before Mulrunji’s death; information that Queensland Police tried to prevent the court from hearing about.

Although Hooper finds both negative and positive character references for Hurley, these chapters are the weakest parts of the book.

Hooper does question Hurley’s paternalistic involvement in Aboriginal communities, highlighting that police officers can move up the ladder faster by doing time in regional areas. But it seems like she is desperately trying to uncover another reason for Hurley’s motivation to work in towns with Indigenous majorities. Hooper never states that Hurley murdered Mulrunji, even though Hurley conceded that as a result of his knee “falling” onto Mulrunji, he incurred injuries that resulted in his death. “A few phrases Hurley repeated had the subtlest air of rehearsal, but if he was lying he was brilliant at it. He seemed grave. He seemed sincere.”

Hooper actually interviewed several police officers who were on Palm Island when Aboriginal people rioted against them after Mulrunji’s death. She seems sympathetic to their situation, devoting a page to officers describing how they have become alcoholics and how their families were put in danger. Hooper does provide a brief history of the well-known corruption entrenched in the Queensland Police during the 1980s, and suggests that certain practices are common today. Her criticisms of Howard’s Northern Territory intervention, which was announced the day before Hurley was found not guilty, are also quite good.

In short, The Tall Man is very informative for anyone wanting to know the details of the case. However, while Hooper is definitely more sympathetic to the Indigenous side of the case and to the pursuit of “justice”, she still attempts to present the case in a “balanced” way, even though the truth is staring any reader in the face.

Rachel Cramp


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