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Harvie, Jessica --- "The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island by Chloe Hooper - Book Review" [2010] IndigLawB 37; (2010) 7(20) Indigenous Law Bulletin 28

Book Review

The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island

Chloe Hooper

Penguin Books, ISBN 9780143010661 ($32.95) (276) (December 2008)

by Jessica Harvie

He was tall, I said. Two metres tall. So many police passed through, the guide said, it was hard to remember. But he knew the case. Everyone in Queensland knew the case of Senior Sergeant Christopher James Hurley.[1]

The Tall Man by Chloe Hooper[2]

November 19 marks the sixth anniversary of the tragic death of Mulrunji Doomadgee, a young Indigenous man who died in the custody of the Palm Island police. Six years on, closure for the community is seemingly unattainable as the tiresome pursuit for justice continues.

In her non-fiction book, The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island, Chloe Hooper captures a common, life-altering moment in the lives of two very different men who share nothing but their age and an island: the white policeman, Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, and the Aboriginal street drinker, Mulrunji Doomadgee. Hooper weaves a gripping and at times heart-wrenching tale in her portrayal of the events leading up to the arrest, eventual death of Mulrunji and the motorcade of social, legal and political battles which follow.

Beginning with a personal account of her own introduction to Palm Island, Hooper introduces her reader to the history of the place and the contemporary events which brought her there. Having established a sense of place in its honest representation of the Island and its community, The Tall Man delicately guides the reader through a timeline of incredible, and at times harrowing, events. The reader is walked through the fatal events of the day Mulrunji died and the police investigation which followed. By intertwining the chronological narrative with snippets of primary evidence from later inquests, Hooper gives the reader the benefit of her own hindsight – through an explanation of the relationships between Hurley and the police who investigated him, quickly the integrity of the investigation is in doubt. Hooper’s narration captures the ‘fever’[3] of the Palm Island riot; a night which can only be described as an explosion of years of suppressed tension and anger from the Island’s Indigenous community and its white police presence. Finally, Hooper narrates the long line of legal hiccoughs attached to the case. Her accounts of the two coroners inquests, the eventual trial of Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley and then his acquittal, are relayed with a generous patience so the reader is never left behind in the technicalities of the law.

Hooper’s account is made all the more powerful in the simplicity of its structure. The unambiguous chapter headings signpost the reader’s way through the density of the legal processes from ‘The Death’ to ‘The Investigation’ to ‘The Trial’. Yet seamlessly interspersed with the legal facts are stirring, and at times magical, insights into the soul of the story: the history of the Island, Aboriginal spirituality and the characters themselves. For a reader, these glimpses are all the more compelling knowing they are drawn from relationships Hooper forged during the two and a half years she spent closely following the case on the ground.

Hooper’s primary research is the cornerstone of the book. With an awareness that the author has actually witnessed the emotions and expressions she describes, the reader is given an invaluable, first-hand version of a well-known chronology. Hooper describes the first meal she shared with Mulrunji’s family as the moment she was ‘hooked’[4] on a quest. Her personal investment in the story is clear. From when she arrives on Palm Island, just days before the first inquest, there is a vivid sense of Hooper being part of the unfolding events; her experience becomes the reader’s, as we too become hooked to see the case to the end.

The reader is introduced to the main players as the story itself unfolds; so as we learn that Mulrunji struck Sergeant Chris Hurley in the jaw, we also learn of his love of fishing and his cheeky sense of humour. Similarly with Hurley’s character, The Tall Man avoids judgment; as much as the reader may want to dislike the officer, Hooper does not ask her reader to do so. Her account is fair, and as she develops the central narrative, she weaves excerpts from newspaper articles praising Hurley as ‘a cop who cared’.[5] In her ability to find the common humanity in every inch of the story, Hooper leaves her readers questioning Hurley’s innocence, and then his guilt.

As dark and true as it is moving, The Tall Man scratches the surface of deeper issues. Hooper herself questions how the story of two men can distract a nation for so many years from an Island, and a nation, who in her words, are in ‘a kind of war’.[6] The despair and hopelessness faced by many Indigenous Palm Islanders cannot be made any more apparent than in the harrowing suicide of Eric, Mulrunji’s 16 year old son, in the middle of the inquest into his father’s death. The self-protective culture of the Queensland Police Service is revealed in all its power in Hooper’s recount of a police rally, which brought 2000 blue-shirted officers together to protest the treatment of Chris Hurley. The book is a subtle reminder of the disparities between those caught up in the criminal justice system and those administering it.

The postscript to Hooper’s book briefly summarises the events which occurred between the trial and August 2009, the date the most recent edition was published. Lex Wotton, the Palm Islander who in an angry hunt for justice rallied at least 200 Palm Islanders to riot against the police in 2004, was found guilty of ‘rioting with destruction’ and was serving a six-year sentence.[7] The Doomadgee family launched a civil action against the Queensland Government and Senior Sergeant Hurley, where they claimed damages of nearly $1 million for, among other things, the affect of Mulrunji’s death on his family’s mental health.[8] Sergeant Chris Hurley, the arresting officer, is still serving as an officer on the Queensland Police Force and has successfully applied to have the Deputy Coroner’s findings against him overturned. The sense of closure that a reader should experience when finishing a book is replaced with a sad anticipation of what would be a third inquest into this death, expected to begin sometime in the following 12 months.

A year has passed since Hooper’s postscript and closure still seems distant. As foreshadowed, in March 2010, Coroner Brian Hine re-opened the inquest into the death of Mulrunji for the third time.[9] In May, the Coroner issued an ‘open finding’ into the death, unable to determine whether the injuries suffered by Mulrunji had been inflicted accidentally or intentionally by Hurley.[10] He attributed the lack of evidence to the unreliability of some witnesses from both sides. With this finding, the wounds of Doomadgee’s family and the Palm Island community also remain open.

However, the people of Palm Island can claim a small ‘victory’ from this final inquest; the Coroner concluded that the Palm Island Police had colluded to protect Chris Hurley.[11] Though significant, the Coroner’s conclusion has still not amounted to any form of concrete justice, as disciplinary action against the police involved in the investigation of Hurley has been embroiled in further legal action.

In June 2010, the Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission (CMC) finally issued its report into the matter. The CMC condemned the police investigation following Doomadgee’s death as ‘flawed’ and ‘unacceptable’ and directed Queensland Police Commissioner, Bob Atkinson, to report back within a fortnight about what action he intended to take against the officers, or risk the CMC taking over the investigation. However, two Queensland police officers, who would face possible disciplinary action from the report’s findings, filed an injunction to prevent both the Commissioner and the head of the CMC, Martin Moynihan, from being involved in any disciplinary processes.[12] In August, Commissioner Atkinson was sidelined from his disciplinary role, following a Supreme Court finding that the strong words from the CMC had affected the Commissioner with a personal bias.[13] As a result, the Deputy Commissioner, Kathy Rynders, has been handed this disciplinary role. Deputy Commissioner Rynders is currently involved in an unrelated legal challenge by the CMC for clearing a senior officer accused of seriously injuring a teenager during an arrest in 2007.[14] A decision regarding disciplinary action against the police officers is yet to be reached[15] and the Queensland Police Service cannot say how long a decision will take.[16]

Two years on, The Tall Man remains a relevant and insightful text for Australians to understand the current context of one of Queensland’s darkest cases. Despite the legal developments in the Doomadgee case since the book’s publication, The Tall Man still provides an invaluable factual account of this dark period in the history of both Palm Island and the Queensland Police Force. By setting a detailed background to recent events, the book becomes more relevant as an historical piece of crime reportage.

Bar a few inevitable observations, Hooper’s book does not preach or attempt to moralise the situation; nor does she offer any real solution to an almost intractable situation. As a cosmopolitan, first-time visitor to Palm Island who had not even heard of the place mere weeks before her visit, her report reveals ‘another Australia’. As an outsider, the naivety Hooper brings to her descriptions encourages readers also unfamiliar with the context to discover this small part of Australia with her. As a beautifully crafted narrative that happens to be true, The Tall Man is an accessible and engrossing read for a wide audience; in its accessibility, it turns the spotlight on problems faced by Indigenous Australians and has the ability to position Indigenous deaths in custody at the forefront of popular national consciousness. The Tall Man is a compulsory read for all Australians.

Jessica Harvie recently graduated with a Combined Bachelor of Arts/Law from the University of New South Wales, majoring in English. She has been working as a Research Assistant in the Human Rights Unit at the Australian Human Rights Commission.

[1] Chloe Hooper, The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island (Penguin Books, 2008) 3.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid 61.

[4] Ibid 271.

[5] Ibid 29.

[6] Ibid 75.

[7] Wotton v Director of Public Prosecutions [2007] QSC 042.

[8] Hurley v Clements [2008] QDC 323.

[9] Evan Schwarten, ‘Inquest reopens into Palm Island death in custody’, Brisbane Times (online), 8 March 2010 <> .

[10] ABC Radio National, ‘Coroner delivers open finding in Palm Island Inquest’, ABC PM, 14 May 2010 (Penny Timms) <> .

[11] Office of the State Coroner, Finding COR 2857/04(9), 14 May 2010, [247],[344], [347].

[12] Robyn Ironside, ‘Queensland police officers file injunction over Cameron Doomadgee death in custody’, Courier Mail (online), 18 June 2010 <> .

[13] Kitching v Queensland Commissioner of Police [2010] QSC 303.

[14] Andree Withey, ‘CMC challenges Rynders after clearing police officer’, ABC Brisbane (online), 9 September 2010 <> .

[15] ‘Union backs Deputy Commissioner to handle police discipline’, ABC News (online), 21 August 2010 <> .

[16] Penny Timms, ‘Police can't give date for CMC Doomadgee response’, ABC News (online), 7 October 2010 <> .

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