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The Racially Charged Crime That Rocked An Island

In 2004 on Palm Island, off the coast of north of Australia, a 36-year-old Aborigine man named Cameron Doomadgee was arrested as a public nuisance for swearing at a police officer. He was brought into the police station for booking. Forty minutes later, he was dead.

Senior Sergeant Christopher Hurley, the policeman investigated for beating Doomadgee to death, did not seem like someone — policeman or otherwise — who would commit the crime. A tall man who volunteered with Aborigine children, Hurley had been honored for his police work and was considered friendly and just in the aboriginal territories where he served.

Hurley claimed that he fell on Doomagee and that his bulk caused Doomadgee's internal injuries. But Deputy State Coroner Christine Clemens delivered a more damning report. She said that the initial arrest had been unjustified and that she was convinced Hurley had caused Doomadgee's death by falling on him sharply with his knees.

Novelist Chloe Hooper, who was invited by the defense to witness and write about this case, recounts the crime and its aftermath in her new book, Tall Man: The Death of Doomadgee.

"The case became front-page news in Australia," she tells Scott Simon. "It really divided people enormously. Police officers and also members of the general public took to wearing blue armbands with Senior Sergeant Hurley's registration number in support of his cause."

But even before Domadgee's death, remote Palm Island was a hotbed of tension. Established in the early 20th century as an "open air jail" for indigenous Australians who had misbehaved on reservations, the island was still completely segretated as recently as the 1970s.

"It's now a place where life expectancy [for Aborigine people] is 20 years less than for a non-indigenous Australian and there are vast issues of alcoholism and violence," says Hooper.

Doomadgee was arrested for swearing, says Hooper, but witnesses say that he was just singing the popular song "Who Let the Dogs Out." According to Hooper, "dog" can sometimes be a code word for police on Palm Island.

"Who knows why this morning, out of all of the mornings, Senior Sergeant Hurley found this so offensive," says Hooper.

Hurley decided to arrest Doomadgee, and when they arrived at the station Doomadgee gave Hurley "a quick jab to the jaw," says Hooper.

Another man being kept at the station, Roy Bramwell, swore that he saw Hurley assault Doomadgee. But Bramwell's testimony lacked credibility; he had been arrested for assaulting his girlfriend and her sisters and had consumed 40 beers earlier in the day.

"The problem with this case from the beginning [was that] so many of the Aborigine witnesses in the case had been drinking heavily. Their testimony was extremely easy to pick apart," says Hooper.

Two years after Doomadgee's death, an all-white jury acquitted Hurley of the crime. He went on to get a job working in Surfer's Paradise, which Hooper describes as "a plum police posting just south of Brisbane."

Hooper speculates that Palm Island's tumultuous history may have contributed indirectly to the tragedy.

"If you are in a place where there is great violence, do you become violent, too?" she wonders. "The longer I spent in some of these remote places, the more extraordinary it seemed to me that this doesn't happen more often."

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Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.