Dongargaon, Maharashtra, Hindistan
On the 19th of November in 2004 on Palm Island, an Aboriginal community on Great Palm Island off the coast of Queensland Australia, a 36 year old Aboriginal man was walking along a road, a bit under the influence. A local white police officer, Snr Sgt Chris Hurley was escorting a local Aboriginal woman back to her home to get her insulin after she had been assaulted by her de facto partner. The Aboriginal man, known as Mulrunji, abused the police officer and his partner, the police liaison officer verbally and Snr Sgt Hurley made the decision to arrest him. Mulrunji was thrown into the back of the police wagon and taken to the local police station. As he was being escorted inside, a scuffle broke out which was partially witnessed. Both the Snr Sgt and Mulrunji fell to the ground before Mulrunji was hauled up and placed in a cell. The cell had cameras fitted and when the footage was viewed, when an officer came in to check on Mulrunji, he could not rouse him, even after a kick. Several other officers came in, to the same result – he was pronounced dead in custody. The residents of Palm Island did not take kindly to this death in custody or the way it was handled by the local police and the resulting investigation. Snr Sgt Chris Hurley and his police liaison officer, were both flown off the island quickly when the local residents started protesting and it looked like things might turn ugly. And turn ugly they did – the local Aboriginal community rioted, threatening the remaining local officers and those flown in from the mainland to try and control the situation. An autopsy was conducted which found that Mulrunji sustained some severe injuries – his liver had almost ruptured in two around his spine leading to massive internal bleeding into his abdominal cavity – a catastrophic injury that a surgeon even admitted he would fail to save in a properly equipped hospital. The bleeding was just too great and too rapid. An inquiry opened up into the death and whether or not Snr Sgt Chris Hurley was in any way responsible. It took a very long time and eventually the QLD DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions) recommended that charges not be laid. Amid public outrage, the QLD Premier appointed a retired judge to review the DPP’s decision. This resulted in an overturning of the decision and charges were laid against Snr Sgt Chris Hurley. He was the first police officer to be charged with the resulting death of an Aboriginal in custody. The trial took place in Townsville, Queensland in June of 2007 and cost at least $7m. The pro bono lawyer for Mulrunji’s family and the community of Palm Island asked Chloe Hooper, author of the Orange Prize shortlisted A Child’s Book of True Crime to write an account of the events surrounding the death, the investigation and trial. Chloe Hooper spent three years researching this book, including travelling to some of the remotest Aboriginal communities in Australia where Snr Sgt Chris Hurley had worked previously. He was known for his choice to work in these communities. So was he responsible for the death of Mulrunji? And would he be held accountable for it? The Tall Man is one of the Top 10 Books My Husband Has Been Bugging Me To Read which was the topic of one of my recent Top 10 Tuesday posts. When I was writing that post I realised that I didn’t actually know what some of his recommendations were about and that when I read the blurb for this one, I immediately wanted to read it. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, which is interesting as I have a couple of other non-fiction titles on the go at the moment. I tend to take a lot longer to read them than I do fiction as I read a handful of chapters and then set them aside for a while and go back to them periodically. However I did get through this one fairly quickly in terms of my non-fiction pace, probably in three or so days. It’s a very frank account of the events, detailing the poverty and the dependence on alcohol of the Aboriginals living on Palm Island and the bleak situation many of them find themselves in. Domestics are common, as is drinking for 24, 36, 48 hours straight, both men and women. The hardcores even drink something known as goom - methylated spirits mixed with water and that’s what Mulrunji had been drinking the day he was arrested. I’ve no doubt it’s probably not an easy job to police those communities and it seemed that Chris Hurley had made a career out of it. Still on that day, his decision to arrest Mulrunji was in my opinion, a bit strange – yes the indigenous man assaulted him but it was probably nothing they didn’t hear a dozen or more times a day (this book is littered with the c*** word, it appears to be how everyone talks, it’s dropped in casual conversation every fourth or fifth word). The decision to arrest him and manhandle him did strike me as slightly excessive. Snr Sgt Hurley was also 6 foot 7 and 115kg compared to Mulrunji’s 5’9 and 70-something kg. It was alleged by the prosecution that Hurley fell onto him and drove his knee into him, causing the catastrophic liver damage, whether deliberately or accidentally. Although this book focuses mostly on the Aboriginal family of Mulrunji, their lives, their grief and their quest for justice (which is relatively unsurprising given it was their lawyer who requested she write the book), it does deal with the inconsistencies and the lack of creditable evidence and witnesses on their side against the police officer. It delves further than the Palm Island community, talking about the indigenous population as a whole and Hooper visits several remote communities and outlines the conditions and lifestyles in them. It was an eye opening experience reading this book and I was schooled in the ‘new’ theory of appreciation for indigenous culture and respect for their position in our country, which wasn’t always the line of teaching. My parents for example, were taught a very different Australian history and their generation often has totally different views and opinions on the indigenous population. These views or ones similar, are touched upon by the police force in their defense of their member and it becomes almost a victimization of Chris Hurley. The Tall Man is a fascinating book, which sometimes reads almost like a fictional piece, rather than with the dry clinical tone of non-fiction. It does have a side and a bias, although it’s not an obviously blinded one and the facts are all presented for the reader to make what they will of the situation. I definitely enjoyed reading it – I liked Hooper’s style and thoroughness and the way in which she wove a real story out of a news piece. There was more to it than just a man dying in custody after being arrested – she presented a family, a plight of a community and the struggle of a police force. My husband owns her fiction novel, but it’s in a plastic tub somewhere and although I’d love to read it, I think it’ll take me forever to find it.