June 2016 marked 35 years since the death of Eddie Murray in police custody. Eddie’s passing still causes reverberations today – it was in part the efforts of his father, Arthur Murray, which led to the establishment of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. EMMA PURDY* reports.
(Image: Tim Anderson - Facebook)
Arthur Murray is, in the most admirable sense of the word, a fighter. Having lost two children to violent deaths, followed by the passing of his wife from illness eight years ago, his family say he is now battling cancer, although he insists, “No, no. I’m fine, I’m fine”.
69-year-old Arthur tells how one evening in 2009 he was offered a lift by the police while walking home in Narribri. Instead, he says he was taken on a violent journey, ending up in hospital.
“Oh, they took me for a ride. They tried to injure me, but I stuck to my guns. I stayed cool until they tired of it. They might’ve run out of petrol if they’d kept going. Normally I have people with me. I was just unlucky that night because I was on my own.”
Arthur says the police have continually harassed him ever since the death of his son Eddie in a Wee Waa police station in 1981. Eddie, a 21-year-old rising Rugby League star, was alleged by police to have been found hanged in his cell just 50 minutes after being detained for being drunk. Arthur is well-known for his 30-year campaign to have Eddie’s death properly investigated.
An interview with the late Ray Jackson
“Oh, they hate me,” Arthur says. “They try to incriminate me, harass me. That’s all they’re about. I’ve been jailed. They jailed me for what I am. But I’ll never change. I’ll be the same. I’ve made a lot of people understand what we’re all about. Eddie’s been dead now for a long, long time. But I’m still gonna make trouble, if I can, against the dictators of this country. They know I’m trouble, and I don’t give a damn.”
At the time of his death on 12 June 1981, Eddie had been on a short visit home from Sydney where he then lived and worked, and where he was due to return to play rugby with the Redfern All Blacks. Out drinking with his friends, he attempted to gain entry into the local hotel but was denied because he was too intoxicated. The hotel rang the police, who came and picked him up.
Just hours later, the Murrays were informed that Eddie had been found hanged in his cell. Arthur collapsed on hearing the news. Refusing to believe Eddie was suicidal, Arthur and his late wife, Leila, began a long and courageous battle to prove their son didn’t kill himself.
The police investigation that ensued was compromised from the outset, with then senior Wee Waa police officer, Alan Moseley, who was on duty at the time of Eddie’s death, appointed to oversee the investigation. Moseley failed to talk to the Murrays about Eddie’s potential for suicide, and claimed he had not viewed Eddie’s body after his death.
Having viewed Eddie’s body themselves the following day, the Murrays noticed he was not wearing his own clothes, which they requested before and again following his autopsy. They were later told they couldn’t be found.
The autopsy was conducted by a local general practitioner, Dr Eric Mulvey, who was inexperienced in the procedure and carried it out in the presence of police officers. A police scientific photographer took only a small number of substandard shots from limited angles. Clarification of the medical evidence was later further inhibited by the claim of a failing memory by Mulvey, whose records on Eddie’s consultations later disappeared.
During the November 1981 inquest, conflicting accounts were given by the police as to whether or not one Wee Waa officer, Rodney Fitzgerald, was on duty at the time of Eddie’s death. Eddie had previously told his family he had been “threatened” by Fitzgerald, while three witnesses testified that he was one of the officers who arrested him on the afternoon of his death.
In evidence, Fitzgerald was “adamant” he did not start work until later that day and that he was picking his wife up from hospital at the time of Eddie’s death, although hospital records later showed she was discharged the day before Eddie died. The inconsistency of his testimony led the coroner to declare Fitzgerald an unreliable witness, while another officer, Gary Page “was firm” in his testimony that Fitzgerald was at the station when Eddie was allegedly found dead. However, Page was the only officer to say so.
While the officers alleged Eddie tore his thick prison blanket and firmly tied a neat noose around the bars of his prison window, they later admitted under cross-examination that he was “too drunk to scratch himself.”
Medical opinion over Eddie’s level of intoxication, and his ability to suicide, was conflicted at the coronial inquiry.
The coroner’s verdict, returned in December that year, was highly critical of the police investigation, finding Moseley “fell short in his enquiries”. However, despite this the coroner delivered an open finding that Eddie died by his own hands “or at the hand of a person or persons unknown”.
When the Murrays were informed that no new investigation into Eddie’s death would be held, they joined the campaign for a royal commission, along with other families who believed their loved-ones died in custody in suspicious circumstances. As an increasing number of cases came to light over the next few years, the issue stayed firmly in the headlines.
ABC’s Four Corners broadcast Black Death in September 1985, investigating four cases, including John Pat’s death in Roebourne in 1983. The WA police union attempted to prevent the broadcast, threatening a criminal libel suit.
Following yet more deaths and escalating controversy over the issue, on 11 August 1987 the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was finally announced. In the week leading up to the Commission’s announcement, Arthur had been involved in peaceful protest marches following the sixteenth Aboriginal death in custody that year, that of 28-year-old Lloyd Boney, found hanging in his cell on 6 August 1987 in Brewarrina in New South Wales.
On the night of his funeral, after a protest march to the jail, more than 150 mourners gathered peacefully for his wake in Brewarrina Memorial Park. Although council permission had been obtained for the wake, it later emerged in committal proceedings that there had been non-Aboriginal onlookers on a veranda of a local pub overlooking the wake with two shotguns. It was alleged they shouted racial abuse and that shots were fired.
The crowd then began smashing windows of the hotel and throwing empty kegs through the doors, shortly after which eight police officers in riot gear moved into the park and a confrontation ensued, in which several people were beaten by police and four police were injured. Arthur was one of 17 Aboriginal people arrested at what became known as the “Brewarrina riot”. The subsequent legal proceedings lasted for over five years, well beyond the Commission’s lifespan.
The Commission’s investigation into Eddie’s case began in February 1988. Commissioner James Muirhead retired after hearing only four of the 99 cases to be investigated. One of them was Eddie Murray’s.
His findings were handed down a month after his resignation in February 1989, and were critical of the four police who gave evidence into his death. Muirhead said Fitzgerald’s “lack of interest in what had occurred and lack of knowledge on some issues did not strike me as sincere”. He was similarly “concerned about the accuracy” of Moseley’s evidence, saying, “... his lack of memory and apparent fear worried me”.
He also found Page to be an “unreliable witness” saying he “denied involvement in a number of matters, whereas the evidence has led me to the opposite conclusion ... I found his apparent detachment from the events of the day unusual”.
Of a fourth officer, Kevin Parker, Muirhead said “his testimony on some other issues led me to doubt his accuracy or frankness ... Had there been medical evidence consistent with Eddie’s death having been caused by a third party, Parker’s evasiveness would assume significance and sinister overtones”.
Having heard evidence from all four officers, Muirhead concluded: “I am concerned that I have not been given an accurate account as to what took place when Eddie was placed in and locked in the cell. I doubt whether it was as quiet an episode as the evidence of the officers depicts”.
However, despite these concerns, Muirhead found that “in all probability” Eddie had committed suicide.
In the Commission’s final report released on 9 May 1991, National Commissioner Elliot Johnston referred to the “understandable anguish, anger and suspicion” felt by the relatives of a person who dies in custody, adding that these concerns “demand an assurance that the circumstances of the death will be thoroughly and fairly investigated”.
In his regional report covering New South Wales, Commissioner Hal Wooten, (ED: Who writes in this edition of Tracker), had also expressed concern about a “high level of toleration of police untruthfulness within the police force”.
However, the day before the final report’s release, Arthur together with Sonny Bates and Glen Boney, all of whom had relatives whose deaths were investigated by the Commission, were convicted by an all-white jury for their involvement in the Brewarrina riot in 1987.
Arthur was convicted on charges of assault and riotous assembly and sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment.
Arthur served almost two months before being released on bail pending his appeal on the grounds of wrongful arrest and mistaken identity, which was upheld by the Supreme Court in April 1992.
Several witnesses testified that an assault he was charged with, of breaking a policeman’s leg, was committed by a man with grey hair, whereas Arthur’s was black. The five police who identified Arthur gave no more description beyond saying he had light-coloured clothing, while a journalist saw him at the time of the incident in another location. Bates and Boney were also released on appeal.
It was May 1994 before the case against Arthur was finally dropped by a permanent stay of proceedings.
While neither himself, Boney nor Bates ever received any compensation for their wrongful incarceration, the police involved in the clashes at Boney’s wake were commended for their bravery and lodged a compensation claim for several thousand dollars, which was awarded by the Victims’ Compensation Tribunal based on the three men’s 1991 trial convictions, even after they had been overturned.
Also in 1994, Parker was taken to task by the New South Wales Independent Commission against Corruption for falsifying police records in another unrelated matter. Coming just five years after Muirhead’s criticisms of his testimony in Eddie’s case, the finding was not lost on the Murrays.
“That Royal Commission,” said Arthur scornfully, “They spent so much money. But there were lots of things that went wrong. We did everything possible. We rallied, we protested.” He still hasn’t stopped fighting.
In 1995, the Murrays’ legal team analysed evidence presented at Eddie’s inquest and to the Commission about the circumstances surrounding his death, and together with the Newcastle University Legal Centre published Too Much Wrong, a comprehensive breakdown of Eddie’s inquest that found police had lied and the Commission’s inquiry was “flawed in many instances”.
The Murrays used the document to demand an exhumation of Eddie’s remains in November 1997. Their request came just three months after the Wood Royal Commission had exposed “endemic” levels of corruption in the New South Wales Police Force in August 1997, describing police routinely falsifying records, changing evidence, assaulting prisoners and using a police “code of silence”. The re-autopsy was granted.
Although 16 years had passed since Eddie’s death, with only skeletal remains at the time of the exhumation, a broken sternum was found that was unrecorded at the original inquest. A forensic pathologist found it could have occurred “immediately prior to death”. After the findings were released, a second edition of Too Much Wrong was published in 1999, which recommended a new investigation be undertaken into Eddie’s death.
The then New South Wales Minister for Police, Paul Whelan, ordered an internal review of the case, which was conducted by the Special Crime and Internal Affairs Unit of the New South Wales Police Force. The review was damning of the police procedure following Eddie’s death, finding his body was removed from the potential crime scene “in an indecently rapid fashion”.
It found the initial police investigation was “contaminated by and predicated on a premise of suicide”, further noting that any inquest compromised by such an investigation was bound to encounter problems, “particularly where police officers were prepared to lie and possibly manipulate, destroy and mislay evidence”.
Based on those findings, in August 2000 Whelan referred the case to the Police Integrity Commission (PIC). The Murrays hoped the PIC, the state’s standing body to investigate police corruption, would use its powerful capacity to finally properly investigate Eddie’s death.
However, the PIC did not appear to follow up on the review’s content. Despite an annual budget of nearly $17 million and almost a hundred staff, with discretionary powers to compel witnesses to give evidence, run covert operations, hold public hearings and intercept telephone calls, over three years later on 11 September 2003 the PIC admitted Eddie’s case had been de-prioritised against other investigations. Having had a number of different managing officers, further investigation of Eddie’s case was finally said by the PIC to be “dependent on the provision of new or additional material.”
Simon Luckhurst, who researched Eddie’s death and subsequently wrote a book about the case, Eddie’s Country, criticised the PIC inquiry. “It certainly wasn’t a complex investigation,” he said. “Rather than in-depth interviews or even investigating the existing material the Commission looked at, they appeared to spend a lot of time trying to discredit the pathologist’s report. The investigation that was warranted could have been a lot better.”
“It’s a case that’s crying out for justice. “It was a litmus test for the Royal Commission. Lots of questions went unanswered. No police officer admitted creating a police occurrence pad. Also, someone must have helped carry his body from the cell to the ambulance, but they all denied it. So there were obvious lies by the police.”
Eddie’s mother, Leila, passed away on 4 April 2003 without ever knowing the truth about her son’s death. She had raised 12 children with Arthur, including Eddie. The Murrays also lost a daughter, Jacqueline, to a motor vehicle accident, which they said they could accept because it had a reality and finality about it, unlike the ongoing torment they suffered over the many unanswered questions about Eddie’s death.
“Leila suffered a lot,” Arthur said. “She had diabetes ... and then all the stuff that we’d been through … When she died, I was close by her side. “I put my arms around her and tried to keep her awake. But I couldn’t.”
Amazingly, Arthur found the strength to continue fighting. His resilience earned him a NAIDOC (National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee) Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005, but that still didn’t mark the end of his mission.
On 12 June 2006 he launched a campaign for a new inquiry into Eddie’s death and is currently supporting the efforts of movie director, Adrian Wills, to turn “Eddie’s Country” into a feature film. “If I’m called to do something,” he explained, “then I do it.”
Forced to repeatedly move to escape harassment, Arthur currently lives in Moree, New South Wales, where he refuses to abandon his battle for justice. “I will not give up,” Arthur said. “The only time I’ll give up is when I die. I gotta find out the truth. So I’ll keep the boxing gloves on.”
“Even the government don’t like the way I act. “They have their law. They try to tell us what to do. But I am what I am, and I’m an Aborigine. I come from this land.
“What gives them the right to tell us we can’t do this and that?”
“There should be justice in this country and there’s no justice. “As a blackfella, who can I vote for? There’s never been a government in my time who did anything for us losing someone in custody.
“They’ve done nothing. Ever since my son died, no one gives us justice. No one gives us anything. No one supports us. We’ve only got our own family, no government support.”
With no police officer ever being convicted over an Aboriginal death in custody, Arthur’s sense of injustice is shared by many.
“They say this place is a free country,” said Arthur. “It’s not a free country. It’s never been since Captain Cook got here, never. We want justice. If we don’t have that, we’ve got nothing.”
*Emma Purdy is an Irish journalist, who spent more than a year in Australia, among other things researching Aboriginal deaths in custody. This is the first in a series of articles by Emma for Tracker.
This article was previously published in Tracker – July 2011 print edition. Arthur Murray since passed away in September 2012. Sovereign Union would like to honour his memory through this article.