Not Guilty – all 4 defendants in Palm Island 'riot' trial

ANTaR's Monique Bond reports about the ongoing trial of four alleged Palm Island rioters. This follows on from notes on the ongoing trial 5-7 March.

Congratulations to John Clumpoint, William Blackman, Lance Pointing and Dwayne Blanket for having the courage to face a long and daunting trial by pleading Not Guilty to ‘riotous assembly inciting destruction’. After a 2 ½ week trial, the jury agreed with them and found them NOT GUILTY.

I was able to attend many, but not all of the trial sessions which went from 5th to 21st March 2007. So I heard most of the police but missed most of the Aboriginal witnesses.

As I mentioned in my initial notes, the apparent lack of real evidence in the prosecution’s case was astounding. There did not seem to be substantial evidence to link any of the accused with the (still unknown) people who burnt the police station and Sgt Hurley’s house. The Prosecutor specifically said the accused were not alleged to be involved in providing the fuel nor in burning the police station and police house.

There were many hours of legal discussion between the Judge and Barristers, which the Jury were not allowed to hear, about the exact definitions of various laws and it was clear that it is very difficult to decide just which laws might apply but the consequences are important and serious for the case.

One thing I did grasp was that the Prosecution had gone for the charge of ‘riotous assembly inciting destruction’ (or words to that effect) and that the Prosecutor was not allowed to ask for a lesser charge if he thought he might lose the initial charge. This was important because it meant that he had to prove the charge ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ or lose the case.

Once the Prosecution had finished putting their case, the Defence barristers took the unusual step of not calling any defence witnesses, nor did they call their clients to give evidence. They basically said – we’ve heard the prosecution case and we are going to show that it is not sufficiently proved just by examining that case.

The Prosecutor and then the four Defence barristers each put their cases. The question of identifying a particular defendant as being the person who is stated to have been in a particular place and/or said certain things was crucial for the prosecution. This question of identification was discussed at length by the Judge, both generally and regarding specific witnesses. He was emphatic about research evidence which showed how difficult it is to make reliable identifications in moments of stress and high emotion and that this is compounded when the people involved come from different ethnic groups.

There were many explanations by the Judge to the jury. The Judge took great pains to explain to the Jury about the meaning of the various terms such as ‘tumultuous’, ‘riot’, ‘reasonable doubt’ etc. In fact, my head was spinning with trying to absorb it all, especially as he would clarify something put by the Prosecution and then something put by the Defence, and I found there was not enough time to put the two things together and come to a conclusion vis a vis a particular piece of evidence. The Jury seemed to be listening very carefully and the time they took to come to a verdict implies that they took their responsibilities seriously.

I expected that the Prosecution would have strong, virtually conclusive evidence against the defendants. In fact, the case put forward against each man seemed very weak.

Even if the defendants were part of the Palm population who met in the Main Square to hear the autopsy result and then went up to the Police station – there seemed to be no indisputable link between any of them and the people who destroyed police property.

From the case as I heard it in Court and looking at the evidence rationally, I would not have been able to reach a GUILTY verdict.

I wonder now, how many of the 12 or so people who have already pleaded Guilty to charges arising from the ‘riot’, would also have been found Not Guilty if they had chosen to fight the charges.

There has been much discussion about the decision to move the case to Brisbane rather than holding it in Townsville. My guess, after seeing that the Jury took nearly two days to make up their minds about the verdict, is that the move to Brisbane was in the interests of justice.

The emotional, physical and financial cost of fighting the case to the defendants and their families has been enormous.  By pleading Not Guilty they have had this case hanging over their heads for more than two years. Whilst they have been greatly helped (I believe) by having ‘Pro Bono’ legal assistance and also Legal Aid, they have had to spend hours with lawyers, making stressful decisions which might make the difference between many years in prison, fewer years in prison or, as has happened, a Not Guilty verdict. They have also found it difficult to continue working as the impending Court case has made them take many hours off work, and few employers can accept that.

During the trial, the men and their families were under great stress. Being away from home and extended families, being in the big city, being amongst strangers and having to sit for hour after hour inside the windowless court-room really took its toll. Also stressful was the concern about money to pay for accommodation, food and transport.

Thanks to generous donors sandwiches were provided for lunch and defendants and their families were given some help with their daily expenses and also to contribute to their happy return to Palm.

Those of us who were able to attend the trial learnt a lot and our presence there was also a real support to the men and their families.

I think this is an important case – after the drama of flying in the Emergency Response Police and the helicopters, the talking up the ‘riot’, the dawn raids on homes on the island and the very large number of arrests – the Prosecution has not been able to make a strong case against the four defendants each of whom has been found Not Guilty.

The tax-payers of Queensland have been asked to fund an expensive case which, in my opinion, should never have come to court.

It seems to me that there are many implications to be drawn from this case but it is too early for me to be drawing them.

Some questions I still have are: why did the police decide to abandon the police station after the crowd had started to disperse. Why was the State of Emergency declared? Was it done in accordance with legal requirements? Why were the SERT summoned in such overwhelming force? What was the justification for the early morning raids on houses, kicking down of doors and being so heavily armed?

I have written these notes because so little has been reported in the Press about the trial. It seemed to me that some more information about the process and what I observed might be of interest.

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