Inside Story

Two-up, one down

The law seemed to fail Boonie Hilt, a thirty-six year old Aboriginal man, but there were small victories along the way

Gillian Cowlishaw 7 July 2010 5828 words

Bourke’s Court House, which was in the building to the left when this picture was taken in 1958. W. Brindle/National Archives of Australia

Charles Frederick Hilt, also known as Boonie Hilt, was in town for Anzac Day, the twenty-fifth of April 1956, following a stint out bush crutching sheep. After a game of two-up in the backyard of Bourke’s Royal Hotel this big, powerful Aboriginal man was arrested and taken to the police station where there was a “scuffle” with two police officers. Two days later Boonie suffered a slow and painful death in the Bourke hospital due to abdominal injuries. He was thirty-six years old.

Boonie’s story needs telling, not just to honour his relations and other Bourke residents for whom it represents unfinished business, but because of some remarkable similarities between the circumstances of his death and that of Cameron Doomadgee on Palm Island in 2004. In both cases a police officer arrested an Aboriginal man for drunken swearing and claimed to have fallen on the prisoner in the police station, accidentally causing the internal injuries that proved fatal. Community suspicion and police unity featured in the legal process following both deaths. There are differences, too. Boonie’s story hardly registered on the national stage while the Palm Island case led to protest, publicity and ongoing legal attention. Accountability for Aboriginal deaths in custody has increased since the 1989–90 royal commission. But the Hilt and Doomadgee cases demonstrate some remarkably stable social and legal conditions across half a century. The inquest into Boonie’s death shows that the court, while ostensibly establishing the facts of the case, is a site of competing narratives and explanations of the social world in which the events take place. More broadly, the case illustrates how unstable forms of racial inequality are reproduced in an assertively egalitarian society.

The three-day inquest into Boonie Hilt’s death in the Bourke court “created considerable interest in town judging by the visitors each day,” according to the coroner. But interest was decidedly local, unlike the Cameron Doomadgee case that attracted much wider interest; it was the subject of a trial, in which the police officer involved was acquitted, and three coronial inquests, the final one delivering an open verdict. Chloe Hooper analysed the context of the case and the life of Cameron Doomadgee in her award-winning book, The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island.

But local dramas remain alive in local memories, and in 1998 Boonie’s sister-in-law, Marg Edwards, told me of his death as part of her own life story. Before he died, in terrible pain, Boonie had said to her, “the police done it.” “No one took the case up…,” she told me, adding, “My niece Shirley has got all the paperwork in Sydney.” In 2006 I happened across Shirley in Mt Druitt and discovered that she was Boonie’s daughter, and that she had a transcript of the inquest that had been held only a week after Boonie died.

An inquest creates what is known as a “truth effect.” Based on the facts as presented in court, the coroner makes a decision that produces an immediate and material effect on people’s lives. The decision in this case is contained in one word on the pro-forma statement on the first page of the transcript:

[The coroner] being charged to inquire when how and by what means the deceased came to his death, having made such an inquiry, declare and find that the deceased on the (a) 27th day of April 1956 at (b) Bourke District Hospital in the said State died from shock, haemorrhage and peritonitis following a rupture of the small bowel, as the result of injuries accidentally received on the 25th April 1956. [Italicised words handwritten; highlighting added]

The word “accidentally” determined that no further enquiry would take place into the routine system of racial subordination that culminated in Boonie’s death. A façade of legal propriety ensured that questions about this unnatural death remained unanswered.

The transcript is a difficult document to read. The 128 pages documenting the court proceedings were recorded by an inexperienced and unskilled rural court typist. Words and names are omitted, and there are indecipherable scribbles and corrections, and incomplete sentences. These mistakes add to the strain of reading page upon page of apparently trivial evidence, often followed by tedious cross-examination, broken up by sudden, stunningly relevant statements to which the court’s response is unclear.

As with the inquest into Cameron Doomadgee’s death, the coroner had to establish the cause of death and determine whether a crime had been committed. The physical cause of death was no mystery; in both cases a police officer had caused fatal internal injuries. At issue was whether the injuries were inflicted deliberately or by accident. Sergeant Goode, a police officer “from Sydney” who was “assisting the Coroner,” cross-examined witnesses called by Boonie’s family counsel, a Mr Rich, also “from Sydney.” Mr Rich cross-examined the police.

It is clear from the 1956 transcript that participants took the inquest to be an adversarial process in which the two police officers were suspected of foul play. The central thesis of their defence, that accidentally falling on someone’s stomach can rupture their abdomen and cause fatal injuries, appears implausible to many laypersons. But in another equivalence with the Doomadgee case, two medical men told the inquest that it is indeed possible to inflict such fatal injuries accidentally.

In giving evidence of Boonie’s arrest, the witnesses provide a picture of life in Bourke that Anzac day. While the court process gives no opportunity to explore the lethal social conditions, it does provide something of a narrative to explain what occurred, hinting at the clash between the life of the street and the life of the law.

In the street on 25 April

In 1956 the laws to stop the supply of alcohol to Aborigines shaped everyday life in the streets of Bourke. Police were bound to enforce the law, including the indictable offence of being drunk, and those Aboriginal people who liked to drink devised strategies to avoid being caught. Once, Marg Edwards’s husband Cliff had put his bottles under the blanket in the pram, but the police found them and arrested him. On Anzac Day this cat-and-mouse game was heightened. This is how Marg told me the story:

The police were always onto my brother-in-law, Charlie Hilt, married to my sister. His nickname was Boonie. One day in 1956, Anzac Day, Cliff and I went up town to the Anzac service in the park. Boonie was at the service there. As we came away and walked across the road, he said, “Look, look over there, how the police are watching me.” And he said to me, “Let me push your pram.” I can’t remember who the kid was. Anyway, he went around the Royal with Cliff for a couple of drinks. Then Cliff came back and we went home down the Pound Yard.

That night they picked Boonie up. I didn’t even know he was in jail and somebody came from the hospital and said, “Margie there’s a man up there want to see ya.” And when I went up there to see him he was all doubled up in pain and one policeman was guarding his bed. I said, “What happened to ya? Who done this to ya?” He said, “The police done it.”

Boonie was in a lot of pain. He knew he was gonna go off. I started crying for him because he was in so much pain. Anyway he died that day and they buried him the next day. It was sort of all quick.

Just after it happened old Eric Dixon said that the police pulled a gun on him. He didn’t want to go witness because he thought that the police might shoot him. It was all in the papers that Dixon said this and Dixon said that. No one took the case up. On his death certificate they had it all written down that something happened. It’s about forty-two years now so I don’t know if we’d be able to do anything.

The “do anything” refers to pushing for an inquiry.

The two police officers involved were Constables Quirk and Warren. Warren’s evidence is that he told Boonie to move on by saying, “I do not want you hanging round the hotel.” Boonie headed off down the lane and the constables arrested another Aboriginal man, Eric Dixon, for “being full.” The policemen and Dixon “proceeded down the lane and turned left into Oxley Street” and there was Boonie, sitting in front of the Post Office. He turned and said to his companion, “I’m not going to let those fucking copper bastards put it over me.” Boonie was arrested for using indecent language. The four men headed to the Bourke police station.

The story told by Boonie Hilt on his deathbed adds a little and subtracts a little from the police officer’s account. Boonie said he was out the back of the Royal Hotel playing two-up:

I was coming from the two-up at the back of the Royal Hotel… Met Freda my sister-in-law. I said, “Come back this way towards the Park. I met Quirk, Warren and they were taking [Dixon]. I walked past and they said, “How are you going?” I said “Alright” and they walked behind. When we got to the end of the lane, Quirk grabbed me and said, “Come to the police station, I want you.”

The police did not mention the greeting and Boonie did not mention the swearing. But both these exchanges ring true as elements of the everyday relationships on the streets of Bourke, a combination of familiarity and conflict, frustrations, curses and alcohol. In other evidence it emerged that Boonie Hilt was well known to Quirk, who claimed that he “had told him to seek employment on various occasions and advised him that he should be able to get a job out in the bush.” This police officer appears to have tried, in both their interests, to keep Boonie out of trouble. Such a cooperative moment is prefaced on structural inequality, and does not counter ongoing tensions, distrust and violence in the relationships between police officers and the Aboriginal residents they are employed to police.

In the cells

In his statement Boonie claimed that when they got to the police station Warren said, “What will we charge him with, vagrancy or drunkenness?” To Boonie’s protest that he’d just come in from crutching Quirk said, “We will lock him up and charge him afterwards.” While seldom described so candidly, and in this case denied by the officers, there is nothing unusual about police determining a charge after giving the matter some thought; these discretionary powers are defended as necessary and valuable to all concerned.

Warren and Quirk say charges were laid at once, and that they had trouble keeping their charge under control as they walked him to the cells. Quirk alleges that Boonie punched him. “He was a big man. I was only trying to hold him until Const. Warren was able to assist me… He grabbed me by the coat sleeves and pulled me down heavily onto him.” Quirk admitted, in answer to a question, that he was “not in charge of his own knees” at this time. The inquest spent many hours trying to determine the precise bodily movements during this altercation, which no one apart from the two police admitted to having seen. Who fell first, how they fell, and what part of Quirk’s body came in contact with what part of Boonie’s body were discussed again and again in attempts to establish the facts of the case. Photos and diagrams were produced, and the height of the concrete path discussed and its state of repair combed over.

Intention is not a visible quality, and the extensive cross-examination of the police officers by the Hilt family’s lawyer could not establish it. Rather, the police officers were given the opportunity to deny, forcibly and repeatedly, their intent to harm. They also managed to insert evidence of Boonie’s violence. When Constable Warren is asked why he would be watching closely what happened between Hilt and Quirk at the crucial moments, he takes the opportunity to mention “this man’s vicious nature” in an effort to substantiate earlier reference to Boonie Hilt’s violence. While having no direct bearing on how Boonie died, these hints provide elements of an explanatory narrative for those in the courtroom and for public consumption.

To hospital

Dr John Russ Lee gave evidence that he was called to the police cells that Anzac Day at 6.50 pm and found Boonie had a tender abdomen but “nothing that serious.” At 11 pm he was called again and, while “not much had changed,” he sent him to hospital, prescribing an x-ray, warm fluids, sedatives and two-hourly checks of pulse and temperature. The next day Boonie’s temperature had gone up and he had been vomiting.

A packed public gallery heard a hospital wardsman at Bourke Hospital tell of his conversation with Boonie in the x-ray room. When asked what happened, Boonie said to him, “Warren held me down and Quirk jumped on my guts.” A second wardsman recounted exactly the same words.

Constable Quirk had to guard Boonie all night and gives evidence attesting to his own goodwill. At about 1.30 am he asked Boonie how he was going and Boonie asked if he could have a needle or something for his pain. Boonie asked for smokes, which Quirk “procured from another patient and lit one for him.” The man who would be widely suspected of manslaughter, if not murder, was standing watch and providing succour to his victim.

Bail was arranged in the afternoon and the dying man lay in hospital unguarded. It was that evening that the missionary Howard Southwell and the local bookmaker Mr Whitbread visited Boonie and took down his statement by hand. Boonie signed it and Southwell witnessed his signature. This deathbed deposition said:

When we were walking to the cells Warren grabbed me from behind and Quirk hit me from the front. They then pulled me down and Quirk hit me across the chest with the baton, and then jumped on me. When I woke I was in the cell.

The missionary and the bookmaker then went to the Bowling Club and locked the statement in a safe, an action that brought suspicion on them, as we will see.

The next morning, Saturday the twenty-seventh, Constable Quirk received a phone call at 5 am. Boonie had taken a turn for the worse. Inspector Fitzgerald and Warren picked up Quirk and headed to the hospital. They brought with them the clerk of the petty sessions, hoping to take a dying deposition, but “when they saw Hilt in bed at 6 am in their opinion he was not in danger of dying.” The statement prepared by Fitzgerald for Boonie’s signature said:

I am a labourer and I reside at Bourke road Brewarrina. At about 6.30 pm on Anzac day the 25th April 1956 I was in the lane that runs from the Royal Hotel to the main street…

When we were at the cell door near where they switched the lights on I swung at Quirk and Const. Warren grabbed me from behind, I tried to pull away from Warren and fell over, Const. Quirk fell on top of me. The next thing I remember was when I woke up in one of the cells. I was in pain.

The question of how and why that statement came to be written was not raised in court.

Doctor Lee went to the hospital a little earlier than usual that morning, and at 8.45 am, he found his patient “virtually unconscious.” Boonie Hilt was pronounced dead at 9.10 am.

Evidence and explanation

It seems curious that the coronial inquiry never admits that the police may be violent or vindictive, or that they might have lost their temper or wanted to punish Boonie. Indeed much of the detailed evidence is bland and boring, carefully erasing the emotional content of the situation in favour of physical conditions and visible events.

The evidence of the first witness, Paul Dabinett, who was in a cell that day, illustrates the tone. He said:

I had been in the lock since the 12/4/56. Hilt came in at about four or five o’clock… He had another coloured chap with him… Hilt came into the cell alone. I was sitting, my bunk was right opposite the door. Warren was holding the door open, and he was standing back from the door. Hilt slipped on the bottom step, which is about 4 inches high, he stumbled across and hit his head on the door. He then fell onto the floor… Hilt got up to his feet and fell on top of me. I picked him up and he walked over to the other bunk.

Dabinett’s statement to police was gone through item by item and further details are elicited: “Some police officer came in after Hilt fell, it was Const. Quirk. He had his head and shoulders inside the door.” Dabinett says he heard nothing before they came into the cell. When asked, “What happened after he lay down,” he replies, “He was in pain. He was calling out for Mrs Warren.” Constable Warren and his wife lived in the police station and Mrs Warren was employed to care for prisoners in the lock up – a hint of the intimacy of relations in a small town. In response to further questioning Dabinett produces one of the sudden stunning statements:: “He said Const Warren and Const Quirk jumped on me in the Police Office. He said his guts were busted.” The response is a bland question about how long afterwards this happened, to which Dabinett replies, “After about ten minutes he called for Mrs Warren… brought over an A.P.C. powder and I gave it to him… [H]e kept calling out for hours after he had the powder.” Asked whether he has any complaints about Quirk and Warren, Dabinett says no.

It is not enough to assert the police officers’ innocence; Boonie’s condition and his accusations require that another explanation be suggested. This emerges during the questioning of Boonie’s younger brother Alan, who was also in the lockup that Anzac Day. Pages representing hours of evidence reinforce the suggestion that Boonie had previous intestinal injuries, that he was alcoholic and violent, and that these police constables have always treated him well.

Then Alan is asked by Rich whether his brother made any allegations at the hospital, and he answers that Boonie had said, “Warren held him down on the ground while Mr Quirk dealed with him.” He is now subjected to a confusing cross-examination. He agrees that he was asked to “vary his evidence” but it turns out that he does not know what “vary” means. He denies his brother said he was kneed and is then faced with his signed statement that “My brother told me that Quirk kneed him.” Under questioning, Alan seems to take little account of precise wording; it appears that being “kneed” and “dealed with” are not very different to him. When it is put to him that such a statement would be false he volunteers, “He said it on his death bed.” When it is suggested that someone told him to put that evidence, he assumes he is being asked to whom he gave it, and says “that gentleman there.” Rich tries to retrieve his evidence but Alan is deemed “not a reliable witness.” The alien nature of court room language and procedure leave him helpless before even a simple cross-examination.

Bookmaker Whitbread, who took Boonie’s statement in the hospital, is subjected to devastating cross-examination that supports the idea that the police are the victims of vindictive plots. Sergeant Goode tries to show that Whitbread assumed Boonie was telling the truth “because he is anti-police.” Why, it was asked, did he put the statement in the safe instead of showing it to the inspector so that the police would have a chance to defend themselves from the accusations? Is that not what an honest man would do? Whitbread seems perplexed and refuses to answer, saying he might be victimised. “Why did you not give the signed statement to Mr Fitzgerald?” He panics and again refuses to answer, then contradicts his earlier evidence about expecting that Boonie would die that night. He even accuses police of tricking him by having him sign a blank paper, because his statement appears to be on a different kind of paper from the one he recalls. He eventually withdraws this accusation, but his reliability has been undermined. His extreme confusion may indicate anxiety about possible future consequences.

By way of contrast Constable Quirk is a very steady witness, and when asked why Boonie was arrested he shows a certain delicacy. The transcript explains: “the witness at this stage writes out the words used by the deceased.” Exhibit 6 is a paper that reads, I’m not going to let those fucking copper bastards put it over me. The gesture very effectively communicates that the police officer is unwilling or unable to utter words such as these. The courtroom is protected from hearing the crude and offensive expressions of criminals and Aboriginal men on the street.

Another stunning moment comes when Rich tenders Boonie’s trousers in evidence. They show dried stains of excreta and blood which must have been made before Boonie was taken to hospital. It is put to Quirk that he should have suspected an internal injury, but because this does not bear on whether the police caused Boonie’s death accidentally or deliberately, the question is not pursued.

The coroner does not raise questions about the care of the patient after he was injured. Dr Lee’s lack of medical intervention is not remarked upon or pursued. While he visited Boonie twice at the station and twice in hospital, it appears Lee made no attempt to investigate the nature of his patient’s internal injury, let alone operate. He says that the x-ray showed no injuries – but of course x-rays do not show the condition of soft tissue. The only cross-examination of Lee is about his post mortem; he testifies that there was no bruising consistent with Boonie’s being struck with a baton or fist. A further post-mortem found the spleen was split, and Dr Lee says that this was a “post-mortem injury brought about by me conducting the post-mortem.” Both doctors agree that a man falling backwards, not expecting a blow to the stomach, would not have protected himself against injury from the knees of a man falling on top of him, and they agree that Boonie Hilt’s injuries could have been caused in this way. At no time was it suggested that the doctor should have detected internal bleeding and operated to repair internal injuries and save Boonie Hilt’s life.

Shaping the social story

The transcript reveals the routine court procedure for eliciting and examining information, a process shaped not only by the questions that the court is charged with deciding, but also by the purposes and skills of those involved. For instance, the police witnesses stress that the police station yard is visible from the street and that many people were about that day; thus, police could hardly have been up to any bad business. Quirk also reports that Boonie said the pain was from his ulcers, and two later witnesses agree he said this. Along with Boonie’s previous violence, and a vulnerable intestine, these provide an alternative explanation for his death. Finally, there are hints that Boonie’s accusations stem from a vindictive desire for revenge against police who have had to arrested him in the past.

Throughout, the tension between Aborigines and police is both hinted at and denied significance. Constable Warren is asked, “Do you treat Aborigines who are arrested in the same way as white people?” and as he answers, “Yes,” the court is made aware that police are being accused of racism. No evidence is called about the explicit racial discrimination contained in the laws that the police have to administer.

The fact that Boonie Hilt’s deathbed deposition was locked in the safe at the bowling club exposes a widespread suspicion of police that is not confined to Aboriginal people. Such a lack of trust is not examined, and is neither substantiated nor defended. Rather, police are able to interpret negative attitudes towards themselves as the failure of good citizenship. Aboriginal witnesses are asked why they did not make their complaints about police known. Is it not right that a man should know what he is accused of and have the opportunity to defend himself? If a police officer were to abuse his position, for example, then would it not be normal to lodge a complaint with the inspector of police? The two wardsmen who gave evidence of Hilt’s accusation are asked why they did not recount this to the matron or doctor until after Hilt died. The hint that they were trying to make trouble for police provides another element of explanation for the real and implied accusations the police are facing.

The witnesses respond with various levels of bemusement and confusion. The “public secret” here is that police are known to have the power to bash people in the police station without the victims’ having any remedy. To complain would be to risk further punishment. In the face of such questions, the local people would have asked themselves, in the local idiom, “Are these lawyers stupid or what?”

But suspicion of police is confirmed in another stunning moment. Rich calls Terry Doolan to give evidence that he had been assaulted in the past by both Warren and Quirk. He says he was hit several times by Warren after “running” and again after “pulling” away from him. On a third occasion Quirk threw him to the floor as he was trying to pull away in the police station and both constables kicked him several times. Cross-examination establishes that Doolan pleaded guilty to assaulting Warren after the last occasion. He is asked why he failed to lodge a formal complaint about a police assault. This time the court has an answer. Terry Doolan reluctantly reveals that he did see a solicitor in Bourke and was advised that if he took action “it might have harmful results.” This is the one moment when knowledge of police brutality is alluded to, but little is made of it.

Eric Dixon, the man arrested with Boonie, is clearly aware of the possibility of “harmful results.” He denies knowing anything:

I have no recollection of anything that happened to Boonie Hilt in the cells and I do not remember him being taken away. In the cells he said to me, I am pretty crook. I don’t remember anything else. I cannot assist the Worship.

In cross-examination he says he has no complaints about police. The crowd listening in the gallery would have heard the rumour that police had threatened to shoot Eric Dixon if he said anything about “the bad treatment of Aboriginals.”

Aboriginal people in the crowded public gallery of the Bourke courthouse knew about Boonie Hilt’s past conflicts with police and most probably believed, as Marg does, that police deliberately jumped on him and caused his death. Thus, this inquest enhanced the suspicion that it is possible for police to wreak private vengeance on someone who opposes them. It also brings to light the plight of the police. In administering patently unjust laws they became the butt of resentment and hostility, particularly from Aboriginal men who liked to drink. In turn the police officers’ resentment at being blamed for doing what they see as their job, leads to defensiveness, even paranoia.

It may seem incredible that men can be locked up for swearing, especially in light of the regular use of expletives by police. Swearing at police has, of course, added elements of deliberate disrespect and a challenge to the law itself. Effective cursing is to do with intent and intensity, and common expressions can be used in ways that wound. Police officers, who are public officials employed by the state to see that the law is obeyed, are vulnerable to the kind of upsetting language that they are regularly exposed to in some places. Thus police may have believed, as hinted at during the inquest, that Boonie’s deathbed accusations expressed a cunning and all-consuming desire for revenge.

While the law appeared to fail Boonie, and no one was held to account for his death, there were small victories along the way. Constable Warren was forced to admit he had hit Terry Doolan. Even the sight of police being forced to defend themselves in a courtroom, facing accusations of improper practice and open to the scrutiny of the Aboriginal people, gave considerable satisfaction as well as three days of absorbing entertainment.

A half century later

Many aspects of Boonie Hilt’s case in 1956 are echoed in Cameron Doomadgee’s story. On Palm Island in 2004, Doomadgee was arrested for swearing at a police officer and put in a police station cell where, soon after, he died as a result of internal injuries received after a scuffle with Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley. In both cases the policeman claimed to have fallen on the prisoner with his knees causing internal injuries. The first coroner’s finding in the Doomadgee case was of “accidental death,” and it is here that the cases diverge, initially because the community on Palm Island rioted. The subsequent widespread protest, publicity and organised support for a proper investigation meant that eventually, in the face of much resistance from police and under intense public scrutiny, a coronial inquest was held in September 2006. There, Doomadgee’s arrest on a public nuisance charge was judged unlawful. He was found to have died as a result of punches thrown by Senior Sergeant Chris Hurley, who had lost his temper.

Hurley was charged, tried and acquitted. The fact that a formal criminal trial was conducted was a matter for triumph for Palm Islanders and for a wider public concerned to uphold the rule of law. In December 2008 a Queensland judge overturned the deputy state coroner’s finding that Hurley caused the death and ordered that a new inquest be held with a new coroner. This hearing was completed in May 2010 and delivered an open finding.

There was no public protest in Bourke after the coroner’s finding that Boonie Hilt’s death was accidental. In 1986, however, when a young Aboriginal man was run over and severely injured in Bourke, there was such a reaction. To avoid trouble the police quickly granted bail and escorted the driver out of town. In the vigorous protest that followed, many people were arrested and some faced a long drawn-out series of court cases. There is a pattern here: those who protest against perceived injustice are subjected to further criminalisation. Twenty-one people were arrested on Palm Island after the protest that followed Cameron Doomadgee’s death. Lex Wotton, the leader of the initial protesters, was charged with rioting and destruction of property, and waited four years to be tried and convicted in November 2008. Thus Aborigines may still be punished for complaining about police misbehaviour, but at least public scrutiny and a degree of redress is available.

Culture matters

Boonie Hilt’s inquest brought Aboriginal street life and everyday interaction with police into the setting of the courtroom, with its starkly formal code of conduct. The realm of the street is characterised by chance and informality, harshness and humour while within the court social interaction is directed towards instrumental ends. Though courtroom rituals are sometimes mocked by the clients, formal court hearings nominally give every individual an equal right to be heard and represented by a lawyer. It is the cultural capital of citizens and the prejudices of the court process that allow only some to take full advantage of this egalitarian system. The propriety and formality of the courtroom process favours those who developed language competence in standard and formal English. Moreover the direct physical ascendency of police in streets frequented by Aboriginal people is not challenged within the court, where police possess familiarity and appropriate skills.

It became clear during the Hilt hearing that, in the street, police are “the law” – their extra-legal discretionary powers were always obvious to Aborigines. But the police see themselves as vulnerable, and despite the privilege they enjoy in having a police officer as assistant to the coroner, the possibility of findings against them hover over the courtroom. While not a criminal trial, the unstated agenda of the inquest, fuelled by the town gossip, concerned the police officers’ responsibility for Boonie Hilt’s death. They could have faced charges of manslaughter or even murder.

We must also recognise that the police see themselves as misunderstood. They were keeping order in town on Anzac Day, the only day that two-up is allowed, and drunken revelry and disorder is expected. In trying to prevent trouble from a drunk and aggressive man, two police officers risked losing their jobs, their reputations and their freedom.

Marg Edwards’s recounting of Boonie’s story to me was an act of faith in the possibility of justice. She kept her brother-in-law’s way of death alive with the hope that it might be revisited, and that the spiralling wrongs behind both Boonie Hilt’s and Cameron Doomadgee’s deaths would be re-examined and reformed. It is systematic conditions of inequality and exclusion that generate these events and allow the law to be improperly deployed for reasons that go beyond the legal system. By detailing the legal processes, I have tried to provide clues to entrenched and unjust social and legal conditions, and to the deeper malaise that is the true cause of these tragedies. •

This essay was inspired by Marg Edwards’s determination to keep Boonie Hilt’s story alive, assisted by Boonie’s daughter, Shirley Blacklaws, who shared the inquest transcripts and her own memories with me, and contributed to by Eve Vincent, who wrote an early draft. Shirley told me that as a child she had found a wedding photo and a cutting from the Sydney Truth and guessed that Boonie Hilt was her father although her mother never spoke of him. She said, “I regret not following it up earlier because even five years earlier I could have spoken to the bookmaker… These old people still talk about it… When I went out to get [the transcript of the inquest], I started reading it and it was worse than I’d thought. I got all emotional. I saw that inquest was finalised on my second birthday! I got spooked by that. So I had them copied and took them home to read.”