Two years stolen: wrongful imprisonment

Alex Tighe reports on the horrors of a young man, thrown behind bars without so much as a trial.

Police persecution saw a vulnerable Aboriginal boy spend two years behind bars without trial, before being acquitted of all charges. When 20-year-old Edward Quinlan finally had his opportunity in court it took just four days to prove the evidence identifying him to be unreliable. He walked free at exactly 4pm, 27 March 2014. Quinlan is now preparing to sue the State of NSW to secure compensation for his time spent unjustly incarcerated.

Quinlan had never been in custody before, and had no idea of the horrors that awaited him. “It’s hard to see people get stabbed or overdosing on drugs in prison,” he said.

“Jail’s not a place you’re supposed to go”.

Eight and a half months of Quinlan’s imprisonment were spent in solitary segregation in a cold, cramped cell with one tiny Perspex window – ‘segro’. Segregation is an additional level of punishment, imposed arbitrarily by the prison staff with no judicial oversight or monitoring.

“In segro, one officer used to come to the cell and chuck milk under the door and say, ‘Here’s your fuckin’ milk’. I just had to be the better person and clean it up,” Quinlan recalls. The fact that he was yet to be trialled made prison life even more difficult. Without a permanent legal status, Quinlan was constantly relocated between prisons in the back of a truck. He described the trucks as “metal cages without toilets”. He would often arrive at a destination late at night, only to be woken at 5am and transported again.

While in prison, Quinlan’s sister and grandfather passed away. He was in segregation the day he received the news of his grandfather’s death.

“Being in a situation like that, you don’t know whether you’re going to make it out, or if your family is going to be there on the other side,” he said.

Edward Quinlan’s ordeal was not the first time his family had fallen victim to extreme injustice. Quinlan is named after his uncle Edward Murray, who was found beaten and hanged in his cell, just an hour after being arrested in Wee Waa, 1981. Murray’s death became a focus of the 1987 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

Edward Quinlan was shown a documentary about the death of his uncle during his own time in prison. “In the video, they showed my pop talking. I took that pretty hard, because you know, these two people are gone,” he shared with Indigenous Honi.

In the month leading up to his trial, Quinlan was informed that he would not be legally represented. On the supposed strength of the prosecution case, Legal Aid had initially advised Quinlan to engage in a plea bargain. When he refused to plead guilty for something he had not done, Legal Aid withdrew their help.

The Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) was aware of Quinlan’s case, yet was not equipped with the resources to commit to what was estimated to be a two-week trial.

Without Legal Aid or assistance from the ALS, Quinlan’s case would have been adjourned due to the unfairness of going into trial unrepresented. The next available trial date was approximately a year later. It is almost certain that Quinlan would still be in custody today, had solicitor Abdullah Reslan not agreed to represent him on a pro bono basis.

“When the family called me and told me about this kid, I knew I had to rearrange my diary,” Reslan said. On 13 March, he agreed to take the case on. By 17 March, he was travelling to the North Coast (the location of the alleged crime) to apply for an adjournment of one week, along with a trial without jury to reduce delay. Both were granted. The trial proper began on Monday 24 March, and on Tuesday the judge dismissed two of the ten charges. With the Crown’s case already faltering, Prosecutor Greg Fatches made a phone call to the DPP’s office in Sydney. Fatches was instructed to continue on with the case.

“The kid had been sitting there for two years – they had to get something or it looked very bad,” Reslan said.

The rest of the Prosecution’s case crumbled on 27 March, and Edward Quinlan walked free after two years and five days of unjust imprisonment.

The Crown relied on two crucial pieces of evidence. A witness to the alleged crime had seen the incident at a distance, through the glare of headlights. The witness in question was initially unable to produce a name, but after a few days of talking in the community he identified Quinlan as the criminal. In a photo array, however, that same witness selected a person unrelated to
the incident as the perpetrator.

Justice Roy Ellis ruled that this “contaminated” identification was inadmissible as evidence. The Quinlan clan is a large Aboriginal family on the north coast: Edward Quinlan strongly believes that he was targeted for persecution because of his family name.

The second piece of evidence was a recorded police interview with Quinlan from March 2012. At the time, Quinlan expressed a desire not to be interviewed; yet the officer in charge proceeded with questioning. When the evidence was produced in court two years later, Justice Roy Ellis openly reprimanded the Officer in Charge, noting that “Police utilised overpowering tactics and trickery during the interview which worked as a device to unfairly eliminate Edward’s right to silence”.

“They treated me bad, they treated me unfairly,” Quinlan said. “… I was an easy target”. The Court ruled the police interview inadmissible.

Prior to his incarceration, Quinlan was playing for the junior Balmain Wests Tigers, coached by the legendary rugby league player David Brooks. Brooks intended to sign Quinlan on a 4-year contract with the club.

“I had a good football career and now it’s all gone down the drain,” Quinlan said. “I look up to my big cousin, Greg Inglis, and it just makes me want to get back into my footy, where I left off”.

Besides rugby, Quinlan has turned his mind to founding a program to assist young Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who are being persecuted by the law, just as he was. “The only thing you think of when you’re in jail is your people, your culture. I don’t want younger people going through the same thing as I did. That’s where all of my hurt is coming from”.

Editor’s note:

Quinlan’s case serves as a reflection on the dire need for funding to the Legal Aid system and the ALS in order to prevent the miscarriages of justice these services were designed to combat. Abdullah Reslan commented that, “Too many young Indigenous members of our community are being caught up in the criminal justice system, with an increasing number of cases resulting in notably unjust and undue outcomes, primarily due to the lack of resources available.” The Editor-in-Chief would like to thank Alex for his effort in securing this story.

The shame of living in a country whose legal system allows for the wrongful imprisonment of any person cannot be denied. It is essential that the exercise of police powers be more rigorously monitored and controlled in order to prevent any further brutality and injustice.

“Maintaining a fair and accessible justice system should at all times be the overarching concern of Government,” Reslan said to Tighe. Edward Quinlan’s dreams were put on hold, perhaps even destroyed by the discrimination that continues to contaminate our criminal ‘justice’ system. However, this report exposes problems that are not beyond repair. With conscientious, dedicated effort, the Australian legal system will be able to serve the needs of its community fully and fairly.

It is the hope of Indigenous Honi that this story will empower our readers to seriously consider what it is to be ruled by a justice system that can operate to commit more heinous and damaging crimes than those
it seeks to punish and prevent.

Madison McIvor