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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Murray, Edward James (1959–1981)

by Frances Peters-Little and Simon Luckhurst

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Edward James Murray (1959-1981), seasonal worker, rugby league footballer and descendant of the Kamilaroi people, was born on 6 December 1959 at Coonamble, New South Wales, son of Arthur Edward Murray and Leila Jane Button. For some of his short life, Eddie lived with his parents and eleven brothers and sisters on Tulladunna Reserve near Wee Waa.

Leaving home in the mid-1970s to undertake a basic welding course in Newcastle, Murray later moved to Sydney to play rugby league with the Redfern All Blacks A-grade team. He also worked as a fruit-picker in the Riverina area and as a cotton-chipper around Wee Waa to be closer to his family.

Murray tragically died on 12 June 1981 under suspicious circumstances in a Wee Waa police cell, where allegedly his body was found hanging from a bar above the police cell door just one hour after he was picked up outside a public hotel. Although the initial coroner’s report stated that Eddie died by hanging, it also said that it was unknown whether he was hanged by his own hand or by the hand of another ‘person or persons’.

Refusing to accept the many indeterminable circumstances surrounding his death, his parents Arthur and Leila Murray sought a full inquiry into how Eddie’s life had ended. With the support of Isabel Flick, a local Aboriginal elder and activist, and her niece Karen, from 1984 the Murrays also worked closely with Helen Boyle and the Sydney-based organisation, the Committee to Defend Black Rights.

After six years of intense political lobbying and a public outcry, the Federal government agreed in 1987 to establish the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody. Although the commission, which reported in 1991, failed to prove that Murray died because of the actions of police, Justice J. H. Muirhead, who presided over it, noted his concerns regarding the reliability of police evidence on a number of occasions. These concerns were later reiterated by the lawyers Robert Cavanagh and Gregory Woods and an academic Roderic Pitty in their book Too Much Wrong (c.1997). In the book they strongly argued that the testimony given by police officers had been unreliable on too many important matters and that the medical evidence presented to the royal commission had failed to show how Murray could have taken his own life or to explain why he had a motive to do so. They also argued for an exhumation of Eddie’s remains in a search for further evidence, which subsequently took place in November 1997. The New South Wales Police Integrity Commission was then offered material uncovered at the exhumation; however, it refused to conduct a subsequent full investigation into the circumstances of Eddie’s death.

Murray was described by his family and friends as a happy-go-lucky lad and a fit young man. His mother remembered him as a loving son, who helped her to hang out the washing on the day of his death. Although he was a promising young footballer and a seasonal worker, he is sadly remembered because his death resulted in one of the landmark cases before the royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody.

Select Bibliography

  • Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, Report of the Inquiry into the Death of Edward James Murray (1989)
  • R. Cavanagh et al, Too Much Wrong (1997)
  • R. Cavanagh and R. Pitty, Too Much Wrong, 2nd edn (1999)
  • S. Luckhurst, Eddie’s Country (2006)
  • Aboriginal Law Bulletin, Aug 1983, p 4.

Citation details

Frances Peters-Little and Simon Luckhurst, 'Murray, Edward James (1959–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 25 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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