WARNING: Indigenous readers are advised that this article includes the names of people who have passed away.

For 40 years, Derek Bromley has been in prison for a crime he maintains he never committed.

The 62-year-old Narungga Ngarrindjeri man, currently in a correctional facility north of Adelaide, is reportedly the longest-serving Indigenous prisoner in the country.

He is serving a life sentence for the 1984 murder of Adelaide man Stephen Docoza.

However, advocates say his conviction is a miscarriage of justice.

Bromley’s co-accused John Karpany was released from prison 17 years ago after admitting involvement in the murder.

In 2023, he told Channel 10’s The Project: “I always said Derek wasn’t even there; I only saw him when we ended up in the jail cell.”

Bromley has made repeated attempts over four decades to appeal his conviction. But in December 2023, the High Court ruled against re-opening his case in a three-to-two judge decision.

It closed off the last legal avenue for overturning his conviction.

But while that door closed, another may open at the end of this month.

On March 26, the Parole Board of South Australia will decide on Bromley’s newest application for parole. It will be his fifth attempt.

Impact of ‘distorted perceptions’

Greg Barns SC was part of the legal team that took Bromley’s case to the High Court in December in an attempt to have “fresh and compelling new evidence” heard.

One of their main points of focus was based around the prosecution’s main witness in the original trial, Gary Carter, who said he’d accompanied Bromley and others to the Torrens River in the early hours of April 4, 1984.

During the 1984 trial, Mr Carter gave evidence that he’d “witnessed the deceased refusing demands by Bromley and others for sexual intercourse, and then saw a violent attack”, which resulted in the drowning of Mr Docoza, Mr Barns says.

At the 2023 High Court hearing, Mr Barns’ legal team argued Mr Carter was an unreliable witness.

At the time of the incident, Mr Carter — the only witness to provide direct evidence against Bromley — hadn’t been taking his medication for the schizoaffective disorder he lived with, and he “had made some very odd comments”, Mr Barns tells ABC RN’s Law Report.

He says Mr Carter “suffered some delusions on the night of the crime and some of his evidence was clearly inaccurate”.

“On 25 or 26 April 1984, Carter mentioned that the ‘murder victim could have been king of Australia’,” Mr Barns told the High Court last year.

“He … had distorted perceptions at the very time of the Docoza events, including seeing the devil with horns and a red face. He was hospitalised on the same day [as the crime] for several months.”

Bromley’s legal team also raised questions about the pathological evidence given in 1984 by Colin Manock, then-South Australia’s chief forensic pathologist.

Dr Manock “has become more well known in more recent years with challenges to his evidence” in several different cases, and “a lack of qualifications, reliability and credibility”, Mr Barns says.

“[His] evidence in a number of cases has been proved to be highly problematic.”

Dr Manock’s evidence was that the cause of Mr Docoza’s death was drowning.

In 2017, three independent forensic pathologists “who each conducted an expert review of the forensic evidence” agreed Dr Manock’s autopsy was “inadequate”, The Monthly reported in 2019.

One of those pathologists, Professor Anthony Thomas said: “There is no substantive evidence for drowning in this case.”

However, in 2023 the High Court went through each of the criticisms and, “in essence, said either there was support for them elsewhere, or that Manock was right about certain aspects now challenged”, Mr Barns says.

The court also determined that inaccuracies and inconsistencies in Mr Carter’s accounts, assessed in their overall context, “do not support an inference that he was an unreliable witness”.

The High Court’s judgement was not to reopen Bromley’s case.

Bromley’s solicitor, Adelaide criminal lawyer Karen Stanley, accepts the court’s decision.

“When the High Court comes down, whether it’s a unanimous decision, or whether it’s a five-two [judge split] or, in the case of Mr Bromley, a three-two decision, I accept that that is the ultimate finding,” she says.

“What I will say … is that there was a really stark difference between the majority, which found the evidence wasn’t fresh and compelling, and the two dissenting judges, who found that the evidence was fresh and compelling — and went one step further and said they would have actually acquitted him.

“I think the fact that there are two High Court judges who have said, ‘Well, we’ve got some concerns here’ [about the case] — I think in a lot of ways that gives some support to Mr Bromley’s position that he didn’t do it.”

Prisoner working to protect community as firefighter

Robyn Milera has known Bromley for 30 years as a close friend and supporter. She completed a law degree to be better able to advocate for him.

“Derek Bromley is a member of the Stolen Generation[s]; he was taken away from his father and community by the Aborigines Protection Board in South Australia in 1959,” she says.

“Arguably, that has had a huge impact on the trajectory of his life.”

Robyn Milera is a long-time friend and advocate of Bromley.(AAP: Lukas Coch)

A 2009 parole board report highlighted Bromley’s list of serious convictions, and noted that since his first prison sentence back in 1974 he’d spent only 45 days in the community. A 2017 parole report also referred to assault convictions against prison guards back in 1991.

But Bromley’s behaviour in more recent years paints a different picture.

He has spent a decade volunteer firefighting with the local Country Fire Service (CFS), one of the programs at his former low-security prison, Cadell Training Centre.

He fought the 2019 South Australian fires and was involved in the recovery effort in the state’s River Murray flood last year.

“It’s overwhelmingly convincing and compelling that he has shown that he is not a threat to the community,” Ms Milera says.

Bromley, left, with his brother Russell Milera. Both men are members of the Stolen Generations.(Supplied)

“In 2019 he went over to Kangaroo Island for five days to fight the fires,” Ms Stanley says.

“He was a man in the community that was in charge of protecting the community, and people in the community listened to him … He’s a model prisoner.”

Ms Stanley argues his recent actions demonstrate that he’s capable of participating in the community.

But that’s been a sticking point in his previous parole applications.

“Really sadly, the [parole board] reports, [from 2009] right up until his most recent application, [all say] we think that Mr Bromley should be paroled, but he needs to be re-socialised,” Ms Stanley says.

“He is being re-socialised. And I don’t understand why the parole board is continuing to say he needs more socialisation.

“I think Mr Bromley has been let down by the corrections system.”

Looking to the future

Towards the end of 2023, Bromley was transferred from Cadell prison to the Adelaide Pre-release Centre. He started full-time, paid employment on November 27 with the South Australia Department of Environment and Water.

The job utilises his decade of experience as a CFS firefighter — Bromley’s work involves clearing fire breaks and doing burn-offs in areas identified as hazardous for the coming fire season.

On his first day of work he was given a phone and a bus ticket.

“He walked through the [correctional facility] gates at about 7am and headed out to work, caught two buses and was amongst his peers, earning a wage, managing a bank account, paying rent [to the Department of Correctional Services to stay at the Adelaide Pre-release Centre, because he earns a full-time wage],” Ms Milera says.

“I don’t think anyone can — I know certainly I can’t — fully appreciate what that must have felt like.”

Bromley must be back in his prison cell by 7pm at the end of each work day.

He’s got enough money to arrange for presents to be sent to his grandchildren for birthdays and Christmas, Ms Milera says.

“And he’s saving for the future”.

A ‘weird’ paradox

On March 26, 2024, the Parole Board of South Australia will decide whether or not Derek Bromley will be granted parole

Ms Milera acknowledges that the board has “a huge responsibility” to weigh up “all sorts of factors” in making its decisions.

But there’s a paradox she can’t get past.

“It’s always been such a weird thing that he can one day be in a cohort of people described as heroes, going out and protecting lives and property and throwing his body into it, and then, in the next moment, he is a prisoner, not fit to be released into the community, not fit to go home to his family,” she says.

Chair of the Parole Board of South Australia Frances Nelson KC says that while she’s limited in what she can say as Bromley’s matter is before the board, all prisoners with life sentences have their cases reviewed annually.

She says during the early days of Bromley’s sentence “his behaviour was difficult. He assaulted two corrections officers and was involved in a prison riot”.

“He created a level of reservation in corrections.

“But … in more recent years, his actions have stood him in good stead.”

Ms Nelson says “community safety is the board’s paramount consideration”.

“If an offender accepts responsibility and demonstrates an understanding of the factors that led to the offending, that indicates they are less likely to reoffend.

“It’s not the case that you have to accept responsibility. It’s not determinative. It’s only part of the picture.

“Derek Bromley has always maintained his innocence. The parole board operates on the basis that we accept the conviction and the sentencing remarks. We consider institutional behaviour, victim concerns, the likelihood of reoffending, pre-release plans — a range of factors.”

The Law Report approached the South Australian Department for Correctional Services for an interview. The department said under legislation it’s unable to speak specifically about Derek Bromley’s sentence.

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