Aboriginal transgender woman Veronica (Paris) Baxter was locked in Silverwater prison on March 14, 2009. She was found hanging from a bed sheet tied to the top bunk in her cell at 6am on March 16.
Supporters waged a public campaign for two years calling for an inquiry into her death. The NSW coroner held the inquiry on April 4. The inquest was slated to last two days, but it was all over by 3.30pm.
Deputy coroner Paul MacMahon held a press conference at 6.30pm to invoke section 75(5) of the Coroners Act 2009, which prohibits the publication of the inquest’s findings in deaths ruled as self-harm.
An individual faces a $1100 fine or six months jail if they do not comply. A media outlet can be fined $5500.
MacMahon’s order meant information about the inquest could not be made public, in effect gagging any media publicity or comment on the case.
By 7pm, articles about the inquest outcome by the Associated Australian Press, the Sydney Morning Herald, and the ABC had been removed.
When activists contacted the coroner’s court to ask the reasons behind the gag motion, they were told it was to “protect the family”.
However, Indigenous Social Justice Association (ISJA) spokesperson Ray Jackson told GLW that a member of Baxter’s family said they had not been contacted by the coroner’s office, but instead urged by a solicitor from the Aboriginal Legal Service to accept the continuation of the gag order.
Authority to act on behalf of Baxter’s family has now moved from the ALS to the ISJA.
The family member wanted the details of Baxter’s case to become public, so such a tragedy would never happen again Jackson said.
“This inquiry was a sham. It did not resolve how she died. We saw a whitewash — and on the 20th anniversary of the Royal Commission into Black Deaths in Custody”, he added.
“After the farce of this inquiry, we then saw censorship of the like I have never seen before, in my 20 years of campaigning against black deaths in custody.”
The only witnesses called before the inquiry were the police investigative officer, a corrective services investigative officer, and a jail programs manager who had arranged for the transgender correctional officer to talk to Baxter.
All the witnesses were vague in several important areas of their individual responsibility.
The inquiry revealed Baxter made four emergency calls during the night of her death. No witness addressed if those emergency calls had been answered, or by who.
The inquiry also revealed all the psychological assessments made of Baxter before her death said she was not suicidal. One counsellor said she was “smiling, happy and talking”.
The inquiry did not examine if Baxter had access to her hormone treatment while in custody.
Activist norrie mAy-welby told GLW: “Deputy coroner MacMahon declared corrective services followed the NSW transgender imprisonment policy to the letter. But we had no evidence to confirm she had been given her hormones. If trans people are not given their hormones, they can become suicidal.”
New South Wales Greens MO David Shoebridge said he would refer Baxter’s death to a parliamentary inquiry with the power to call witnesses, SMH.com.au said on April 10.
Jackson said: “We need another inquiry, and we won’t stop until we get one. The coroner tried to hide this case. Why? If they have nothing to hide, then why this gag motion? We don’t know what happened to Veronica Baxter, because the inquiry was a charade.”
[Community Action Against Homophobia and ISJA have called a rally at noon on April 15 outside the Glebe coroner’s court to demand a new inquiry into Baxter’s death.]