Blacks reply to claims on deaths in custody


By Tracy Sorensen

SYDNEY — The Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Watch Committee has made a scathing reply to a column in the Sydney Morning Herald on March 19 by former NSW magistrate Kevin Waller. "The families of Aboriginals who have died in custody in NSW will suffer again because of these white lies", committee chairperson Arthur Murray said.

Waller claimed that "The recent revelations on the ABC of some crass police behavior in dealing with Aborigines and Aboriginal issues have had the effect of distorting the overall picture".

Footage of "black faced" police officers with nooses round their necks pretending to be David Gundy (shot in bed during a police raid) and Lloyd Boney (who died in a police lockup) at a party in Bourke was shown on ABC television on March 12.

Far from distorting the "overall picture", Perth-based deaths in custody activist Helen Corbett noted that the footage confirmed what Aboriginal groups had been trying to say about police attitudes for years.

Waller claimed that there had not been a single death of an Aborigine in a police cell in NSW since 1987, and that in the past three years there have been "24 deaths by suicide in NSW prisons, of whom only three were Aborigines".

He said that the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was established in 1987 as a response to "hysterical and highly publicised reactions to various Aboriginal deaths in custody", and said that the public should have welcomed the commission's failure to "isolate a single case out of 99 investigated where any police or prison officer was guilty of any crime in connection with the death in custody of any Aborigine".

According to criminology lecturer Chris Cuneen, there have been "at least seven Aboriginal deaths in NSW since May 31, 1989. These have occurred in Long Bay (3), Maitland, Silverwater, Lithgow and Parklea. In reality there have been more Aboriginal deaths in NSW jails since May 1989 than during the previous nine years investigated by the Royal Commission."

Waller's careful use of the word "cell", said Cuneen, allowed him to skirt the fact that the royal commission had been investigating deaths in custody.

Arthur Murray, who campaigned for the royal commission, said it was insulting for Waller to dismiss his efforts and those of others as "hysterical". Murray's son Eddie died in a police cell in Wee Waa in suspicious circumstances.

"We have copped a lot of ignorant abuse in the past, but it makes you wonder when a former state coroner openly attacks Aboriginal families who have been through hell", said Murray. Murray remains unsatisfied with the royal commission inquiry into his son's death, which was held seven years after the event. No further action was taken on a coronial inquest which found that Eddie Murray had died "at the hands of a person or persons unknown".

"There were clear findings that police fabricated or withheld evidence in at least a dozen cases, but nothing has been done to give our people justice", said Murray. "What we need from retired lawyers is some genuine cooperation to help our communities reduce the number of Aboriginals in custody, not attacks which hurt us, because they are wrong and unfair."

Cuneen pointed out that Waller was subject to some scathing criticism for his role as coroner in the investigation of the death of David Gundy at the hands of NSW SWOS officers. Waller was accused by the royal commission of attempting to divert an inquiry into police by the NSW ombudsman.

The royal commission stated that Waller "displayed not only a misunderstanding of the law but an excessive concern for the importance of his own office".

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