Douglas Scott murder cover-up exposed

April 20, 2005

Kathy Newnam, Darwin

The fight to expose the truth about the death in custody of Douglas Scott reached the NT Supreme Court on April 11 in a compensation case. Douglas' widow Letty and son Nathan brought the case against three NT prison officers, Barry Medley, Michael Lawson and Harold Robertson.

Douglas, who was from the Anmatyerre Aboriginal Nation of Central Australia, died in Darwin's Berrimah prison on July 5, 1985 where he was being unlawfully remanded on a warrant four times the legal time limit for failing to meet the onerous bail conditions arising from a charge of swearing in public.

In the week leading up to his death, he had told Letty that he feared for his life after threats and beatings by prison guards. Letty only learnt of his death after two days had passed, when she herself rang Berrimah prison.

Letty and her family have battled for almost 20 years for justice, facing a determined racist cover-up. The original coronial inquest and the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody both found that Douglas committed suicide.

A case that was to be heard in the NT Supreme Court to re-open the coronial inquest, which was accepted by the NT government defence representatives, was withdrawn by Letty and Nathan to prevent further legal delays in having the evidence of murder heard by the courts.

Two eyewitnesses, who have not previously given evidence in court, testified to the beating of Douglas on the night he died. Jeffrey Bindai told the court, "I heard the dead man [Douglas] cry after the three men went inside, after I heard no cry". According to Bindai, a third prison officer waited outside the cell. Another officer later told him "you'd better go to sleep, or you'll be next". Bindai told the court there was "blood there on the floor" of Douglas's cell the next morning.

Laurie Percy told the court he too heard Douglas "crying for help" for "about an hour" before he "suddenly stopped hearing the voices". He too saw blood on the sheets, walls and on the toilet of Douglas' cell the following morning and said he was ordered by prison guards to clean it up.

Scientific evidence

The seven international scientific experts who gave evidence all strongly supported the case that Douglas was murdered. "I think the death of Douglas is not suicide but homicide", the court was told by Dr Tohru Ohshima, professor of forensic pathology in Kanazawa, Japan.

The claim by Dr Kevin Lee, who carried out the original autopsy, that the mark on the neck evident in police photos of Douglas's body was an artefact of lighting was dismissed by Ohshima as well as Dr Jorgen Lange Thomsen, a UN pathologist from Denmark; Dr Cyril Wecht, medical examiner and coroner in the US; and Dr Micheal Freeman, a forensic trauma epidemiologist and consultant to the Oregon state medical examiner in the US, who stated that he had "never seen an artefact that looked like this".

Thomsen told the court that the mark on Douglas's neck was "consistent with a baton" being applied to the area. He also dismissed outright that the wound could have been self-inflicted. "I've seen many self-inflicted wounds, I've never seen one like that". These findings were consistent with those of Ohshima.

According to Wecht, the mark was "not consistent with the sheet reportedly found around the neck". He told the court that the pressure that would have been applied to the area to produce the mark could have led to unconsciousness in a short space of time and caused cardiac arrest. He also testified that the fracture found in Douglas's neck was not consistent with self-inflicted hanging.

Freeman told the court that this fracture was as likely to have been caused by a meteorite as it was by self-inflicted hanging. "You just don't find these type of fractures in this age group of men" in hanging deaths, he said.

Professor Jorge Vanrell, a forensic pathologist at the Paulista University in Brazil, who recently carried out the new autopsy of Douglas's body, also completely rejected hanging as the cause of death.

Vanrell told the court that there were no signs of asphyxia or the type of marks on the neck that would be caused by hanging.

He also gave evidence of bone fractures:

  • in the arm that indicated "direct trauma in the elbow area";

  • in the jaw and neck that were consistent with manual strangulation;

  • in the pelvic area, which could only have been caused by "a very strong kick in the genital area" or someone stamping on Douglas's hip;

  • in the skull, which he stated was of an "extremely rare" nature and only ever "associated with extreme trauma". Vanrell believes this was caused by "very strong pressure against a very hard surface like the floor" — like Douglas's head being stamped on. Such a fracture could be fatal.

Vanrell told the court that it is "absolutely impossible" for such injuries to be self-inflicted and that they could only have been inflicted by prolonged assault and torture. He said that some of these injuries would not have been detected by the first autopsy because the necessary x-rays were not carried out.


Associate professor Timothy Palmbach, a leading US crime scene reconstructionist, told the court there had been a "lack of proper crime scene protocols" observed, including an apparent staging of the scene in photographs of Douglas's cell. Freeman also told the court that the investigation had "a lot of holes" and that it looked as though it was a staged hanging.

Palmbach told the court that evidence that the crime scene integrity had been compromised included:

  • the different position of a stool in different photos of the cell;

  • the "mishandling of evidence", as the photos of Douglas's body show that the noose around his neck was removed and then retied, indicating a "staged rendition";

  • there were "viewpoints of photos that we would have expected to be taken" that were not;

  • no fingerprints were taken from the grate that Douglas is supposed to have hung himself from.

Palmbach, along with Wecht, were members of the committee of leading US experts commissioned by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation of America, which produced a reconstruction report into Douglas's death. This report was tendered as evidence in the trial.

Palmbach also testified that the stains apparent on Douglas's shirt in police photos were consistent with bloodstains — but that it would require colour photos to ascertain this for sure. The relevant Commonwealth and NT government departments have been unable to locate Polaroid photos that were taken at the scene.

Letty told the court that these photos were shown to her by the lawyer assisting the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, Geoffrey Barbaro. She testified that he had taken her aside during the royal commission hearing into Douglas's death to show her two photos of Douglas hanging in his cell. Letty drew for the court the noose she saw in the photos — tied tight around Douglas' neck with slipknots. She said, "I could see Douglas didn't tie those knots", explaining that he didn't know how to tie slipknots. "It reminded me of the deep south, in Mississippi, where they hung coloured people."

Despite Letty's insistence, these Polaroids were not tendered as evidence in the royal commission hearing, nor were the police photos of Douglas' body and his cell.

Letty rejected the claims of the defence that the police photos included copies of the original Polaroids. "I really remember the noose", she said, emphasising to the court that it was different to that depicted in the police photos. "I know what I've seen."

Dirty tricks

In cross-examining the eyewitnesses, the defence relied on interviews carried out by representatives of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, attempting to build a case of inconsistency. This argument was cut down when Laurie Percy told the court about why he hadn't initially told his story — because he "might get into trouble" with the prison officers. Jeffrey Bindai also told the court that the statement the defence presented him of an alleged discussion with royal commission officers was "all wrong".

The defence made a racist attempt to discredit Percy because he is a long-grasser (an Aboriginal person who sleeps outside). It also disregarded important cultural protocols in the questioning of the two Aboriginal men.

The case continues in the NT Supreme Court on April 18. Supporters in Darwin are urged to attend the hearing to show their solidarity. Messages of support for Letty and Nathan in their fight for justice can be emailed to <>.

From Green Left Weekly, April 20, 2005.
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