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Thursday, 31 May 1990
Page: 1558

Senator JENKINS(1.42) —The State Coroners Acts have been criticised by former Commissioner Muirhead in his interim report on Aboriginal deaths in custody. Coroners, he states, have insufficient powers and resources. In Western Australia, for example, witnesses are not obliged to give evidence or to come under cross-questioning during coroners' inquiries. I have referred before in this place to the example of the death of Stephen Wardle on 4 February 1988. During the inquiry into his death the 17 policemen and women who were present in the police station when he died were not asked to present evidence at the inquiry. The coroner is attached to a section of the police department and must rely on police evidence. This poses obvious concerns when a death occurs in police custody. Had our State Coroners Acts been stronger, there probably would have been no need for a royal commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody.

Today I want to make just a few brief remarks on the death in custody of Daniel John Morris. He was found dead in police custody at 4.05 a.m. on 18 August 1988. The findings of the Coroners Court at Westmead were brought down on 29 August 1989. In his findings, Mr Hiatt, the Coroner, stated:

The determination of the court is, that Daniel John Morris died on 18 August 1988 within cell one, Mount Druitt Police Station, Mount Druitt, from hanging wilfully self inflicted with intention of taking his own life. With recommendations made by the Court to the Minister of Police.

There appear to be many irregularities that are not conclusive or consistent with Mr Hiatt's findings. The forensic pathologist witness and Government Medical Officer, Dr P. S. J. Ellis of Westmead Hospital, indicated that cause of death was inconclusive. Part of his evidence included reference to major bruising to part of the deceased's neck which was not consistent with hanging, but with strangling. That evidence is clearly in the transcript.

Also, evidence given by Detective Sergeant R. L. Wyse which, again, may be seen in the court transcripts, reveals that there were no fingerprints of the deceased in the area. So it is alleged that Mr Morris managed to climb approximately 10 feet, secure one leg of his jeans to a crossbar, secure the other leg by means of a knot tied around his neck, then proceed to jump in order deliberately to hang himself. During the questioning at the inquest, this question was asked:

So there are in fact prints that are identifiable but not capable of being compared to any known prints, is that the situation?

Sergeant Wyse responded:

Yes, the prints are identifiable but we can't find out who owns them.

Later he stated that the prints found had been compared with palm prints on file of Mr Morris, and then compared again with prints taken at the morgue, both with a negative result; both with a `no'.

There are many other questionable irregularities. For example, there are time discrepancies between the police car diaries and the police radio log. There are other discrepancies. Daniel John Morris's blood alcohol reading when he was picked up by the police the previous night at 11.30 p.m. was 0.231. He was last spoken to about 20 to 25 minutes before he was found dead. When he was spoken to at that time he was told that he would soon be released on unconditional bail. Yet despite this, a press account in the Sydney Morning Herald of 30 August 1989 was headlined; `Danny, a typical case of cell death'. I quote from that article:

His case was typical. He had a blood alcohol reading of 0.231 when he was picked up. Police figures show that 27 of those who have died were intoxicated, and at least 13 had a blood alcohol level of more than 0.2.

It is implied, therefore, that his death in custody was typical in all other aspects. He was not processed, as I said before, for unconditional bail until 3.40 a.m. yet he was picked up at 11.30 p.m. When he was picked up he was in the company of his young son, Timothy, aged 3 years old at the time, and he was arrested on a charge of offensive language. He was taken to the police station where he was left handcuffed to a metal rail of the dock until he was formally charged at 1.00 a.m. I quote again from the same article in the Sydney Morning Herald:

At 1.30 a.m. he was moved to Cell One, the only cell in Mt Druitt station where he could effectively hang himself. He was moved ``because he was noisy'', said one officer.

The coroner did make certain recommendations as it was responsible for him to do. He recommended that written records should be kept, countersigned by a supervisory officer, showing the times that cells are checked, and that the record should be made immediately after the cells are checked. He recommended putting video cameras in the cells of the Mount Druitt police station and for these cameras to be monitored at all times when the cells are occupied. He recommended that if a cell death does occur, the radio room immediately start to record on cassette all information relating to the event. Finally, he recommended the removal of all horizontal bars in the cells.

The family of the deceased is calling for a full and open inquiry into the death of Daniel John Morris. They have asked for my support in this. I give them that support wholeheartedly, and it is for that reason that I have made these remarks in the chamber today.