Wayne Fella Morrison inquest: bid by prison officers to avoid some questions rejected by coroner

South Australia coroner will hear from seven guards who were in a prison transport van with the Aboriginal man who died after being held on remand

A South Australian coroner has rejected a bid from prison officers to avoid answering some questions at an inquest into the death in custody of Aboriginal man Wayne Fella Morrison.

Lawyers for seven prison officers had applied to allow all of them to give evidence on the same day and be asked basic questions to make it easier for the group to claim legal protection from answering further questions.

However, the coroner, Jayne Basheer, rejected the application, ruling that the officers be required to appear separately and claim any protections in response to a particular question, rather than all at once.

Wayne Fella Morrison was a 29-year-old Wiradjuri, Kokatha and Wirangu man who died on 26 September 2016 at the Royal Adelaide hospital.

He had no criminal convictions and was being held on remand while waiting to appear in the Elizabeth magistrates court over video link.

It had been expected that the coroner would hear evidence from seven prison guards who were with Morrison in the back of a prison transport van.

No video footage exists of the two minute and five-second trip.

Lawyers for the officers have already flagged that their clients will claim “penalty privilege” during each of their appearances to avoid talking about the trip.

Penalty privilege allows those appearing before the South Australian coroner to refuse to answer a question on the basis it may incriminate them in future proceedings or disciplinary action within their workplace.

In 2019, 18 prison officers and a nurse made an unsuccessful bid to the South Australian supreme court to have the coroner thrown off the inquest and to confirm their right to claim this privilege.

The case prompted the South Australian government to change the law to compel witnesses to give evidence during coronial inquests, but because the new laws do not apply restrospectively they do not apply to the Morrison inquest.

Earlier, Morrison’s family called on the South Australian government to ban the use of spit hoods in the state’s jails.

At a memorial held in Victoria Square in Adelaide on Thursday, Morrison’s mother, Caroline Andersen, and sister Latoya Rule gathered with supporters, holding a minute of silence for the 477 Aboriginal people who have died in custody since the 1991 royal commission.

“No parent should ever have to watch their children die,” Andersen said. “I’m angry at the lack of accountability of corrections. I’m angry that they get to pay thousands of dollars for more than 14 lawyers collectively to represent them and their interests and we only have two.

“I’m angry that from the beginning we’ve had a minimum of voice in our matter. Every new delay feels like a new splinter. I’m tired. We have waited so long. We demand answers.”

Addressing the crowd alongside Uncle Basil “Mulla” Sumner and poet Dominic Guerrera, Rule said the family was tired of the delays, the institutional response and the silence around the case from the corrections officers involved.

“Wayne did not put himself, Wayne did not cuff himself, Wayne did not carry himself, facedown into a prison van with anybody inside. He did not consent to being restrained. There were people present, prison officers. We need answers and we need justice,” Rule said.

“We want these torture devices, spit hoods, immediately and permanently banned. We want every single prison and police station in this country, every single state and territory government, to choose to treat people as humans, to respect us.

“This is a choice. People in government can decide to save lives by banning spit hoods right now.”

The speeches were followed by a silent act of protest where a van, made up as a prison transport van and emblazoned with the phrase “ban spit hoods”, arrived with several individuals dressed as prison officers.

Each wore material printed with the union jack over the heads to represent a spit hood and had blood on their hands.

The coroner’s court resumes Friday morning with corrections officer Trent Hall the first scheduled to appear.

There have been seven Indigenous deaths in custody in the past two months.


Royce Kurmelovs

The GuardianTramp

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