Family of Aboriginal woman who died while handcuffed say lack of answers adds to grief

Cherdeena Wynne’s family still do not know what caused her death and are told it could take 12 months to find out

The family of an Aboriginal woman who died nine weeks ago after losing consciousness while handcuffed by police say they will bury her on Friday without knowing how she died.

Cherdeena Wynne, 26, died in hospital in Perth on 9 April, five days after losing consciousness while handcuffed in circumstances that Western Australian police said were related to welfare concerns and a request for assistance from paramedics.

Her family still do not know what caused her death and have been told by the coroner’s office that the final report from the neurologist, necessary to determine cause of death, could take six to 12 months to complete.

Wynne’s grandmother, Jennifer Clayton, said the delay was compounding her family’s grief.

“We would like to have answers to our questions, just something to go by, before we bury Deena,” she said.

Clayton said her request to personally view the preliminary autopsy report had been rejected by the coroner’s office, after initially being approved.

In a letter to the family’s lawyer, George Newhouse, on Thursday, the coroner’s office granted permission for a forensic pathologist appointed by the family to speak with the forensic pathologist appointed by the court and view his report, but Guardian Australia understands the initial report does not identify a clear cause of death.

Clayton said the lack of answers was exacerbating the family’s distress and fuelling distrust with police and conspiracy theories about how Wynne died.

“We are supposed to respect the police and trust the police,” she told Guardian Australia. “How can we when these things keep happening? You wonder why our young people get angry. I am just beside myself.”

Police do not consider her death to be a death in custody or a death in police presence, which would trigger a mandatory inquest, but her family say they will seek a public inquest anyway.

In an interview with Guardian Australia last month, the police commissioner, Chris Dawson, said the decision to hold an inquest would be made by the coroner, adding he “would ordinarily expect that that may go to inquest”.

Dawson said he understood “the frustration and the tension” felt by families who were waiting for answers in coronial matters.

“Clearly these [cases] have to be stepped through very, very thoroughly and we have a very strict governance over that which does prevent me from speaking with absolute clarity over all of these matters that are yet to be adjudicated by law by the coroner,” he said.

He also defended the decision not to investigate Wynne’s death as a death in custody or police presence, saying that police attendance “doesn’t axiomatically mean” that police were connected to a death.

Clayton said she understood that the investigation would take time but said it was insensitive for both police investigators and the coroner’s court to expect the family to wait 12 months for a preliminary cause of death.

“We have got to jump up and down before we get any answers and it should not be like that,” she said.

She said the process had not improved since her son, Wynne’s father Warren Cooper, died in custody in Albany in 1999. He was also 26.

Cherdeena Wynne’s father, Warren Cooper, died in police custody in Albany in 1999, 20 years before his daughter. They were both 26
Cherdeena Wynne’s father, Warren Cooper, died in police custody in Albany in 1999, 20 years before his daughter. They were both 26. Photograph: Supplied by family

Clayton is also cousin to Carol Roe, whose granddaughter, Ms Dhu, died in police custody in 2014 after enduring, as the state coroner said in findings delivered two years later, “unprofessional and inhumane” treatment by WA police.

“I have been through all this before,” she said. “They had a coronial inquest, and they said ‘wait, wait, wait’, and we are still waiting. That was 20 years ago…. I feel like I am trapped in limbo.”

Clayton called on police or the court to cut through the “confusing, difficult process” and provide her with some information that could reassure or inform the family.

“We are just asking for the truth,” she said.


Calla Wahlquist

The GuardianTramp

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