Aunty Tanya Day’s Inquest – Daily Updates

The inquest was opened with an acknowledgement of country by Yorta Yorta Elder Uncle Colin Walker. Uncle Colin poured sand from Dhungalla/ the Murray River on the bench to explain where Aunty Tanya Day commonly found rest and how she was denied such rest prior to her death.

Tany Day 's Family walk down the street performing traditional smoking and walking

Day 1

Prior to the inquest, the family and supporters held a smoking ceremony in ‘Kings Domain’, a space that had once held Camp Sovereignty. Attendees marched to the Coroners Court of Victoria.

The inquest was opened with an acknowledgement of country by Yorta Yorta Elder Uncle Colin Walker. Uncle Colin poured sand from Dhungalla/ the Murray River on the bench to explain where Aunty Tanya Day commonly found rest and how she was denied such rest prior to her death.

Mr Morrissey, a lawyer for the Day family, read a statement humanising Aunty Tanya Day and speaking to the sovereignty work she carried out during her life,

“We are sure that if her life was not so callously taken in police custody that today she would be on Djab Wurrung Country, defending Sacred women’s country, defending sovereignty and resisting the same forces of colonisation that prey on Aboriginal women’s lives every day and everywhere.”

This is the first inquest to approach the issue of systemic racism in Australia.

On its first day, the court heard from off-duty V/Line staff who described Aunty Tanya Day as ‘unruly’.

Shaun Irvine, a conductor who was on-duty at the time, said he asked for Ms Day’s ticket and when she didn’t give a ‘meaningful response’, he ‘may have’ resolved to call police in less than a minute.

When asked why if he offered her a glass of water, or asked her name, or thought about the consequences of calling the police on an Aboriginal woman, he responded ‘No.’ When asked why he didn’t, he said ‘I’m not sure.’

Day 2

The day opened with the Coroner reading from her ruling. An application made on the first day of the inquest by the ABC and The Age — supported by the family — to release all the CCTV footage, did not get up. The footage would have allowed the family to continue the advocacy of Aunty Tanya Day herself against deaths in custody, her family’s lawyers argued. Harrison Day, her uncle, died in custody in 1982 after being arrested for a $10 fine and for ‘drunk and disorderly’ conduct. The ruling was met with sighs.

The hearing continued with two witnesses from V/Line, Victoria’s regional train network, that transported Aunty Tanya Day that day — train conductor Shaun Irvine and acting general manager Michael Brady. A third witness, the train driver, was not called to the stand after it was revealed — after twenty months of investigation — that he denied it was his voice on the recording making the call for police to remove Ms Day from the train.

Shaun Irvine, the conductor who made the decision to call the police to remove Ms Day from the train, was asked by counsel for V/Line if he had any close Aboriginal friends, and if he could describe them. Irvine replied that he had one close Aboriginal friend in school. Court attendees murmured.

On both days he gave evidence, Irvine denied thinking of Aunty Tanya Day as Aboriginal. Counsel for Ms Day’s family asked ‘Is it because you’re concerned that an allegation of racism, either direct racism or unconscious racism, might be coming your way?’

Irvine replied  ‘No.’

Day 3

The Day family and community supporters, as well as a multitude of Victorian Police officers and other Victorian Police employees, filled two Coroner’s Court rooms throughout day three of the inquest.

The inquest was dominated by evidence from Victorian Police officers. Senior Constable Stephen Thomas, who was one of two officers who took Aunty Tanya Day from the train. Thomas gave evidence that he commonly made the decision to drive alcohol-affected people home and issue a notice for public drunkenness, rather than lock them up.

Thomas also gave evidence that he was concerned for Aunty Tanya Day’s welfare, believing her to be a danger to herself and others, but did not believe she was disoriented enough to require medical assistance. He told the court that calling an ambulance didn’t cross his mind. The nearest hospital, he confirmed, was two minutes’ drive away.

Constable Aaron Towns gave evidence that police didn’t explicitly tell Aunty Tanya Day that she was under arrest. Instead, she was ‘compelled’ to ‘come with them’ from the train — after which point she would have been under arrest. Towns also gave evidence that he was unaware of the level of intoxication Aunty Tanya Day presented as arresting officers did not administer a breathalyzer test that would have confirmed Aunty Tanya Day had a blood alcohol reading of at least 0.231.

At the end of the day, Towns was asked by the family’s counsel ‘If someone asked you to drive Tanya back home, would you do it?’

He responded, ‘If I was asked by a sergeant to do it? Then, yeah, I’d do it.’

Day 4

On day four CCTV footage of Aunty Tanya Day being escorted by police from a police divvy van into the Castlemaine Police Station was shown in the Coroner’s Court. Senior Constable and Police Aboriginal Liaison Officer (PALO) Matthew Fitzgibbon, a caucasian man, gave evidence that Aunty Tanya Day cried while at the charge counter inside the station. CCTV also showed Aunty Tanya receiving a blanket once inside the police cell. Fitzgibbon stated in his evidence that he ‘believe[d] she was treated appropriately. Drunks don’t usually get blankets and mattresses, intoxicated people. We treated her with as much dignity and respect as we could.’

Silent tears were shed by many loved ones and supporters of Aunty Tanya Day during the viewing.

Senior Constable Kristian Hurford, Fitzgibbon’s partner that day, gave evidence that he thought Aunty Tanya Day ‘was wobbly on her feet, a bit bemused by the situation, and started to cry. I told her to calm down’. He confirmed that he had not told her that she was under arrest — ‘it was never discussed but obviously we presumed because the other members had been with her.’ When asked if Ms Day seemed ‘bemused’ because she may not have understood that she was under arrest, Senior Constable Hurford responded ‘Maybe.’

Day 5 

Sandra Owen, Chair of the Aboriginal Community Justice Panel (ACJP) in the Dja Dja Wurrung area, gave evidence across day five of the inquest. A review of the function of the ACJP in 2015 found that it plays an important role in ‘repairing the relationship between Aboriginal people and police, and assisting local indigenous people in accessing criminal justice services’ but that it is ‘clearly under-resourced’.

Owen had responded to the call from police that Aunty Tanya Day had been detained.

On day four Senior Constable and Police Aboriginal Liaison Officer (PALO) Matthew Fitzgibbon gave evidence that the ACJP did not know Aunty Tanya Day and did not want to collect her from the station. In response to Fitzgibbon’s evidence, Owen gave evidence that “I told him that we couldn’t come and pick her up when she was drunk and we would have to wait until she was sober.”

Owen cried at points during her evidence and also noted that since Aunty Tanya’s death, the ACJP had been keeping note in survey monkey of who the arresting officer was when they received a call that there is an Aboriginal person in custody, noting that there was a pattern.

Morrissey asked Owen ‘Do you see the need for sobering up centres with a health focus?’

She responded with, ‘Yes. I think we need that across the board.’

Despite having 2 years, VLine had given the name of the wrong train driver, and when he was questioned in the first week stated that he was not driving the train. VLine identified the right one, and he gave his evidence today too.

Day five concludes week one of the inquest into Aunty Tanya’s death in custody. Week two of the inquest will provide CCTV footage to the court of Aunty Tanya Day in the police cell. Thoughts are with the Day family and wider community at this time.

Day 6

The first day of the second week of the inquest was incredibly distressing and challenging for Aunty Tanya Day’s family and community, and their supporters. A number of police officers gave evidence.

The first was Leading Senior Constable Wayne Rowe and he gave evidence that he directed police officers to call the ACJP workers, despite Senior Constable Matthew Fitzgibbon being the Police Aboriginal Liaison Officer (PALO). Rowe stated that Aunty Tanya Day was compliant and that he told Aunty Tanya – who he thought to be drunk – that it was best for her to ‘sleep it off’. He said he believed that for her own safety, the cell was the best place for her.

Next, Leading Senior Constable Wayne Caines gave evidence that he believed a physical welfare check of a person in custody does not require police to be present in the cell. Caines and then Constable Danny Wolters spent 5 – 6 seconds with Aunty Tanya and spoke to her through the cell door without opening the flap. He stated this was because “we didn’t want to disrupt her experience more.” Caines also gave evidence that Wolters received a verbal response from Aunty Tanya after asking if she was okay, but says he didn’t hear it, despite standing directly behind Wolters.

Asked if in hindsight, is there anything he would have done differently, Caines paused for a few seconds before responding, ‘No.’

After lunch, the CCTV footage of Aunty Tanya alone in the cell at Castlemaine Police station was played to the court. Four hours of footage was condensed into around fifteen minutes, where the court was shown five times that Aunty Tanya fell and hit her head, including the time she fell and suffered the catastrophic head injury. This was met with shocked gasps and crying from people who were watching within the court. It was around 5pm when she fell and hit her head on the cell wall, a fall we now know caused Aunty Tanya’s brain hemorrhage. It took three hours for police to call an ambulance.

The family supported media requests made to the court for the release of the footage, but the Coroner rejected this request and insisted that she would wait until later in the inquest until she made a ruling regarding the release of this footage. In the meantime, please see link to Calla’s detailed description of the video. A warning that it is distressing to read. 

Sergeant Edwina Neale gave evidence after lunch. Neale was the person with the ultimate decision as to whether Aunty Tanya would be detained in the cells. Neale was also the Custody Supervisor, so she oversees how people are treated and importantly she instructs about how often to do checks when people are in custody. Neale stated that she was responsible for Aunty Tanya’s initial welfare check and gave evidence that Aunty Tanya was, ‘belligerent – when she came in I asked her name and did she understand she was arrested and she didn’t want to speak to me and that she only wanted to talk to Hurford – so maybe belligerent is the wrong word, she was hostile’.

Evidence was also given that welfare checks involve ensuring that people can be roused – this was what was supposed to happen in the cells every 20 minutes initially and later every 40 minutes – the length of time between physical checks is something Neale is responsible for as the custody supervisor. Neale stated that she initially mandated the checks occur every 20 minutes because Aunty Tanya was “vulnerable” but she downgraded the physical checks (with a cctv footage check in between) to every 40 minutes because Watchhousekeeper Dannyh Wolters told her that she was “becoming a bit distressed and asking to go home and he felt that she would be better if she was left to sleep a bit longer in between checks.”

So, it was Neale and Wolters who downgraded by 50% the number of physical checks that were required to be done on Aunty Tanya. This was done about seven minutes AFTER she sustained the catastrophic head injury in the cell. During this period Aunty Tanya began displaying marked injuries from the effects of the growing brain hemorrhage. So, effectively, they made this decision as her brain commenced the hemorrhage that led to her death.

Aunty Tanya was dying as these police checks on her welfare were being made and her well-being was deemed satisfactory for hours on police logs. A part of these checks is that a person in custody who is deemed intoxicated needs to be able to be ‘roused’ by the police officer when they are making the physical checks. As a result, what constitutes ‘rousing’ is a point of questioning which is arising – is it enough that someone moves slightly, or if someone makes noise or says something?

Despite all other police witnesses giving evidence during the past week maintaining that they have had no discussions with each other about Aunty Tanya’s death, Neale stated they had “all been talking this week.”

Day 7

The Day family and community and their supporters have maintained a strong physical presence throughout inquest proceedings. In the foyer, the outside wall of the coroner’s court room is also now covered with photos of Aunty Tanya Day and her family to memorialise her life.

On this day the inquest was opened with further evidence provided by Sergeant Edwina Neale. When questioned by a Day family barrister on whether Neale thought Aunty Tanya could have required medical attention during the initial stages of her time in the police cell, Neale responded, “…I could see no reason to take [Aunty Tanya Day] to hospital. She was intoxicated… Ms Day wasn’t ill and wasn’t injured.”

Neale also gave evidence that up until six months ago she believed that Aunty Tanya had arrived at the station with a prior brain-bleed but was told later by police that this in fact was incurred within the cell. This is despite widespread reporting in news and media outlets that the injuries causing Aunty Tanya’s death were sustained from an injury in the cells. The lack of care given to Aunty Tanya while she was in police custody is a strong focus of day 7 questioning, with continued questions asked in different ways about why police did not enter the cell to conduct their physical checks (the limited times they actually attended the cells), and various questions around what is a sufficient response from a person who is incarcerated regarding whether they are okay, or not.

This is one of the exchanges we observed:

Morrisey – “Her conscious state was worse than at the charge counter….her motor skills were completely gone. It is not that hard to go in and look. You get good information when you go in and look. Why wasn’t that done throughout the night?”

Neale – “We got the verbal response”

Morrisey continued to press Neale with, “Well you didn’t get any verbal response because you didn’t go in once, did you?”

More footage was shown to the court of Aunty Tanya in cell 1 at Castlemaine Police Station. It is being shown in sections as the coroner ruled at the beginning of the inquest that the footage was to be shown as it arised in questioning, rather than all at once as the family’s legal team asked. The footage shown today was a condensed version of the four hours that Aunty Tanya spent in her cell injured with a brain bleed as a result of hitting her head on the wall. It showed Aunty Tanya falling from her bed onto the hard cell floor. It showed paramedics and police members presumably discussing her condition and subsequently paramedics dragging her by the arm to the gurney.

The day ended with Neale and will begin tomorrow with SNC Danny Wolters, who was the watchhouse keeper.

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