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Painful road to answers for Danny Boy

Danny’s ash brown hair bounced behind him as he ducked and wove. He virtually danced around the field as he ran — his skill in footy was evident to anyone who’d watch him, and so (say his sisters) was his cheek. He was the top try scorer in every year he played. His mother, Kylie, followed him with glinting dark eyes.

Danny Whitton died after falling ill over two days in 2015 at Junee Correctional Centre . He was 25, an Aboriginal man, once a Newcastle Knights reserve. He inherited his mother’s eyes.

Five years later, the inquest into his death was yet again delayed. It was originally set down for five days in 2020, and moved to February 2021 because of COVID concerns. It was held over again after a week of complex evidence from pathology experts, a lost morning to undisclosed delays, emerging conflicts of interest between and among parties, and frustrated recollections in memory from the massive delay. 

On what they initially thought would be the final day of the inquest, his sisters Michaela and Nikita held a press conference.

‘This week has helped to answer a few of those questions and fill in some blanks for our family. It has been helpful to understand more about what happened to Danny, but it has caused anger and sadness too. We have learned that so much more care could have been offered to our Danny boy while he was in prison.’

Image Supplied: Press Conference

***

The day before, Danny’s family heard from emergency medicine experts that his death may have potentially been averted with a few simple measures — testing, treatment, resources. Instead, his family and witnesses inside Junee have said, Danny was pallid, pained and jaundiced without medical care, while other men in prison watched on and waited for nurses to arrive.

‘I asked the officers if they could come and help him because he needs help. They just basically said: yeah mate, whatever.’ A witness who was in Junee with Danny told the inquest.

It was a blow to hear evidence that Danny could have lived had he received early diagnosis and treatment. His death wasn’t inevitable — despite what a court or state party might sometimes suggest about Aboriginal deaths in custody — and much of his long agony could have been avoided.

It confirmed something his family have been saying persistently — that Danny should have come home to them. Instead, they received a call from Wagga Base Hospital many hours into his ordeal. He was suffering from liver failure. He was being airlifted to Sydney.

‘He had the right to healthcare, just like every single person in custody. If that care had been given to Danny, we believe our boy would still be here with us today.’ Nikita said outside of the court on Friday.

***

When lawyers entered State Coroners Court on Friday, Danny’s family were not yet present. They were bracing for the day’s proceedings after what they learned.

While Danny’s family sat in the crisp post-storm sun with a box of Justice For Danny shirts, Courtroom 2 was full of collegial chit chat about drinks and weekend plans. A barrister in a pinstripe suit entered. Someone at the bar table exclaimed ‘Now this is a proper inquest!’. There was a little mutual chuckle. 

A photo of Danny remained at the bench in full view of the witness stand, where his family put it at the start of the inquest and where it has stayed for most of the week.

***

When they first opened the inquest, Kylie spoke publicly in an Aboriginal Legal Service press release about caring for her son as he died. 

When the decision was made to withdraw life support, she approached him to touch his face, something denied her earlier until she could produce identification proving she was his mother. She wanted to curl up beside him and sing him to sleep. She was physically stopped by Corrective Services staff, who told her that touching Danny was ‘tampering with evidence’ in the property of Corrective Services. Her care and love for Danny was treated as a transgression on carceral process.

Solicitor for the family, ALS’ Steven Rees, asked those gathered at Friday’s press conference outside the Coroners Court to imagine the scale of grief experienced by all families who have lost loved ones in custody — more than 440 have endured the same experience as Kylie, Nikita and Michaela.

‘Imagine how many families and communities are carrying this heavy burden of grief. Today we repeat our calls for systemic accountability. Danny Whitton did not have to die. We call for urgent action to prevent further devastating deaths in custody.’ Rees said.

***

The inquest will continue into May 2021 and resume with evidence from Justice Health and attendant nurses. In the meantime, the thirtieth anniversary of the final report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody will pass — and there’s an expectation the NSW Select Committee on the High Level of First Nations People in Custody and Oversight and Review of Deaths in Custody will deliver its recommendations.

‘My brother Danny passed away much too young. Five years later, our family still feels his loss every day. We do not want to see one more family have to go through this. Let’s honour Danny’s memory and make sure this never happens again.’

Images used with the permission of Danny’s family.

 

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