Think our justice system isn't racist? Compare Lynette Daley's case with the kids at Don Dale

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Lynette Daley: Violence outside court

Lynette Daley's relatives and loved ones came face-to-face with the men who have been charged over her death in January 2011.

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Following a hearing last week into the death of Lynette Daley at the Grafton Local Court, a scuffle broke out in the street. The two men accused of causing her death - Adrian Attwater and Paul Maris - had just been granted conditional bail and angry family and community members confronted them as they left the courthouse. So distressed by the confrontation was Ms Daley's sister Tina that she collapsed at the scene and had to be treated for shock at the hospital later on.

In hearing this, I felt for the family. While their relief that this case is finally being heard must be extraordinary, it would also be incredibly traumatic to be face-to-face with the people accused of being responsible for her death. It must also be somewhat of a shock to hear that men accused of such a terrible crime have been granted bail, albeit conditional, and can therefore resume their lives as the case continues.

I also felt the family's frustration. The NSW Director of Public Prosecutions had declined to prosecute these men on two separate occasions despite there being sufficient evidence to go to trial. The only reason this five-year-old case is now before the court is due to publicity brought about by a Four Corners report which aired earlier this year, along with pressure applied to the NSW Attorney General by family, by experts and by key figures, to overturn the DPP's decisions. The fact that Lynette Daley was an Aboriginal woman has been frequently cited as a reason why her case had previously been denied any prospect of justice.  

Lynette Daley

Lynette Daley

When I appeared on Q&A last Monday night, I made the claim that the justice system in this country is inherently racist. When thinking of Lynette Daley's case, it's hard to argue otherwise. At that time however, my claim was directly in reference to the brutality experienced by child inmates at the Don Dale juvenile detention centre – coincidentally also brought to public light by a Four Corners report. In particular, I noted that Indigenous children make up 97 per cent of the kids incarcerated in this system in the Northern Territory, despite only making up just over 30 per cent of the NT youth population.


That a teenage, homeless Aboriginal boy can not only be readily incarcerated but also brutalised within the system for stealing a car, while at the same time the two white men allegedly responsible for the death of an Aboriginal woman - and who actively lied in their statements - nearly didn't get prosecuted at all, beggars belief.

The day following the confrontation in Grafton marked two years since 22-year-old Ms Dhu died in police custody. Ms Dhu was a victim of domestic violence. She should have been treated with all the care and consideration our community services could provide. It's reported however that on being called out to a "disorderly", rather than assisting Ms Dhu, police decided to lock her up after a background check revealed unpaid fines. 

While in custody, Ms Dhu was mocked and ridiculed and called a "junkie". When police actually heeded her calls of ill health and accompanied her to the South Hedland Health Campus, she was discharged three times without being properly checked. She was even accused of "attention-seeking" by a doctor.

Ms Dhu died in agony due to septicaemia and pneumonia originating from an infection in a broken rib. Her family had to fight to get the WA government to hold an inquest into her death, and even then, their calls for the footage of her time behind bars to be released have been denied.

It is significantly easier for Aboriginal people to be imprisoned than it is for them to seek justice through the exact same system. Yet talking about the structural racism the justice system continually reinforces seems to make people feel uncomfortable. People and politicians would rather talk about socioeconomic factors that contribute to higher crime rates in some communities than confront the fact that all are not seen as equal before the law.

The imprisonment rates of Aboriginal women have doubled in the past decade, accounting for almost all the increase noted in the female prison population over that time. A reasonable portion of these incarcerated Aboriginal women have also been victims of crime, such as domestic violence. Some may have reported these instances, others probably didn't.

When we hear how a case such as Lynette Daley's is handled by the system though, and we know how a domestic violence victim like Ms Dhu was treated, what confidence are Aboriginal women supposed to have that our cases will be handled fairly and correctly? How do we know we won't end up being victimised by the justice system as well?

I hope that Lynette Daley's family receives some form of justice for her now this case is being heard. I hope her seven children receive some peace knowing that a fair process has finally been undertaken.

But I also wish that I held faith that this will be the case for them, and for other Aboriginal women who are victims.