Ms Dhu's family seek justice over WA custody death

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A threat to a witness has landed a plaintiff in legal hot water.

A threat to a witness has landed a plaintiff in legal hot water. Photo: Louie Douvis

A young Aboriginal woman had broken her ribs months before she was locked up for unpaid fines, and despite repeated complaints about difficulty breathing and being in pain, was deemed fit to remain in custody.

The 22-year-old Yamatji woman Ms Dhu , whose full name is not used for cultural reasons, died two days after she was locked up at South Hedland Police Station in Western Australia in August last year.

A coronial inquest is now examining the circumstances surrounding Ms Dhu's death, focusing on the level of supervision, care and treatment she received from police and hospital staff at the the Hedland Health Campus.

In her opening address on Monday, counsel assisting the coroner Ilona O'Brien said Ms Dhu owed $3622 in unpaid fines, stemming from several charges including disorderly behaviour and assaulting a police officer.

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Ms Dhu reported slipping on rocks in April last year and was diagnosed with a bruised chest wall.

When she was arrested on August 2 for the unpaid fines, she mentioned her broken rib to police but declined to be seen by a doctor.

Later, Ms Dhu was taken to hospital after sobbing in pain, but one police officer told Dr Annie Lang that Ms Dhu had been pain-free until she was told she would be detained all night.

Ms Dhu was diagnosed with "behaviour issues" and released back into police custody.

Her condition worsened the next day and when she was taken back to hospital, Dr Vafa Naderi noted Ms Dhu kept changing her story, which made it difficult to characterise the nature and location of her pain.

"Dr Naderi's impression was that she was withdrawing from drugs or had behavioural issues," Ms O'Brien said.

Again, Ms Dhu was released back into police custody.

The following day, Ms Dhu complained she could not move her legs and her body was numb.

Police had to carry Ms Dhu to the van, but one officer believed she had pretended to faint when they placed her in a wheelchair at the hospital.

She died less than an hour later from staphylococcal septicaemia and pneumonia.

Before the hearing began, Ms Dhu's mother Della Roe cried as she explained to reporters that she still suffered depression and sleepless nights.

"I still have no answers, I still don't know how or why she died," she said.

"These emotions I go through is like a temperature gauge, the pressure is high and I don't know where I should stand."

The family has campaigned for a change to WA's laws for people who cannot pay fines, saying there needs to be a more flexible system to avoid lock-ups.

Premier Colin Barnett fast-tracked the inquest after public outrage, which included rallies across Australia about deaths in custody.

The inquest continues.

- AAP