Here's How a 22-Year-Old Yamatji Woman Died in Police Custody

I spent a week sitting in on a coronial inquest for Ms. Dhu, who went into a South Hedland cell and never came out.

by Royce Kurmelovs
Nov 30 2015, 4:05pm

Ms Dhu's family rallying for change. Photos by Charandev Singh

This post originally appeared on VICE Australia.

The past week I've been sitting in on the coronial inquest into the death of a 22-year-old Yamatji Aboriginal woman in Australia. She was taken into police custody here on August 2, 2014 and never made it out. Hers is the highest profile death in custody case in Australia since Mr. Ward, an Aboriginal elder "cooked to death" in the back of a police vehicle in 2008. It is a story that would feel more shocking if it didn't happen all the time.

Out of respect to the family, the victim is referred to only by her last name, Ms. Dhu. Her story starts like any other. She was born on December 26, 1991 in Port Hedland, a small town in West Australia's far north with a whole lot of iron ore and little else.

At the inquest, Ms. Dhu's family described her as a "fat, happy toddler," a "bright, bubbly" teenager, and, for 19 good years, she did OK, making it through high school and into TAFE. This is no small achievement in Western Australia, where young Aboriginal children aged 10 to 17 are 53 times more likely to land in police custody than non-Aboriginal children of the same age.

But trouble found Ms. Dhu around the age of 19, when she was picked up and charged with several offenses leading to $3,600 [$2,700 USD] in fines.

A year later Ms. Dhu met a guy named Dion Ruffin. He was twice her age, violent, controlling, and without a job or a home. Her family says he was "no good," but he became a part of Ms. Dhu's life anyway and that's when she started to change. She withdrew and wouldn't talk on the phone when he was around. Her mother spotted a black eye once but she wouldn't talk about it. Her father said his daughter told him Ruffin hit her. The day she tried to leave him her grandmother said she came back with a "busted mouth." Still, she took him back. It's the paradox of domestic violence: leaving is a process, not an event.

By that time the state decided it wanted its money, so it issued a warrant and on August 2, 2014, the police came for her. The state of Western Australia (WA) was kind enough to let Ms. Dhu do time to pay off her fines at a rate of $250 [$180 USD] a day, something that happens a lot in her part of the world.

Her father, Robert Dhu, said it best when he took the stand last Monday: "She was treated like a dog."

WA isn't the only state in Australia to let fine defaulters do jail time, but it's definitely the most keen on the idea. This is just one of a number of policies, along with mandatory detention and community closures, that deliver Aboriginal people into the state's prison system.

But back to the timeline. When Ms. Dhu was taken into custody she started to complain of a pain in her right side, but the police didn't believe her. All evidence suggests they thought Ms. Dhu was lying. They knew she used meth once in a while and they assumed she was either a junkie in withdrawal or just plain faking it.

CCTV video shows Ms. Dhu sitting in the charge room of the South Hedland Police Station in pain for an hour before she was taken to the South Hedland Health Campus to be looked at by a doctor. When she got there, she was seen by a Dr. Anne Lang. Dr. Lang's notes show she had written "behavioral issues" after speaking with Ms. Dhu for about five minutes. When Dr. Lang testified on Thursday, she could not explain what her diagnosis had actually been, but the result was that the police took Ms. Dhu back to a cell. The whole thing took about 20 minutes.

The next night she was back in the hospital and was seen by Dr. Vafa Naderi. Like Dr. Lang, he too wrote "behavioral issues" in his notes after a brief conversation and did not offer a diagnosis. Once more, Ms. Dhu was sent back.

When the station awoke the next morning, Ms. Dhu had entered the final stages of septic shock. She had lost feeling in her limbs and could not walk. Even then, the police still didn't believe her. CCTV of her final hours shows Ms. Dhu being handcuffed, dragged to the door of her cell, and carried to the back of a police car.

An hour later she would be declared officially dead. She was only 22. Her father, Robert Dhu, said it best when he took the stand last Monday: "She was treated like a dog."

It's taken 14 months for the family just to find out Ms. Dhu died from severe sepsis and advanced pneumonia. Until now, they knew very little, which is not out of the ordinary for the families of Aboriginal people who died in police custody. Many Aboriginal families under similar circumstances wait for over three years to find out what happened to their deceased relatives. Right now there are eight such families in WA.

Ms. Dhu's grandmother Carol Ror (left) and mother Della Roe

Ms. Dhu's inquest only happened because her family embarrassed the Western Australian state government into bringing it forward. Shaun Harris, Ms. Dhu's uncle, clocked 30,000 kilometers traveling the country to raise awareness.

And that is pretty much everything that has been told to the Coroner during the Coronial Inquest into the death of Ms. Dhu while in police custody. What's left is to hear the police testify. They were supposed to appear this week, but by last Thursday the court was five witnesses behind and the police lawyers managed to get them moved "as a block" to next March, so chances are you won't hear much about this until then—when everyone's had a chance to forget.

But you shouldn't forget. After watching for a week it's clear that Ms. Dhu died from blood poisoning and pneumonia but what really killed her was being poor, black, and female. It's a travesty of our time.

Follow Royce on Twitter.

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Aboriginal death in custody
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