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Three decades on, the death of Douglas Scott remains unresolved

Douglas and Letty Scott
Douglas and Letty Scott

When Douglas Scott died in a Darwin prison cell in 1985, his partner, Letty Scott refused to accept the official verdict that he killed himself. As Emma Purdy* reports she fought for the truth for the next two decades.


Douglas Bruce Scott

Just one year ago, Micah Douglas John Scott arrived into the world. His proud father, 26-year-old Nathan, was overjoyed by the birth of his first child.

Becoming a dad was particularly important to Nathan, having never known his own father, who died when he was just six months old. In February 2009 Nathan also lost his mother, aged just 56, to cancer.

"It's good," he said. "It's better now. It was hard, because we only lost mum [the previous year]. Not that we can ever replace her, but now Micah's come along we have something to be happy about."

Nathan's mother, Letty Scott, was a talented artist and musician. However she is best known for her 23-year campaign to prove her first husband, Nathan's father, was murdered.

"I don't have any memory of him," said Nathan, "but mum told me she took me into the morgue and placed my hand on his and promised she would fight for the rest of her life for justice. She did it all the way to the end."

When 26-year-old Douglas Scott was found hanged in his cell in Darwin's Berrimah prison on 5 July 1985 while serving a 60-day sentence for indecent language, Mrs Scott refused to believe he killed himself.

Having regularly visited him in prison, she always maintained her husband was beaten by prison guards, describing how his "eye was bashed by the prison officers so that it was damaged and made to point the wrong way".

She said a week before her husband's death he told her, "You're not gonna s ee me alive, they're gonna kill me, they promised ... They promised to hang me".

Mr Scott's death was one of the 99 cases examined by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, investigated by Commissioner Elliott Johnston in 1989.

In April that year, Mrs Scott and her two daughters from a previous relationship were shown photographs of Mr Scott hanging in his cell by two lawyers assisting the Commission in the Northern Territory, Mick Dodson and Geoffrey Barbaro.

Mrs Scott said the photographs showed him suspended inches from a grate in the nine-foot-high ceiling with his feet dangling two to three feet from the floor, the noose around his neck made from a plain and tightly twisted sheet that was neatly tied in multiple knots which were tight and close together. She did not believe her husband made the noose.

Letty Scott and Daniel Taylor
Letty Scott and Daniel Taylor

Despite her misgivings, the Commission found he took his own life. Although his 60-day sentence was four times the 15-day legal remand limit at the time, the Commission found he was lawfully in custody when he died, 20 days before his case was due to be heard.

Mrs Scott also maintained she never approved the statement submitted to the Commission on her behalf.

Refusing to accept its findings, she obtained legal assistance in April 1993 through the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), which wrote to Darwin police forensic department for copies of its photographs. They sent 22 photographs, including two of Mr Scott hanging in his cell.

Mrs Scott was adamant they were different from the photographs she was shown in 1989.

She said that this time, Mr Scott's feet were only about two inches off the floor and the sheet around his neck was orange and patterned. She described the noose as "a real bulky, loose, rubbishy looking affair, with one great big bulky slip knot."

Determined to get justice, Mrs Scott sent a submission through her legal team on 3 April 1996 to then Prime Minister, John Howard, for an inquiry into her husband's death.

Howard referred the matter to the Northern Territory government. When no action was taken, Mrs Scott took her struggle to the international level, travelling to the US in 1999 to appeal to the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation who sponsored her to testify before the UN.

On 8 September 2001, she made an official application to the Northern Territory Police to open an investigation into her husband's death.

She accused the police investigation, inquest and Royal Commission inquiry into her husband's death of being "a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice on the grandest scale ever imaginable" and alleged that the four prison officers, William Bowden, Barry Medley, Harold Robertson and Michael Lawson, had murdered her husband.

She submitted statements of two prisoners, Jeffrey Bindai and Laurie Percy, who alleged to have witnessed Mr Scott's murder.

Bindai, who was never called as a witness at the Commission's hearing in Darwin in 1989, stated in his affidavit: "... I saw four men going into the cell over there. One of them had a long black stick. I heard a man calling 'help, help me' and some of the other boys started shouting. A man then came over to my cell and he said to me 'If you don't be quiet you will be next'.

"I could hear the sounds of the man being hit in his cell. The next morning I looked out from my cell and I saw a man hanging in his cell."

She also submitted a transcript of a taped interview in which she said Barbaro confirmed he and Dodson had shown her and her daughters original Polaroids taken by then chief prison officer, Ian Birbeck, immediately after Mr Scott was found hanged.

She said Barbaro had admitted that the Polaroids were kept by Commission staff and that later photographs taken by then Northern Territory police Darwin branch officer, Brian Neimann, were instead submitted in evidence.

After the Commission hearing into Mr Scott's death, Neimann had shot himself.

A letter from a barrister, Robert Cavanagh, was also submitted by Mrs Scott, in which she said he stated he was prepared to testify.

He stated that Barbaro had told him during a telephone conversation that Mr Scott was hung twice, that the original Polaroids taken by Birbeck were different to the police photographs taken by Neiman, and that evidence was concealed from the Commission by its own staff.

Letty Scott and Daniel Taylor
Letty Scott and Daniel Taylor

When still nothing was done, Mrs Scott requested an exhumation of her late husband's remains, which was refused by the Northern Territory government. In November 2004, she again demanded the exhumation in a letter to then Northern Territory Attorney General, Peter Toyne, in which she wrote:

"Our Indigenous people are dying and crying and burying our dead as our sons and husbands and daughters all are found hanging in police and prison cells across Australia. You put a stamp ... suicide - onto the hundreds of deaths in custody.

"Yet your white officers are gloating and laughing for getting away with murder. We are going to scream till these officers are brought to account for Douglas' murder."

Toyne also refused the exhumation and only after an exhaustive appeal process was it eventually granted by the Northern Territory Supreme Court.

The re-autopsy, conducted by Brazilian forensic pathologist Dr Jorge Vanrell, revealed that Mr Scott's injuries could only have been inflicted by prolonged assault and torture.

Vanrell found no signs of asphyxia or evidence of hanging, but found bone fractures in Mr Scott's jaw and neck fractures consistent with manual strangulation, as well as fractures to his skull and pelvic area.

On 11 February 2005 Mrs Scott was given access to the Commission's files relating to her husband's death, which confirmed the original Polaroid photos of Mr Scott's hanging and the eyewitness information received from Bindai were not in the files.

A sworn statement taken by Barbaro at the time of Mr Scott's death from another Berrimah prisoner, Rene Dooling, had also been withheld.

Dooling stated that when he arrived at Berrimah Mr Scott had a black eye and that after his death he saw his body "laid out on the grass" with "prison officers standing around him all talking and laughing and prodding him with their feet".

Mrs Scott used the evidence to bring a civil case with son Nathan before the Northern Territory Supreme Court in 2005, bringing criminal charges against Medley, Lawson and Robertson for Mr Scott's assault and murder, and charges of conspiring to pervert the course of justice against four others, including Barbaro and Dodson.

Senior prison officer Bowden, who had held the key to Mr Scott's cell, had since died of cancer.

Mrs Scott engaged eight international forensic investigative committee experts to examine the medical records and police photographs.

All eight confirmed that marks shown on Mr Scott's neck in the photographs indicated an injury more consistent with manual neck compression than hanging, also testifying that the neck fracture found in the re-autopsy was inconsistent with hanging.

Vanrell testified that it was "absolutely impossible" for Mr Scott's injuries to be self-inflicted, stating the pelvic fracture could only have been caused by "a very strong kick in the genital area" or stamping on the hip.

He said the bone fractures in Mr Scott's skull were of an "extremely rare" nature only ever associated with extreme trauma and which he believed was caused by "very strong pressure against a very hard surface like the floor", such as Mr Scott's head being stamped on.

The forensic team also questioned "unexplained difference in articles located within the crime scene," such as differing objects on the shelf in the cell and a stool appearing in some photographs but not others, believing there was "significant possibility that the death scene integrity might be compromised".

Both Bindai and Percy stood as witnesses during the 2005 trial where both their evidence was tested under rigorous cross-examination.

Justice Angel deemed both witnesses' affidavits of "sufficient importance" to set out the terms of each in his judgment.

Percy's affidavit of 15 September 2004 stated: "I saw guards into Douglas' cell ... I then heard Douglas call for 'help' almost straight away.

"Douglas' voice was then muffled - but I could still hear. I saw one guard looking out a small glass in door, keeping watch. One or more prisoners yelled out to guards. Maybe hour or two, then ambulance come and also photographer."

Letty Scott
Letty Scott

"Two guards got Jeffrey Bindai and me out of cells in morning to clean Douglas' cell," Percy's affidavit continued.

"I saw blood-stained plastic gloves on the floor. I saw blood on walls, on the floor, sheet, pillowslip.

"'Heaps' - blood on walls and floor was 'thick'. We used mop and bucket, sponges, to clean blood from cell. No guards in cell at time. I think he died because guards bash him up..."

While also re-swearing his earlier affidavit, Bindai's additional affidavit sworn on 28 October 2004 stated: "That morning the prison officers made me clean up blood in the cell of that man with Laurie Percy.

"We cleaned up a big lot of blood from the floor, the wall, inside the toilet and around the toilet ... I went to Darwin to tell the Royal Commission about the four men going into the man's cell ... and Douglas in his cell calling 'Help, help me please' but the people from the Royal Commission did not take me to the court.

"Instead I was taken to a room and the back page of a statement was put on the table and the Royal Commission people asked me to sign it.

"The Royal Commission people never read the statement to me before they asked me to sign the back page."

But on 16 June 2005, Angel dismissed the case for murder.

"In my opinion Mrs Scott is honestly mistaken as to what she saw in the lost Polaroid pictures," he stated in his judgment.

"She only saw them briefly and in a state of high emotion. Interestingly Mr Barbaro made the same error."

He ruled in favour of the three police officers on the grounds that the plaintiffs had not established to his satisfaction that Mr Scott was murdered by the defendants.

However, he criticised the police investigation and the fact the crime scene was not adequately secured, also finding that although each officer denied any knowledge of Mr Scott prior to his death, his attention-attracting behaviour was well known to others within the prison, while an entry in the police journal stated he was to be kept under supervision "at all times".

Of each officer's denial of the allegation he had participated in Mr Scott's murder, Angel said, "Without more, one is reminded of the immortal words of Mandy Rice Davies: 'Well, they would say that, wouldn't they?'"

He found not all of the officers' time was accounted for and that "it is clear they had much time on their hands and ample opportunity to murder the deceased in his cell in the manner alleged".

He concluded he was "unable to be satisfied that the deceased took his own life," and that "the evidence of the witnesses Bindai and Percy cannot be dismissed out of hand," but added, "There remains the difficulty ... that whatever happened, happened 20 years ago".

For Mrs Scott, the admission was a victory, albeit an empiric one.

During the trial, she had called the multimillion-dollar Commission "a lawyers' picnic on the blood of Aboriginal people" that was "set up to cover the murder of our people", saying she had been completely disempowered by the Commission and not allowed to talk about any evidence of murder.

Mrs Scott's family say she lived in hiding whilst pursuing her case against the Northern Territory government.

Former Northern Territory Police officer, Robert Dow, who had a child with Mrs Scott, Monica, said they had to leave their home in the Territory to escape continual harassment.

"I got bashed by a senior constable," said Dow. "I was told they were planning to kill me. So we bottled it and we never went back."

Dow said racism was rife within the Darwin force.

"I was a police officer for 10 years. Within the first month, when I was still in basic training, I got called 'nigger lover'.

"I got the tag and the bastards gave me hell. Our prisons are very, very dangerous places, because the 'screw' is God. If he decides you're gonna die, you're gonna die. If they don't do it, they'll get someone else to do it for them."

Dow helped Mrs Scott in her campaign over Mr Scott's death.

"There's no justice in this country. We went to so many people but they all turned a blind eye. I'm just sad that my little daughter has to live in this country, because they're still doing it."

Monica is now 18 and lives with Dow in Wollongong in New South Wales. She speaks of her mother passionately.

"I remember mum saying she promised him, 'I will fight for the rest of my life to get justice.'

"She always said she was vindicated by God to do it. I believe he gave her the strength to keep going."

"I mean, we didn't have any money. But she was able to go to the US and the UN. She didn't just talk about it, she actually did it. She lived a life full of injustice, but she gave her all to bring out the truth."

When contacted by this writer for his comments on Mrs Scott's allegations, Dodson said: "The events surrounding this death in custody occurred almost three decades ago and the Royal Commission inquiry was over 20 years ago so my memory is not good. "I can recall only two allegations made by Mrs Scott. Neither of these was raised in the Royal Commission hearing but arose subsequent to the report by the Commission so their substance could not be tested in the inquiry.

"She eventually got her day in court well after the Royal Commission's work had concluded and in those proceedings her allegations were found to have no substance and her case was dismissed."

"I of course consistently rejected her allegations against myself and my position on that has not changed," continued Dodson.

"I no longer have physical custody of my RCIADIC records but as these allegations arose afterwards I doubt they would be of much use in aiding my memory.

"Again, I repeat it was a long time ago and my memory is not what it once was."

When Dodson was reminded of Mrs Scott's allegations, he called them "preposterous".

"I can't remember the details ... You have to understand, she said everybody involved in the case conspired, which is just imbecilic ... It's nonsense ... It's cloud cuckoo land stuff ... Every photo we had got tendered to the Commission."

Daniel Taylor, the lawyer who acted for Letty in the 2005 trial and who later became her husband, argued, "It's interesting he said he couldn't remember - if nothing happened, he could simply say nothing happened.

"Jeffrey Bindai said he had told them about seeing Douglas' murder. They didn't write down what he said he told them. They wrote out a statement for him to sign without an interpreter present.

He was an eye-witness but they didn't want the Royal Commission to know what he had to say. They kept him out of court."

"What is done with the court decision is up to all of us and individually," continued Taylor, "But I think that it is certainly a foundation to build up on. It established for the first time in court that there was evidence of murder [in a death in custody].

"The judge left an open verdict and declined to make a finding as to the manner and cause of the death of Douglas Scott. Jeffrey Bindai and Laurie Percy were real heroes in this case, who without fear or favour stood firm and told the truth of how Douglas did not die on his own."

Taylor said Mrs Scott did not have faith in the justice system to fairly interrogate Bindai and Percy.

"She used to tell me that the government lawyers would tear them apart and that's why she had to pursue the forensic side of it. She also didn't want to go back to the Northern Territory courts because she had no faith in them. It turned out that inevitably the case had to go back to the Supreme Court in the Northern Territory, but both Mr Bindai and Mr Percy held up to the most intense cross-examination by counsel for the Northern Territory government."

"Mr Bindai gave evidence in court at the first opportunity," continued Taylor. "The tragedy is that it was so much later due to the efforts of the Royal Commission staff to keep him out of court, the efforts of the coroner to not investigate the death and the flaws of the police investigation, which was not really an investigation and which drew criticism from Justice Angel."

"It took 20 years of Letty's life to get it to court," Taylor added, "But she always said, 'What I did is what I ought to have done.' Now that's written on her tombstone."

Mrs Scott's sister, musician and songwriter Rhubee Neale, said of her sister's determination to fight to expose the truth until the very end: "She just loved her husband. She went in to see him and he told her they were after him. They'd just had a new baby, Nathan. He had a lot to live for."

"She was an amazing woman," Neale continued.

"She had to leave the Territory because it wasn't safe for her. Once you speak out, you're an outcast. She could have been bitter after all that happened but she still loved mankind.

"She made me promise to keep her story going, so I do it through art and music. I do it through the arts, because no one listened the other way.

She left with no justice."

Nathan, who was Mr Scott's only child, now just wants the best for his son.

"My dad, people took him away," he said. "Growing up with that isn't easy as a kid. I definitely want to make sure Micah doesn't go through the same thing. I want to make sure I'm there for him and that he has both his parents."

"I've always had a fear of the police because I know what they have the power to do," he continued.

"I'm not saying all police go around bashing people, but there are those that do. Being Aboriginal, you're watching what you do all the time. I make sure I'm around a lot of people."

"I don't think the problem of deaths in custody is going to end," added Nathan.

"Around 10 years ago there used to be loads of protests, but that doesn't happen anymore. People are scared, they're intimidated. But hopefully this new younger generation has a bit more guts to do something about it."

If he inherits even a fraction of his grandmother's astounding courage and determination, little Micah and his peers just might.

* Emma Purdy is an Irish journalist, who recently spent more than a year in Australia, much of that time researching Aboriginal deaths in custody. This is Emma's second 'On Our Watch' article, a series which looks at deaths in custody. Emma's last feature was on the death of Eddie Murray.

This article was previously published in Tracker - August 2011 print edition.