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Issue #1924      July 20, 2020


Deaths in Custody

Last Monday, a coronial inquest into the 2017 death of a young Gomeroi and Wakka Wakka Man, Tane Chatfield, began. The outcome of this inquest won’t be known prior to the printing of this editorial but it is a story that is sadly all too familiar in Australia.

Chatfield, 22, had been in remand at the Tamworth Correctional Centre for two years on charges of armed robbery before finally being given the chance to give evidence professing his innocence. According to Colin Chatfield, his father, via The Big Smoke eight witnesses couldn’t identify him as the perpetrator. Furthermore, his solicitor Peter Kemp held the belief that Chatfield was likely not to be found guilty as “he gave credible and convincing evidence in his defence in his trial.”

Chatfield was in a positive mood about the outcome of the trial. According to the Armidale Express, Chatfield told his parents “I’m coming home,” giving them the “‘thumbs-up’ sign, smiling, winking, as if he was winning, kicking goals in the courtroom.”

However, despite the positivity surrounding the case, a happy ending was not to be. Less than twenty-four hours after Chatfield gave evidence of his innocence, he had reportedly had a seizure and was sent to Tamworth Base Hospital. He was moved to a new cell the next morning but he was found dead shortly after his return. The death was ruled a suicide, the result of a hanging. What was looking to be the next chapter of a young man’s life ended in him becoming another statistic.

According to the Armidale Express, Chatfield “was the fourth Aboriginal person to die in NSW custody in the two years before September 2017, and, NSW Corrective Services stated, the first suicide in their custody since 2010. One more Indigenous man died in NSW custody last year.” Furthermore, “147 Indigenous people died in custody across Australia between 2008 and 2018 […] [and] [m]ore than half – including Tane Chatfield – had not been convicted of a crime.”

The death, however, raised more questions than answers. Greens MLC David Shoebridge told NSW parliament that despite the reports of ruling the death a suicide the injuries, such as bruising on Chatfield’s shoulders, and blood and skin under his fingernails, were inconsistent with such findings. According to Chatfield’s parents, several inmates heard him “swearing and screaming” and then suddenly the noise just stopped.

Furthermore, Chatfield didn’t have a history of seizures and his parents weren’t informed that he was in hospital.

Chatfield’s death was investigated by the Corrective Services Internal Investigations Unit, the police, and Justice Health (Corrective Services health provider) who, unsurprisingly, found no foul-play.

The Chatfield family finally have another shot at justice, but when it comes to Black deaths in custody, history is not on their side. The Chatfields hope that the coroner will investigate the case thoroughly and if its findings are inconclusive, demand that the case be referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

What has happened to Tane Chatfield is what happened to Joyce Clarke, Ms Dhu, David Dungay, Rebecca Maher, Wayne Fella Morrison, T J Hickey, Mulrunji, Mark Mason, Eddie Murray, John Pat, David John Gundy, Veronica Baxter, and so many others. Many of these cases bear a striking resemblance to Chatfield’s.

However, what other results are to be expected when cops are investigating cops? In fact, under what situation would anyone investigating themselves of wrong-doing be permissible? Lenin spoke of the state as “a power” that places itself “above [society]” which in turn “alienates itself more and more from it.” This power consists of, according to Lenin, “of special bodies of armed men,” such as the police. Thus, how likely is it that these “special bodies,” which are state functionaries, would find themselves (that is, the state) guilty of its own crimes? Not very.

The CPA calls on the government to adopt the findings of the Royal commission into Black Deaths in Custody which include, but are not limited to, “rigourous and accountable investigations and a comprehensive coronial inquir[ies].”

Next article – IPAN – Increase in military expenditure unjustified and destabilising

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