The family of Wayne Fella Morrison are calling for a fresh inquiry to examine what happened in his final moments in the back of a prison van as the South Australian coroner’s inquest into his death in custody wraps up.
The inquest has previously heard that Morrison – a 29-year-old Wiradjuri, Kokatha and Wirangu man – died after being restrained at the wrists and ankles, placed in a spit-hood and positioned face down in the back of a prison van. Morrison could not be revived upon being removed from the van and died in hospital three days later. He had not been convicted of any crime and was being held on remand at the time of his death.
Coroner Jayne Basheer began hearing final submissions on Tuesday in the South Australian supreme court three years after the process began.
Due to the length of proceedings and the amount of evidence – 7,791 pages of transcript have been generated to date – much of the process was covered by written submissions with lawyers for the 24 parties responding to specific challenges.
Counsel assisting the coroner Anthony Crocker said there were many failings on the day of Morrison’s death.
“The management team did a very poor job at Yatala [Labour Prison] that afternoon,” Crocker said. “It is doubtful the members of that team do not appreciate how poorly a job they did that afternoon.”
Crocker said the coroner should recommend a fresh inquiry be called to examine specific events that took place with the power to compel witnesses to give evidence.
“This inquest has not had the power to obtain evidence to answer the following question: what happened in the van?” he said.
Claire O’Connor, appearing for the family, supported this recommendation but said any inquiry should go further and extend to a royal commission.
“Something has to be done. Why not here?” O’Connor said.
She also said the family wanted the coroner to recommend the officers be referred to an external body for criminal or civil penalties.
O’Connor told Basheer the officers “want you to find that they didn’t do anything wrong in circumstances where none of them gave oral evidence.”
“It’s a bit rich, in my submission.”
Scott Henchliffe, appearing for four officers involved in the inquest, rejected calls for a fresh inquiry on the basis the coroners court was not the “appropriate venue” to make that recommendation.
“Whilst one can understand from certain interested parties’ submission that they want more, that doesn’t mean it is the appropriate policy response,” Henchliffe said.
Henchliffe added that any such recommendation will serve as a way to get around the right to silence which is a long-established protection enshrined in law.
Seven corrections officers travelled with Morrison inside the van as he was transported to Yatala Labour Prison’s high security G-Division, five of whom were present with him in the back.
To date these officers have refused to answer questions about what occurred in the back of the van by claiming a legal protection known as “penalty privilege”.
South Australia has since changed the law to allow coroners to compel evidence from witnesses in response to what occurred in the Morrison inquest, but because the inquiry began before these changes passed, the new powers do not apply.
Calls for a fresh inquiry are opposed by lawyers for the prison guards who have described them in written submissions as “vexatious” and a “thought bubble”.
Final submissions will continue on Friday.