A South Australian Deputy State Coroner has ruled in a late-night decision that prison officers present on the day that Wayne Fella Morrison died in custody will be required to appear before an inquest into the events of that day.
The Coroner is investigating circumstances surrounding the death of Mr Morrison, 26 – a Wiradjuri, Kookatha and Wirangu man – who died at 3.50am on 26 September 2016 at the Royal Adelaide Hospital.
Mr Morrison had been held on remand at Yatala Labor Prison while awaiting a court appearance by video link to the Elizabeth Magistrates Court.
Before his death days later, Mr Morrison was restrained by corrections offices in a hallway after he became violent in his cell.
He was then carried by the arms and legs face down to a prison transport van where he was transferred by seven corrections officers to G-Division, Yatala Labour Prison’s notorious high security wing.
Upon being removed from the back of the van, the officers noticed Mr Morrison was unresponsive and an internal code, calling for assistance, was made which was answered by multiple corrections officers. It took approximately five minutes for an ambulance to be called.
So far the proceedings have been complex, with up to 48 corrections officers and staff expected to give evidence and over 3300 pages of transcript generated since 27 August 2018.
A key focus of the inquest to date, has been what occurred during the two-minute and five-seconds trip in the back of an internal prison transport van, as the vehicle was equipped with a camera but did not have the capacity to record video.
These missing minutes have raised questions about what happened during the journey.
Owing to the number of people involved, 31 of the corrections officers who were either involved in the restraint or were present on the day have so far been represented by David Edwardson QC, with each of the seven involved in the transfer of Mr Morrison in the back of the van receiving their own independent counsel.
None of the corrections officers have been charged with a crime and the lawyers for the seven involved in the transfer have argued against them appearing before the inquest.
During a day of complex legal arguments heard in early December, Michael Abbott QC, appearing for one of the corrections officers, argued any answer given to any question asked about the events of the day may be interpreted in a way which would incriminate the officers and so they should receive a "global exemption" from being compelled to give evidence.
“[There is] the potential to be prosecuted for a range of offences based on the proposition that there is a cause or link between something that happened in the van and the death of Mr Morrison,” Abbott said.
"We're concerned with anything that may link my client with a crime scene."
It is a universal human right in Australia that anyone may refuse to answer a question which may incriminate themselves.
Abbott’s application was joined by other council representing the Corrections Officers.
"The van witnesses should not be required to attend at all," Edwardson said.
But in her ruling delivered Monday night, Deputy State Coroner Jayne Basheer rejected the argument on the basis that the Coroner’s Court was not a criminal jurisdiction and that to give a blanket exemption to the corrections officers would interfere with the ‘truth seeking’ role of the institution.
While officers would be able to refuse to answer questions which may incriminate them on a case-by-case-basis, they would still have to appear, the Coroner said, as there may be other questions that require answers.
These include questions about the training of corrections officers, the institutional response to the incident, events at the Gatehouse and the “role of management in the post-incident events”.
Elsewhere in the ruling, the Coroner dismissed other challenges made to the scope of the inquiry, noting the particular circumstances of the case.
“When conducting an inquiry into a death in custody, in my view the Coroners Court is not only entitled to examine these wider circumstances but is obliged to do so,” she said.
“In reaching this conclusion I am mindful that it is some 30 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. If there are systemic issues within Yatala Labour Prison that have affected the capacity of the institution to fully assess and review a critical event and/or that have affected the integrity of the police investigation, it is the duty of this Court to examine those.”
The Inquest is expected to continue hearing from witnesses early in the new year.