The family of Aunty Tanya Day sat teary-eyed in the Victorian Coroner's Court on Monday as the inquest into their mother's death in custody in 2017 heard from the VLine employee who made the fateful decision to call for police assistance to remove her from a train.
In an Australian first, the inquest will explore whether or not systemic racism played a role in the the death of Ms Day.
On the first day of a three-week-long hearing, the court heard from Sean Irvine, a train conductor who told the court that at the time he could not determine if Ms Day was sleeping or passed out.
Ms Day had been travelling on a VLine train from Echuca to Melbourne to visit her daughter Kimberly Watson when she fell asleep.
She was later ‘roused’ from her sleep by Mr Irvine who said he remembered her saying she was “waiting for ham, and something about camping equipment”. It was then that he believed her to be drunk.
When Ms Day couldn’t meaningfully respond, Mr Irvine asked where she was going and when Ms Day again was unable to respond he asked another conductor to call the police.
“I believed that her safety was threatened to allow her to travel in the state that she was in, because she couldn’t respond meaningfully and wasn’t completely in control of her actions," Mr Irvine told the court.
He said he was concerned for her safety and believed she was delirious, but did not think she required medical attention, adding that if he did he would have called for paramedics.
Family barrister Peter Morrissey SC put to Mr Irvine that Ms Day never said she didn’t have a ticket, and therefore Mr Irvine could not know if she had a ticket or not.
Mr Irvine conceded that he was in no position to say that she did not have a ticket.
When asked why he did not offer her any assistance, Mr Irvine paused for a prolonged period before responding.
“I’m not sure specifically,” he said.
He said Ms Day was sitting quietly and didn’t believe that during the few minutes into Castlemaine he needed to “stand over her”.
Mr Morrissey pointed out: “You were concerned enough to have her removed from the train but not concerned enough to leave her."
Mr Morrissey also pointed out that while VLine employees do not have the power to physically remove people from the train, they do have the power to call police in to remove people from trains.
While in custody the 55-year-old hit her head five times and eventually died from a brain haemorrhage.
Accountability is a must
While the Andrews Labor government last week committed to abolishing laws around public drunkenness, family lawyer Ruth Barson from the Human Rights Law Centre said Ms Day should be alive today.
Ms Barson believes accountability for Ms Day's death is critical to prevent future deaths in custody.
“This case is a painful reminder that racism is lethal. Tanya Day was locked up under discriminatory laws that should have been abolished decades ago. She was then denied her basic dignity and left to haemorrhage on the floor of a concrete police cell," Ms Barson said.
"The status quo of police dodging accountability for deaths in custody must be changed."
Ms Day's family said they just want justice for the death of their mother.
“Our mother had so much more love and life to give – to us, to her grandchildren and to the broader community. The circumstances surrounding her death have made the past 18 months extremely difficult for our family. We want to know the truth and we want justice for our mum," the Day family said in a statement.
“Our mum should be alive today. We know that racism played a role in mum’s death and that Victoria Police failed her. We want truth and accountability through this coronial inquest."
The Age and the ABC have submitted a request for CCTV footage to be released, but the coroner is yet to make a decision.