• Wayne Fella Morrison Coronial Inquest. (NITV)Source: NITV
A coronial inquest into the death in custody of a 29-year-old Wiradjuri, Kokatha and Wirangu man in 2016 can proceed after a Supreme Court ruling resolved a legal challenge by prison guards questioned over the incident.
By
Royce Kurmelovs

17 Jun 2020 - 4:48 PM  UPDATED 17 Jun 2020 - 4:48 PM

The coronial inquest into the death in custody of Aboriginal man Wayne Fella Morrison will resume on 3 August after a legal fight waged by prison guards who sought to avoid answering questions was resolved.

Speaking during proceedings yesterday, deputy state coroner Jayne Basheer said there had been “enough delays”.

“I really don’t want to lose this opportunity to complete all aspects of the evidence and submissions. I think there’s been enough delays. And also of course the Morrison family would be keen to see this matter finalised," she said.

While the details have still yet to be worked out in full, Ms Basheer set aside a block of four weeks beginning on the first Monday in August and a second block in September to hear from the rest of the 19 witnesses who were due to give evidence.

To date the inquest has served as a window into the operation of Yatala Labour Prison as it has probed the circumstances surrounding the death of Mr Morrison, a 29-year-old Wiradjuri, Kookatha and Wirangu man who died on 26 September 2016 at Royal Adelaide Hospital.

In the days leading up to his death, Mr Morrison was being held on remand and waiting to appear for a bail hearing when an alleged incident occurred in his holding cell.

Up to 12 prison guards wrestled Mr Morrison to the ground, then restrained him by his wrists, ankles and applied a spit hood – a controversial restraint that was also used in the incident involving Dylan Voller.

From there, Mr Morrison was carried to a van and placed face down in the back where four guards accompanied him during a three-minute transfer to Yatala Labour Prison’s high security G-division.

When he was removed, he was no longer breathing.

No video footage exists of those three minutes.

Guards have so far been reluctant to answer questions about what happened during those three minutes and as the coroner has sought to investigate, a legal challenge arose about how and when the 18 prison guards and one nurse may refuse to answer questions given the risk of self-incrimination.

No video footage exists of those three minutes.

Ms Basheer ruled that the ordinary rules of evidence did not apply to the Coroner’s court and so witnesses would be required to appear, prompting lawyers for the defence to challenge the decision in the Supreme Court.

Lawyers argued that prison staff should be able to refuse to answer questions on the basis they may incriminate themselves or had the right to “penalty privilege” which allows a person to refuse to answer questions that may disclose or help establish criminal liability.

In addition, they also attempted to have Ms Basheer thrown off the inquest due to her prior work with the Correctional Officers Legal Fund and a law firm involved in the inquest.

Justice Malcolm Blue agreed with the lawyers for the guards that the coroner could not compel witnesses to give evidence or turn over documents, but refused to throw her off the case, categorically rejecting any suggestion of wrongdoing on the part of the Coroner.

“I have concluded that the [prison staff] have failed to demonstrate any occasion on which [Ms Basheer] made an erroneous ruling or otherwise acted in a matter that infringed legal professional privilege on any of the alleged occasions,” Justice Blue said in his ruling.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Michael Abbott QC told the court his clients, Shirley Bell and Trent Hall – both central figures in the inquest – would be refusing to answer any questions.

Three missing minutes, and more questions: Why did Wayne Fella Morrison die in custody?
As the gruelling two-month inquest continues, the family of Aboriginal man Wayne Fella Morrison want someone to be held accountable for his death.