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Justice must be served for police failures in investigation of two Indigenous girls' deaths, inquest told

Dechlan Brennan -

The NSW Coroner has been urged to reject the not-guilty verdict handed down by an all-white jury to a non-Indigenous man involved in the deaths of two Aboriginal girls 36 years ago, an inquest has heard.

It comes as the mother of one of the girls detailed the racism she felt as a result of the lack of justice for her daughter.

The horrific deaths of Indigenous cousins, Jacinta Rose 'Cindy' Smith, 15, and Mona Lisa Smith, 16, in December 1987 is being examined in the Bourke courthouse in front of State Coroner Teresa O'Sullivan. Their bodies were found beside the wreckage of a ute on the Mitchell highway, between Bourke and Enngonia.

White male Ian Alexander Grant, then 40, was found by witnesses with his arm draped across the body of a bare chested and partially naked Cindy.

He was later acquitted of driving-related offences with a further charge of interfering with a corpse being dropped on the eve of the trial. His defence convinced the jury that he was not driving the vehicle at the time it careened off the road, instead blaming Mona.

The inquest previously heard lead detective Peter Ehsman believed unequivocally Mr Grant's statement where he said Mona – who had never driven a manual car – was the driver.

Mr Grant died in 2018.

Mona Lisa Smith (left) and Jacinta Rose 'Cindy' Smith were like "sisters". (Image: National Justice Project)

'A liar'

The inquest has examined the role systemic racism and cultural bias played in the initial investigation, which the court has heard contained a catalogue of operational errors.

These included NSW detectives explaining how the motor vehicle was not being properly stored, therefore destroying the chain of evidence; the two families were not directly told by the police that the two girls had died, instead receiving the news via other family members; multiple relevant witnesses were not interviewed; the crime scene was not adequately recorded and maintained; and Mona's family was never interviewed to ascertain if she could drive a manual vehicle.

In her closing submission, Counsel assisting the coroner Peggy Dwyer SC, told the court the evidence presented pointed to Mr Grant being "a liar."

"The truth is that it was ­Alexander [Ian] Grant who was responsible for the girls' deaths," Dr Dwyer said.

She urged Ms O'Sullivan to reject the jury's findings from the 1990 trial, arguing "the evidence points in one way – to Mr Grant being the driver of the vehicle'."

"In my submission, Mona was not the driver of the vehicle…it's a terrible ­injustice," Dr Dwyer said.

"It started with a lie told by Mr Grant, and that lie has been allowed to sit and fester for decades now."

Dr Dwyer noted "there was racism in the police force at the time" which may have impacted the effectiveness of the flawed investigation and the families were perhaps treated differently because they were Aboriginal.

Witnesses throughout the hearing have differed on their experiences of racism in NSW at the time. Mr Ehsman previously denied ever hearing any, before recanting slightly and telling the court he may have heard racist language uttered.

His partner during the investigation, former detective sergeant Vaughn Reid, said he never heard Mr Ehsman use racist language but was aware it was prevalent in the community and a tension between Indigenous residents of Bourke and the police existed – something Mr Ehsman denied he was aware of.

Julie Buxton, appearing on behalf of the Smith families, said the number of failures by Bourke police in the initial investigation were "overwhelming."

'No one cared about Cindy or Mona'

Earlier, Iona Dawn Smith, 81, had her statement read by a granddaughter. She said she "felt sick in my stomach" when Mr Grant was acquitted, throwing a shoe at the jury.

"I felt so hopeless and ­defeated," Aunty Dawn said.

She described being pulled out of church and told by a relative of Cindy's death. "When we got to the hospital, I was praying it wouldn't be her, but it was…It's something I will never forget," she said.

"There was my daughter's injured, lifeless body lying there."

Of the decision by the DPP to drop the charges of interfering with a corpse, Aunty Dawn described it as "evil" and "disgusting".

"He got to lie and walk away. This was my baby," she said.

"I felt like they [the jury] weren't even looking at us as humans, but as blacks."

Mona's mother, Aunty June, also read her statement after previously appearing in front of the inquest to give evidence.

She said she had no hate in her heart and was just wanting "the truth." In the aftermath of her daughter's death, she fostered children to prevent them from being involved with child services.

"I wanted to protect them because I couldn't protect her," she said.

December, 1987 article on the death or Mona and Cindy (Image/SMH archives/Dechlan Brennan)

A lack of meaningful follow up

Dr Dwyer also read to the corner a letter dated March 2, 1990, from former NSW police commissioner Mick Fuller to then attorney-general Mark Speakman.

In 2021, when a request to resume the inquest was rejected by Mr Speakman, it was done so based on "incorrect information" provided by Mr Fuller, who argued "an independent investigation had already been carried out'."

Dr Dwyer said Mr Fuller explained the brief of evidence - subject to independent reviews in 2004 and 2018 - found the investigation into the death of the two girls was adequate at the time. He further stated didn't believe an inquest would derive new information.

"[It's] very worrying that that was said," Dr Dwyer told the coroner.

"The family and community have been thoroughly vindicated in the holding of this inquest."

Counsel for the NSW Police Commissioner, Christine Melis, rejected the notion the inquest had unearthed tangible evidence of systemic racism or cultural bias, but conceded the process was "deficient."

The coroner is set to deliver her findings in April 2024.

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