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Coroner finds “inexplicably” deficient police investigation of death of two Indigenous girls was due in part to racial bias

Dechlan Brennan -

The investigation into the death of two Indigenous girls in 1987 was "inexplicably" deficient, in part due to racial bias in the NSW Police Force at the time, a coroner has found.

On Tuesday, the inquest into the deaths of Indigenous cousins, Jacinta Rose 'Cindy' Smith, 15, and Mona Lisa Smith, 16, in December 1987 found their deaths were not adequately investigated by detectives, with State Coroner Teresa O'Sullivan accepting evidence that racial bias played a role in these failings.

The two girls' bodies were found beside the wreckage of a ute on the Mitchell highway, between Bourke and Enngonia, having suffered "non-survivable" injuries. Non-Indigenous 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.

Coroner O'Sullivan said on Tuesday: "Horrifyingly, the evidence suggests Mr Grant sexually interfered with Cindy after she passed."

Mr Grant was later acquitted of driving-related offences with a further charge of interfering with a corpse being dropped on the eve of the trial.

He died in 2018.

Dawn and June Smith have been fighting for justice for 36 years (Image: SMH archives)

Coroner O'Sullivan said she accepted the submissions of both the Senior Counsel Assisting and the Ms Buxton, acting on behalf of the Smith family, that there was an "existence of racial bias within the NSW Police Force at the relevant time, and that it did in fact impact upon the investigation into the deaths of Mona and Cindy".

"In fact, I have little hesitation in doing so…" she said, noting in part the experience of the mothers of the two girls, Dawn and June Smith, and a report into racism in the area at the time.

She noted the families of the two girls were "not dealt with in a respectful or appropriate manner" after they died.

"I place great weight on the evidence of June and Dawn as to their lived experience of their treatment in the aftermath of the girls' deaths, and the numerous distressing failings they endured, which started with the manner in which they became aware of the girls' deaths from other family members, rather than being formally advised by police," Coroner O'Sullivan said in her findings.

She told the families there had been "many twists in the road, but you never gave up".

Coroner O'Sullivan said the families' concerns around the investigation were "entirely vindicated" but had been "repeatedly dismissed," by authorities, with a resumption of the inquest that began in 1988 only occurring last year.

"Given the deficiencies in the initial police investigation which have not been catalogued or acknowledged until this inquest, the perseverance and strength of the Smith families in pursuing justice in the form of answers and a thorough investigation (albeit many years too late) cannot be overstated," Coroner O'Sullivan said.

Outlining the evening in question, she said in the weeks prior, Mr Grant had acted in a predatory manner to young girls, including Cindy.

On the night of December 5, Coroner O'Sullivan said: "He [Mr Grant] was scoping the Bourke township, scoping girls to ply with alcohol".

"The conduct of Mr Grant was predatory and disgraceful," she said.

"I'm satisfied the driver of the vehicle was Mr Grant," Coroner O'Sullivan said, highlighting the fact Mona couldn't drive a manual vehicle and the efforts Mr Grant went to securing the steering wheel after the accident — which was not secured adequately by the Bourke police.

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

"That was a surprising and concerning admission," Coroner O'Sullivan said of a senior detective.

She said of his evidence at the inquest: "Mr Ehsman's evidence simply cannot be understood without imputing a level of unconscious bias on his part".

"I have outlined Mr Ehsman's concession that he accepted without question Mr Grant's account that Mona was the driver, an assumption made based on his apparent views about teenage Aboriginal girls being able to drive a manual vehicle," she said.

"This was most troubling, given his appreciation that Mr Grant was being untruthful in relation to other matters (such as the issue of sexual interference with Cindy)."

Coroner O'Sullivan also praised former detective sergeant Raymond Godkin of the NSW Police Accident Investigation Unit, who left Sydney to investigate the deaths of the girls, and who said he faced significant pushback by the Bourke detectives.

She said this work was a "testimony to his dedication and strong moral code," however the failure of the initial investigation meant Mr Godkin's intervention was mostly too late, and critical evidence was lost.

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