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"I hope other families in our position won’t ever go through the same thing" - Family of two Indigenous girls killed in 1987 respond to long overdue inquest findings

Dechlan Brennan -

The family of two Indigenous girls who died in horrific circumstances in 1987 have said the findings of the coroner, which found the police investigation was "inexplicably" deficient - in part due to racial bias - were a relief, "but the pain and the hurt are still with us and always will be."

On Tuesday, State Coroner Tessa O'Sullivan said the deaths of 16-year-old Murrawarri and Kunja girl Mona Lisa Smith, and her cousin, 15-year-old Wangkumara girl Jacinta Rose 'Cindy' Smith - described as like sisters - in December 1987, was the result of non-Indigenous man Ian Grant drunkenly crashing his vehicle with both the girls inside it.

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

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

She commended the unrelenting advocacy of the family to fight for justice, especially their mothers Dawn and June Smith, telling them there had been "many twists in the road, but you never gave up".

Ms O'Sullivan said the concerns raised by the family for more than 36 years that the investigation suffered from "very serious deficiencies", in part due to racial bias amongst NSW Police at the time, were entirely vindicated.

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

Cindy's mother Dawn said on Tuesday she wanted to hold someone "accountable" for what they had heard in the inquest.

"The findings were good, but the pain and the hurt are still with us and always will be," she said.

"That will never go away."

"I hope that other families in our position won't ever go through the same thing [that] we did for 36 years."

Cindy's sister Kerrie Smith said it hurt that they'd never see anyone held accountable for "assaulting our sister — who was a child", given Grant died in 2018.

"The police would have treated the sexual assault of a white child differently. We don't want any other family to go through that. The coroner recognised today that everything we said went wrong, was correct," she said.

Ms O'Sullivan noted in her findings: "The uncomfortable truth, to my mind, is that had two white teenage girls died in the same circumstances, I cannot conceive of their being such a manifestly deficient police investigation into the circumstances".

She argued the deficiencies in the investigation had a major impact on any future criminal prosecution of Grant, who was later acquitted of driving-related offences with a further charge of interfering with a corpse being dropped on the eve of the trial.

Jacinta Rose Smith and Mona Lisa Smith. Image: National Justice Project.

Kerrie said she hoped police would take away from the findings how important it is to "listen to Aboriginal people and Aboriginal families, particularly when we are talking about our children and our experiences".

"If only we had been listened to 36 years ago, we wouldn't be fighting now, and we could have seen someone held accountable," she said.

In her findings, Ms O'Sullivan said she placed "great weight on the evidence of June and Dawn," both of whom shared their lived experiences at the inquest, which included only becoming "aware of the girls' deaths from other family members, rather than being formally advised by police".

Dawn said on Tuesday: "We hope that there is change in the way the police force treats Aboriginal families who have had loved ones who they have lost or have been killed."

Mona's mother June asked why someone who doesn't "like Blackfellas" would even come out to Bourke.

"We all bleed the same," she said.

"We are proud to be Black. For cops to treat us different because of racism is wrong.

"If it was two white girls it would have been different."

During Grant's criminal trial in 1990, his legal team successfully argued he was not driving the motor vehicle at the time of the accident.

On Tuesday, Ms O'Sullivan said she was "satisfied the driver of the vehicle was Mr Grant," citing 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.

The stretch of Mitchell Highway where the crash took place (Image: National Justice Project)

During the inquest, lead detective Peter Ehsman testified he believed unequivocally Grant's statement where he said Mona was the driver.

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

"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 argued this was "most troubling" given Mr Ehsman didn't believe Grant was telling the truth about sexually interfering with Cindy.

Of this finding, Mona's sister Fiona said: "It brings me great peace to finally have recognition that the police didn't do their job and that my sister Mona wasn't driving that car."

Ms O'Sullivan recommended the development of guidelines for a review of investigations by the NSW Police Force where there is an application for a fresh or further inquest.

In response to recommendation by the National Justice Project (NJP) to consider reform of the Crimes Act so someone cannot escape prosecution because the precise time of a victim's death is uncertain, Ms O'Sullivan proposed writing to the Attorney General to draw their attention to the issue and to consider if reform is warranted.

NJP solicitor Ariane Dozer said it was an "immense honour" to work with the family to advocate for Mona and Cindy.

"To finally have this story told is important and the Findings are significant. But sadly, the reality is the catastrophic failures of the investigation since 1987 will continue to prevent any true form of justice."

13YARN 13 92 76

Aboriginal Counselling Services 0410 539 905

1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732)

National Sexual Abuse and Redress Support Service 1800 211 028

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