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Coronial inquiry set to examine horrific cold case deaths of two Indigenous girls

Dechlan Brennan -

The following article contains names of people who have died, as well as graphic and disturbing details.

A coronial inquiry commencing next week may be the first step towards justice for two Indigenous girls who died in regional New South Wales in 1987.

The inquiry, which will begin on Monday in Bourke - a small town approximately 800 km north-west of Sydney - is likely to stir up feelings of anguish for the families of two young Aboriginal girls - Jacinta Rose Smith and Mona Lisa Smith - whose deaths remains unsolved.

Amidst the discrepancy in justice outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians, there remains little attention paid to their deaths, the trial, and the lack of an outcome 35 years on.

The 'accident'

Jacinta Rose 'Cindy' Smith, a 15-year-old Kunja Budjiti and Wangkumara girl, and her cousin Mona Lisa Smith, a 16-year-old Murrawarri and Kunja girl, were found at approximately 4am on the morning of December 6, 1987, about 63 km north of Bourke on a long stretch of the Mitchell Highway after dying in a horrific road accident.

Around 9.30 PM the day before, the two girls climbed into a Toyota Hilux driven by Alexander Ian Grant, a white excavator driver. When the vehicle crashed, the two girls - described as "inseparable since childhood" - suffered grotesque injuries.

Mona was allegedly found by motorists - face down in the gravel, partially scalped, missing an ear and without a pulse.

Cindy passed away as a result of massive internal injuries, after allegedly being found lying nearby on a tarpaulin. She was naked from the waist down, with her pants around her ankles, and her legs together.

Statements indicate the motorists left the scene to contact the police. The NSW police noted that when they arrived at the scene, Cindy's legs had been spread apart and her shirt and bra had been pushed upwards. She had no pulse and had suffered the most horrific of internal injuries.

Grant, then 40, was found drunk and unharmed at the crash site. He was lying next to Cindy on the tarpaulin with his arm across the 15-year-old's chest. He has consumed 30 alcoholic drinks on the day and evening of the crash.

The National Indigenous Times understands Grant was not interviewed immediately after the accident and neither Crime Scene officers, nor the Accident Investigation Unit, arrived at the scene on the day of December 6.

In 2017, Grant passed away, having never spent one day in prison.

The Trial

Grant had been charged with culpable driving causing the death of Jacinta Rose Smith and Mona Lisa Smith, as well as indecently interfering with Cindy's corpse.

Despite Cindy being a child under NSW law, Grant was never charged with child abuse or sexual assault.

Less than one week from the trial, the charge of interfering with a corpse was 'no billed' (a deemed lack of evidence to go to trial) by the Department of Public Prosecutions (DPP) because medical evidence could not pinpoint Cindy's exact time of death.

The charge was dropped without consulting the families, who were first told on the opening day of the trial.

Grant was acquitted of culpable driving - despite the 30 drinks he had consumed in the previous 12 hours or so hours – by an all-white jury.

His legal team convinced the jury it was not beyond reasonable doubt he had been driving the car, arguing it had in fact been Mona who was behind the wheel of the ute when it crashed.

However, Grant has previously told officers that he was driving the vehicle; before changing his story.

Whilst the Crown lacked the medical evidence to ascertain the exact time of Cindy's death, there was no subsequent charge brought against Grant for what seemed equally as abhorrent: Cindy, if she wasn't deceased, was certainly dying.

There is no definitive evidence that Grant had intercourse with the innocent child, but the rearranging of clothing offers a compelling argument that this was the case. He was never charged with child abuse, attempted rape or any other sexual indiscretion pertaining to a child.

In a 2018 article in The Weekend Australian, Grant's Barrister, Tony Quinlivan, was reported to have "misgivings" about the result but maintained "justice was done" as the defence team had done their duty: to convince the jury that it was not beyond reasonable doubt Grant was driving the Hilux that night.

In the same article, Quinlivan conceded, despite no clear evidence Grant had sexual intercourse with Cindy, by "rearranging her clothing —obviously he did that. Blind Freddy could see he must have done that. He was probably doing something despicable at that point".

In the book Enngonia Road by journalist Richard Stanton, it's reported Grant told investigators that Cindy had been "coming on to him" after the crash. This, despite her injuries being so severe that she couldn't sit, stand or walk.

She was also a child.

Ex-magistrate Rosemary Cater-Smith, who sent Grant to trial, told The Weekend Australian in 2018 Grant's claims were "unbelievable". She also believed the police investigation was "all over the place''.

Grant was not interviewed immediately after the event, and there seemed to be some evidence that wasn't collected - including the car's steering wheel.

In 2018, Mona's mother, Julie Smith, told The Weekend Australian she believed the case would have been different if it wasn't a white driver and two Indigenous girls.

"Oh man! …if it had been two little white girls, it would have been a different matter. And if it was a black man (with two white girls) he would have been locked up there and then, thrown away the keys, still in jail today," she said at the time.

A Sydney Morning Herald article from December 1987 claims police took "extraordinary" measures to not bring attention to Grant, charging him in Nyngan - 200 km away.

Head of Bourke police at the time, Inspector Lachlan, said they didn't want Grant back in Bourke until "things settle down" so as to not cause "trouble".

The same article accused police of withholding information about the case, as they feared there would be unrest in Bourke.

30 years of waiting for 'justice'

The grief of the families and their hunt for justice has never abated, despite multiple setbacks - including the NSW Office of the DPP (ODPP) standing by their decision to drop the sexual offence charges against Grant.

In a letter, dated November 12, 2019, and reported by The Australian, deputy director of NSW Public Prosecutions, Huw Baker SC, said he had not been able to "identify any error in the ultimate decision that was made or this ­office's consideration of the relevant legal issues".

The ODPP did however apologise for failing to inform the families that the interfering with a corpse charge was dropped on the eve of the trial.

In July 2022, after relentless pressure by the families of Cindy and Mona Lisa, as well as submissions by the National Justice Project (NJP) with assistance of barrister Julie Buxton, the State's Coroner agreed to re-open the coronial inquest.

Speaking to the National Indigenous Times, Adjunct Professor George Newhouse from the NJP said the family wants "closure".

"They want to know why no one was ever held accountable for what happened to Mona and Cindy on that night," he said.

"They want the police to be held accountable for any failures of their investigation and the way that the family have been treated since.

"The case exposes the way in which the way in which cases involving First Nations women and children who have disappeared or died have been treated by the police as well as investigative and prosecutorial bodies."

In their submission to the Federal Senate Standing Committee into Legal and Constitutional Affairs Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Children, NJP said after the coronial inquest was halted in 1988 due to the criminal investigation, the families expected they would be updated when it resumed, only for it to remain dormant for 35 years.

"The 35 years of inaction on this case have left the girls' families and the broader community of Bourke with immense uncertainty relating to many aspects of the alleged accident, the investigation and the decision making of the DPP," the submission said.

"Mona and Cindy's family believe that if the investigation by the NSW Police had been performed properly, more serious charges may have been laid against Grant and more questions relating to the circumstances of their deaths may have been answered.

"While the Coronial inquest will be resumed, it will be affected by time, fading memories, and years of evidence which may have gone missing or been destroyed. The trauma for the girls' families and community that has been created and exacerbated by years of unanswered questions and inaction cannot be understated."

The Inquest, starting on Monday, is likely to examine criticism of the investigation by police and the prosecution.

It remains to be seen exactly what closure it will bring to the families of Mona Lisa and Cindy, who had an entire life ahead of them before it was taken away in an evening of unmitigated horror.

But it will - hopefully - allow more information to be shared about a tragedy that has been largely hidden for 35 years.

13YARN 13 92 76

Aboriginal Counselling Services 0410 539 905

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