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Coronial inquest opens into the 1987 deaths of Indigenous cousins Mona Lisa Smith and Jacinta 'Cindy' Smith

Dechlan Brennan -

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

The first day of a coronial inquest into the horrifying deaths of two Indigenous girls in 1987 has seen evidence and statements from 35 years ago come under the microscope.

The inquest into the deaths of 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, began in Bourke, NSW, on Monday and is examining whether systemic racism or cultural and/or racial bias were factors in the police investigation.

The two girls - described as "like sisters" - were found dead on the side of the Mitchell highway, next to a crashed ute, in the early hours of December 6, 1987.

White man Ian Alexander Grant, who is deceased but was 40 at the time, was found with his arm draped across the body of Cindy, who was bare chested and partially naked.

He was subsequently found not guilty of drink driving causing death by an all-white jury in 1990, with a further charge of interfering with a corpse being dropped on the eve of the trial.

Speaking before the inquiry on Monday, Dawn and June Smith - the mothers of Cindy and Mona Lisa - said they hoped they "can achieve justice for our girls."

"We have waited 36 years and we have finally been given a chance. The loss of the lives of these two beautiful girls weren't taken seriously because they were Black," they said.

"This case shows that Outback NSW was a dangerous place, particularly for Black women. Mona and Cindy are loved and missed.

"We are here today because they have not been forgotten and we are still in search of justice for our girls. We are here because no mother should have to suffer in silence. It's time their stories were told."

State Coroner overseeing the inquest

State Coroner Teresa O'Sullivan, who is overseeing the inquest, told the family - and others who were present at the small Bourke Court house - that she hoped "some of your many questions can be answered."

The first coronial inquest was halted in 1988 due to Mr Grant's upcoming criminal trial and was never restarted until Monday.

Dawn and June Smith said a failure to do the "right thing" in 1987 had meant 36 years on, answers about their children's life had not been answered.

"We recognise that an inquest is not going to bring the girls back, but they didn't give a damn about our girls, and we want accountability for that," they said.

"We want this process to bring peace for Mona and Cindy so that they can rest, and peace for our families and community too."

The inquest heard a physical specimen taken from Cindy, which was used to examine if she had been the victim of sexual assault, was no longer available.

Council assisting the coroner, Peggy Dwyer SC, told the inquest there were nine failures which had been identified during the initial police investigation.

Some of these included a failure to interview the first witness at the scene, a mismanagement of evidence and not seizing and forensically analysing the ute involved in the accident.

Dr Dwyer noted other shortcomings, including family members having to notify the girl's parents - instead of the police - and currently no existing transcript of the original District Court trial of Mr Grant being available.

"It is unknown whether systemic racism or cultural bias may have been an underlying factor in the initial police investigation. That issue will certainly be explored with the relevant witnesses during these proceedings," she said.

Mona Lisa Smith, 16 and Jacinta "Cindy" Smith, 15, died in 1987.(Image: ABC/National Justice Project)

Mona Lisa Smith, 16 and Jacinta "Cindy" Smith, 15, died in 1987. (Image: ABC/National Justice Project)

First Witnesses on the Scene

The first people to find the accident site was a convoy, led by Shane Baty. He told the inquest he was driving along the Mitchell Highway, heading to Quilpie, when they discovered the ute "nine, ten metres from the side of the road," just after 4am.

Mr Baty, a seasonal farm worker who was giving evidence via video link in Alice Springs, said his brother in the other car had pulled over, so he manoeuvred his vehicle to shine a light on the scene.

Mona was face down on the road, with horrific head injuries - including a lacerated scalp. Cindy was found on a tarpaulin, severely injured, with Mr Grant's hand over her chest.

A later post-mortem found both girls died from their injuries relatively quickly.

Mr Baty told the court he remembered Grant's right arm draped over Cindy, up near her breasts.

He said he observed Mr Grant was alive, intoxicated and "dopey" in appearance. He also noted alcohol bottles around the scene.

When he told Mr Grant that the girls were deceased - having checked their pulse as well as their eyes in the Hilux's lights - Mr Batty said Grant disagreed.

"No, they are alright they've had too much to drink," he recalled Grant saying.

He left to go to Enngonia police station leaving his brother at the scene. However, his brother arrived at the station ten minutes later, claiming Mr Grant had told them he had a gun.

The implication was that it was there for one purpose, with Mr Baty telling the court everyone during that time had a gun and when they mentioned they were armed, "you move".

Despite being a witness at the criminal trial, he said he was never asked about the weapon claim by Grant.

Off-Duty Officer

The other witness called on Monday was an off-duty police officer in Enngonia on the morning of December 6, who assisted his colleague.

He told the court he'd have assumed detectives from Bourke - as well as his fellow officer - would have measured tyre marks and breathalysed Mr Grant. He noted this was normal practice and it was just about "getting them on the radio to attend."

He didn't form a view around Mr Grant's sobriety, but noted Cindy was partly undressed.

"All items of clothing had either been pulled up and down," he said.

When questioned by Dr Dwyer if he thought this implied sexual misconduct, the officer said he "sort of assumed that."

He also told the Court that Grant changed his story about who was driving once he was informed by the officers that the two girls had died, initially saying it was him behind the wheel.

Grant told the officer's colleague: "they are only asleep."

When his colleague noted the two girls were deceased, Grant again told him they were only asleep.

"I can assure you; they are both dead," his colleague said. The officer said his colleague spoke to Grant in a "louder tone of voice to get his point across."

The officer said he and his colleague agreed Grant changed his story about who was driving after this news.

He told the court that when he inquired with the investigators a few days later about what was happening with the case, he was told to "mind his own business."

"I thought further investigation would have been a little bit better," he said.

The inquiry continues.

13YARN 13 92 76

Aboriginal Counselling Services 0410 539 905

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