A decision not to charge two security guards over the heat stroke death of a West Australian Aboriginal elder in a prison van has been greeted with anger and disbelief.
Mr Ward, an elder whose full name cannot be used for cultural reasons, died of heat stroke in the back of the van on the way from Laverton to Kalgoorlie in WA’s Goldfields region in January 2008.
A broken air conditioner in the back of the van forced Mr Ward to endure temperatures of more than 50 degrees Celsius during the four-hour non-stop journey.
He was being driven to Kalgoorlie to face a drink-driving charge in court.
At the weekend, WA’s Director of Public Prosecutions Joe McGrath visited Mr Ward’s widow Nancy at Warburton in the Central Desert and told her charges would not be laid.
He told her there was no reasonable prospect of conviction if charges were laid against the two security guards employed by the security firm GSL, now known as G4S.
Last year WA Coroner Alastair Hope found the Department of Corrective Services, security officers Graham Powell and Nina Stokoe transporting Mr Ward and their employer had all contributed to Mr Ward’s death.
Mr Hope referred the case to the DPP because he believed a criminal offence had been committed.
WA’s Deaths in Custody Watch Committee chairman Marc Newhouse said it was unbelievable no charges would be laid just because there were too many parties involved.
“Mr Ward died under the most horrendous, torturous conditions, conditions that were criminal,” Mr Newhouse said.
“And yet because there were so many parties involved… the decision is there is no prospect of bringing any of those parties to account and that is just unacceptable.”
He said a protest rally would be organised later this week “to allow the community to express its outrage and dismay” at the DPP’s decision.
The case was a compelling reason to return prisoner transport to the Department of Corrective Services and to terminate the prisoner transport contract of G4S, he said.
Aboriginal Legal Service WA Chief Executive Dennis Eggington said the DPP’s decision was unfortunate.
“Maybe we could look at whether or not there’s some grounds to pursue the police investigation because in the end that’s the biggest issue we have,” Mr Eggington told ABC Radio.
“It was the issue on Palm Island and it’s the issue here, that the police gave a second-rate investigation because it was an Aboriginal person.”
“If it was some mining magnate who had got picked up drink driving in the Goldfields and this had happened to him there would have been a proper investigation and that didn’t happen.”
State opposition attorney-general spokesman John Quigley said it was inconceivable no one would face charges, either criminal or disciplinary.
“If it had been a dog in the back of that van… and it had died in similar circumstances then there is no doubt that person would have been prosecuted under cruelty to animals,” he told ABC Radio.
The WA government is finalising an ex-gratia payment to Mr Ward’s family.