For my sister, Letty Scott: a strong justice woman

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Letty Marie Scott was born on the 26 April 1953 at Raggetts Well, Glen Helen in the Northern Territory.

Her Mother was Lucy Gibson, nee Briscoe Nampijimpa, an Anmatyerre woman from Central Australia, and her father was Arthur William Gibson from New South Wales who claimed Irish descent.

On 25 November 2006, Letty was diagnosed with cancer of the ovaries, pelvic area and the liver.

She and her family rejected chemotherapy and chose instead to go with natural and herbal remedies. The long knowledge of bush medicines would also be incorporated into her chosen regime to fight the cancer.

Letty’s choice to fight in her own way and on her own terms came as no surprise to all those who had worked with her in her struggle to obtain justice for the murder, in 1985, of her husband, Douglas Bruce Scott, at the hands of four Berrimah prison officers.

Since January 1980, over 400 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families have suffered the trauma of a death in custody. Letty Scott’s fight shines brightly as a call to arms for those seeking truth and justice for all who have died at the hands of the racist state.

Letty and her family fought tenaciously to prove that Douglas was murdered. Obstacles — both legal and non-legal — were put in place to deter her. She faced harassment by the Northern Territory police: one of her young children was kidnapped and dumped on the outskirts of Darwin at night. In fear for their lives, Letty, the children and her new husband, Robert Dow, left Darwin with only what they could carry. The struggle continued in exile.

Letty sought support from parliamentarians, Aboriginal organisations and human rights groups. Whilst some listened, most did not. Some lawyers attempted to help. But all tried to steer the charges away from murder to a lesser charge. Letty would not accept their advice, so moved on.

I met Letty, Robert, Nathan and Monica in 1995 when the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Watch Committee was working out of the Sydney Trades Hall.

We gave them full access to the phones, photocopier and internet, which they used to continue the campaign. Other groups, including the Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women, also became active in the fight.

Letty pursued the struggle through the Australian court system and some international bodies as well.

In 1998 the Northern Territory government summonsed Letty to appear before the Darwin Supreme Court to face proceedings against her to pay damages to the NT government! She was given just 48 hours’ notice. In typical fashion, Letty refused to be intimidated. She pleaded poverty — which was true — and fear for herself and her family if she was to return.

Things took a positive turn in 1999 when, thanks to an unidentified benefactor, the family found themselves on their way to the U.S.A. In Connecticut they met with leaders of the Mashentucket Pequot Tribal Nation who listened and offered to help.

This international campaigning led to the formation of an Expert Forensic Team who agreed that the claim Douglas committed suicide was questionable and murder was the more likely cause.

A report, funded by the Pequot Nation, was produced. Then began the interminable court appearances to allow the facts of the Expert Forensic Report to be put. A young law student, Daniel Taylor, who Letty trusted implicitly to argue the charge of murder and nothing less, supported the family.

The fight was taken to the High Court of Australia which ordered that the matter be finally dealt with in the Darwin Supreme Court. As a condition of appearance, Letty won her demand for the deletion of the 1998 summons against her!

In 2005 Douglas’ body was exhumed. Letty was required to meet the costs. A pathologist from Brazil and a panel of experts agreed that the body did not show signs of hanging but of manual strangulation. Pathologists for the other side disagreed.

The case was heard with Daniel holding his own against barristers far beyond his years and his legal training. But the final decision was not to have a decision! The judge found that he could not accept that Douglas suicided but then, on the balance of probabilities, he could not accept that the four prison officers had been involved in his death.

This was not only a devastating result, it was also the legal decision of a coward. Another legal slap in the face for the family!

Every legal challenge Letty made over the previous 20 years had been rejected by the system in its attempts to cover up the murder of Douglas. But Letty resolutely continued the search for justice.

But the bitter struggle took its toll on her health. The cancer was sapping her of strength and vitality.

It was an honour to have campaigned with Letty. The number of Death in Custody families that endured for as long as she did can be counted on one hand. Most cannot withstand the enormous pressure placed upon them by the system that is there to protect the uniformed killers and not to seek justice.

Letty and I grew together as brother and sister, and that recognition became very important to me. I loved her indomitable spirit and the fact that there was never a hint of stopping the fight to bring murderers to justice.

Prior to her death on 14 February 2009, she was talking of a High Court challenge to the “no decision” and I was able to discuss this with her the day before she died.

My Sister, you will be sorely missed, but I know, as does your family, that your strong spirit will be with us every day, protecting us and strengthening us as we who remain continue to fight for justice.

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