No justice, No peace Letty Scott: The story of a fighter

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Letty Scott is a fighter. Her husband, who for tribal and cultural reasons cannot be named, became an Aboriginal death in custody statistic when he allegedly hung himself at Berrimah Prison in the Northern Territory on 5 July 1985. For the last decade-and-a-half, Letty has used her anger to campaign for the reopening of his case to expose the truth surrounding his death.

Clearly the Territory government is prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to prevent the case from being reopened. Letty now faces the spurious and ridiculous charge of harassment. 

Recently, Letty took the struggle into the international arena with a visit to the U.S. and England. While in New York, she was hosted by the local branches of both Radical Women and the Freedom Socialist Party. She explained that the purpose of her trip was to expose the continued Indigenous deaths in custody and to get political and financial support for her campaign to reopen the case of her husband’s death.

Letty met with Native American organisations across the country. She visited the American Indian House in New York City. She travelled to Connecticut where she was hosted by the Pequot Nation, a tribe which has made a considerable amount of money from catering to high rollers at its casino. Letty took every opportunity to tell her story and seek active support. 

Harsh childhood. Letty Scott was born on the Glen Helen cattle station in the Northern Territory. Aboriginal people were under the “care” of the protectors who controlled every aspect of daily life. There were two types of Aborigines: those who were taken and put on the missions and those who worked as virtual slaves on the white-owned cattle stations. Apartheid was alive and well and was diligently enforced by the police and the judicial system. All “coloureds” had to be out of Darwin by 6.00 pm or face arrest and jail on charges of trespass! The death while in custody of any Aborigine was of minor consequence, and little was done to find those responsible.

When her father died, Letty and her sisters and brothers were taken from their mother and put into a church institution. They were forbidden to speak their language and were not allowed to visit their mother. Letty later married. She and her husband lived a hard life battling poverty and racism.

Brutal death. One evening in January 1985, Letty’s husband went to the Darwin Hotel happy hour. Letty was concerned about his drinking and went to the hotel to get him to come home. Words were said, and he slapped her. The publican rang the police. When the police arrived, Letty refused to lay charges. The police went ahead and charged him anyway. Letty’s husband was put on daily reporting to the police station. He reported every day from January to April. When he missed one day, a warrant was issued and he was arrested. He was held in custody — illegally as it was later found — from that day to the day of his death on 5 July.

While in custody, he was regularly assaulted. The last time Letty was allowed to see him, she found that “his face was smashed to a pulp. His eye was hanging out and the whole of his eyes were blood red.” He told her on that visit that they were going to murder him. Three days later, he was dead. Letty was informed of the death of her husband on Sunday when she rang to enquire about him. He had died on the Friday!

Not a peaceful life. Letty has no intention of letting the matter rest. She wants answers, and she wants justice. But the fight has been difficult. Letty says that, since her husband’s death, she and her children have been continually harassed. But her persistent campaigning has also brought a candid response from the police. Letty explains: “I thought to myself, I’ve got to stand against this corruption. I decided I’d have to get the money to fight the Territory government. Every time I’d go up to a different government department, I’d get a call at 2am from the police. I’d say ‘What do you want now?’ They’d say, ‘Letty Scott, you’ve got to stop seeking justice, because there is none. None for Blacks in this country. If you want a peaceful life, you’ll leave it alone.’ ”

Letty knows that there is no such thing as a “peaceful life” for Aboriginal people in the Deep North: “Straight after he died, a mob turned up in our driveway — headlights on high beam, calling out, ‘Niggers.’ The next day when I got up to go to work, there was a white triangle with an eye inside it. We didn’t know what that meant. We were told the Ku Klux Klan was in Katherine (a town in the Northern Territory). There’s an organisation there; we feared for our lives.”

The family still does. They moved from the Northern Territory to Queensland. The harassment from the police and others followed. The family came to New South Wales. The harassment still followed and continues to this day.

The police are right — there is no justice for Blacks in this country under the current system. But they are also very wrong. Letty has fought since 1985 for justice and, despite the harassment, she and her family will keep on fighting. She has taken her call for a proper judicial enquiry into the death of her husband to any organisation willing to listen. Every time Letty tells her story, another person cannot help but understand the need for major systemic change.

One death among many. Letty is not alone in her constant calls for justice. The Northern Territory government, along with the federal and all state governments, have all participated in whitewashing the custodial deaths of Aboriginal prisoners. The families of Eddie Murray, John Pat, Robert Walker, Charlie Michaels, Tony King, Daniel Yock, Colleen Richman and many more are all demanding answers, too.

The Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Royal Commission investigated 99 Aboriginal deaths from 1980 up until 30 May 1989. Not one police or prison officer was found guilty of causing or allowing the death of an Aborigine, while in their care. Since May 1989 there have been at least a further 170 Indigenous deaths in custody.

Letty’s insistence that the authorities at Berrimah Prison actually murdered her husband in 1985 are supported by others. I am one of them. And I will continue to be one of them until the Northern Territory government discontinues its harassment of Letty and her family and funds a full, open enquiry into the circumstances of the death.

The task is urgent. Let’s continue to build a broadly-based campaign to demand the reopening of all the contentious death in custody cases. Those custodial officers found to be guilty must be brought to trial. Supporting Letty’s campaign to expose the truth about her husband’s death is part of this wider fight.