Rebecca Maher, 36, was found dead in a cell at Maitland police station at 6am on July 19. Hers was the first Aboriginal death in NSW police custody since 2000.
She was picked up by police at 12.45am that morning on the side of a road in the Hunter Valley town of Cessnock after witnesses reported her wandering on the road in a heavily intoxicated state.
The mother of four, a Wiradjuri woman, was placed in a cell alone at about 1am and checked on at 6am.
A cause of death hasn’t been determined but Fairfax Media understands she had vomit around her mouth.
The Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT has accused police of failing to follow legal protocols that require them to notify the ALS as soon as an Indigenous person is taken into custody.
The service was only notified of Ms Maher’s death 24 days later, on August 12.
“We’re very concerned there’s been a procedural failure this time, and that we were not notified of Ms Maher’s detainment,” ALS chief executive Gary Oliver said.
“If the [notification system] had been used by police when they detained Ms Maher, there may have been a different outcome.”
Family friend and traditional owner Kathy Malera-Bandjalan said Ms Maher’s mother and siblings were devastated and demanding answers.
They were only notified of Ms Maher’s death at 12.30pm on July 19, she said.
“How do you take someone into custody who’s legally done nothing wrong, then detain them in a cell then they’re dead in four hours?” she said. “Rebecca’s death is not going to be in vain.”
The events leading up to Ms Maher’s detention and the reasons for her detention are under close scrutiny.
Police released a statement on July 19 saying “police located and detained a 36-year-old woman who appeared intoxicated, walking along Wollombi Road, Cessnock”.
In a second statement, on July 25, police said she was taken to the station because “police had concerns for her welfare”.
In that statement, police appealed for witnesses who saw Ms Maher on Wollombi Road, including the occupants of a blue Commodore and an anonymous man who called police.
Ms Malera-Bandjalan read out a statement to a rally in Sydney earlier this month, questioning why Ms Maher was detained with no supervision.
“Without being charged with any crime, Rebecca was taken into police custody as she walked down a street,” the statement said.
“Police allege that she was intoxicated, but have given her family no other reason as to why Rebecca was detained.”
Following the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991, a recommendation was made to develop a protocol whereby an Aboriginal legal service is notified whenever an Aboriginal person is arrested or detained.
This requirement was enshrined in law in the NSW Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Regulation.
The ALS set up the Custody Notification Service in 2000, a 24/7 phone line, to meet this need.
Mr Oliver said the CNS allows a lawyer to give the detainee legal advice and check they’re OK.
“Sometimes they’re not OK, and the police and the lawyer organise for a health check, an ambulance, medication or whatever assistance is required to ensure the person in custody is safe.
“Even if a person is seen to be intoxicated, the police still ring us and let us know they’ve got a person in custody.”
It’s not yet clear if police knew that Ms Maher was Indigenous, however she had previous criminal convictions so would have appeared in internal systems.
NSW Police and Minister for Police Troy Grant declined to comment, saying it was a matter for the Coroner.
Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Leslie Williams offered her “sincere condolences” to the family and said it was a matter for the police.
Ms Maher’s family granted Fairfax Media permission to publish her name and photo.