The Aboriginal woman Maureen Mandijarra had been lying in the same position on the concrete floor of cell four in the Broome police station for at least six hours before police attempted to rouse her, a coronial inquest has heard.
When police did try to shake the 44-year-old awake, in the early hours of 30 November 2012, they found she was dead.
The inquest into her death began in the tourist town 2,240km north of Perth on Western Australia’s north-west coast on Monday.
In the small courthouse, across a red dirt stained road from the Broome police station, Toby Bishop, the counsel assisting the coroner, Ros Fogliani, said the inquest would examine the reasons for arresting and detaining Mandijarra and ask “significant” questions about the requirement of police at Broome station to perform welfare checks.
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Mandijarra was the last Aboriginal person to die in a police cell in WA before the Yamatji woman Ms Dhu, who died in the police lock-up at Port Hedland about 800km south in August 2014. The inquest into Ms Dhu’s death is part-heard and will resume next month.
In his opening address, a copy of which has been seen by Guardian Australia, Bishop said Mandijarra was spotted drinking with a group of women on Male Oval by two police on patrol about 6pm on 29 November 2012.
The large grassy area in the centre of town is frequently used as a stopping place for itinerant Aboriginal people who come to Broome from surrounding communities.
Mandijarra, an artist from the remote Aboriginal community of Balgo, about 920km away on the edge of the Tanami desert, had been sleeping rough in the town for two years.
Bishop told the inquest that first class constable Clinton McDonald drove onto the oval towards a group of four women when he heard them yelling and spotted a woman, Mandijarra, drinking something out of a white cup. As the police 4WD approached, Mandijarra dropped the cup and she and another woman lay on the ground as if asleep. McDonald saw she had hidden a can of Emu Export beer under her pillow when he wound down the window to talk.
He and his partner, constable Joel Wright, poured out the beer and two bottles of wine and arrested Mandijarra, bundling her into the back of the police van for the 500m journey back to the station, Bishop said.
At the station, police noted she was “yelling abuse at the officers and pacing erratically around the charge room” and was evidently “heavily intoxicated”.
Bishop said she was processed and booked into cell four around 7.13pm, briefly sharing it with two other women, who were released on bail about 15 minutes later. Before they left, the women recalled, Mandijarra was settling down to sleep.
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At 10.53pm, another woman was placed in cell four.
“It looked to her like Ms Mandijarra was asleep at the time she entered cell four,” Bishop said.
“That detainee woke once during the night and noticed Ms Mandijarra was still asleep and in the same position. At around 4.22am, the detainee was removed from cell four and released. At the time of leaving cell four, she observed Ms Mandijrarra was in the same position as when she arrived.”
The police officer in charge of the detainees, who had changed over at 10pm, did not check Mandijrarra at any stage, according to Bishop’s summary. She had not been physically checked since being placed in the cell.
At 4.29am, senior constable Dan Coleman went to rouse Mandijarra and release her on bail. She was not responsive and had no pulse. After 26 minutes of resuscitation attempts by both police and ambulance staff, Mandijarra was declared dead.
Neither the time nor the cause of her death have been determined. Forensic pathologist Dr Gerard Cadden, who conducted the autopsy, is expected to tell the inquest on Wednesday that her death was “consistent with infections in a woman with diabetes”.
Thirteen people are listed to give evidence at the inquest, which is expected to run for three days.