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Scott, Letty Marie (1953–2009)

by Malcolm Brown

This entry is from Obituaries Australia

Letty Marie Scott, who was to achieve fame as a persistent campaigner for justice for her deaths-in-custody husband, was at the crossroads of Australia's great cultural conflict.

She was born at Ragetts Well, Glenn Helen Station, Northern Territory, daughter of an Irish-Australian World War I veteran, Bill Gibson, many years older than her mother, Lucy. Lucy was a traditional tribal Aboriginal, from the Anmatyerre (pronounced Umatjira) tribe, and spoke six local languages, her seventh being English.

Lucy took her children into the bush, taught them her languages and sang with them around the campfire. Out of the bush the family listened to singers such as Connie Francis and Patsy Cline on the radio. But when Letty was five, Gibson died, and she was taken away from her mother and placed in a Catholic convent in Alice Springs, which she found to be a place of cruelty. She survived that, and when she left school worked in a dress shop.

In 1983 Letty married Douglas Scott. In 1985 he was arrested for using indecent language in a Darwin hotel then failed to obey his bail conditions and was remanded in custody for 60 days. Beginning this on May 31, 1985, he lasted only until July 5, when he was found hanging by a twisted sheet in his cell in Berrimah jail. Darwin. A Northern Territory pathologist, Dr Kevin Lee, found no suspicious circumstances.

The coroner found in 1987 that Scott had committed suicide. The death was taken up by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which started its hearings in 1987. Letty was unimpressed. She later said it was "a lawyer's picnic on the blood of the Aboriginal people" and had limited the evidence it was prepared to take from anyone who supported her view of foul play. The finding on Doug Scott's death, in 2001, was that he had hanged himself. Letty was backed by Jeffrey Bindai and Laurie Percy, who had been in cells opposite Doug's and claimed to have seen four prison officers enter his cell the night before. They said they had heard him calling for help and had raised a protest. Bindai later said that an officer told him to shut up or "you'll be next".

In an address Letty gave to the Women United For Justice and Native Title in 1998, she said: "We had a royal commission that cost $50 million and spent $50 million of taxpayers' money on nothing but cover-up and fraud."

Her campaign attracted overseas support, including the International Organisation for Indigenous Resource Development, which in 1999 arranged for her to address the United Nations. The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation in America commissioned a new study into the death. American pathologists studied the autopsy report and concluded that Doug's death was more likely to have been brought about by "manual neck compression than with the hanging mechanism".

To relieve the stress of her long campaign, Letty took up painting, and her talent quickly manifested itself. One of her paintings was bought by the National Art Gallery for $10,000.

She expressed her love of animals and became vegetarian. For Doug, she continued her campaign despite harassment. In 2005 she succeeded in getting his remains exhumed in Townsville. An independent pathologist from Brazil, Professor Jorge Vanrell, said that lesions to the body were "consistent with torture procedures".

Letty had confirmation of what she had always believed. "I feel vindicated by God," she said. "[However] I can see that Douglas died a brutal death and it's very distressing for my husband and I." A solicitor speaking on behalf of the territory government pointed out that two pathologists' reports did not support Dr Vanrell.

Letty called for a new inquiry, supported by the Indigenous Social Justice Association. With her son, Nathan, she took out private criminal and civil proceedings against four prison officers. One of those, Bill Dowden, had died of cancer, so the action was against three: Barry Medley, Michael Lawson and Harold Robertson.

In the civil proceedings, the territory Supreme Court judge David Angel found that it was "unable to be satisfied that the deceased took his own life", but he added: "The plaintiff has not established to my satisfaction that the deceased was murdered by the defendant prison officers" and also said that the evidence of Bindai and Percy "cannot be dismissed out-of-hand".

Daniel Taylor, who assisted her campaign and became her husband, said: "After the civil proceedings result we found it would be too hard to continue with the criminal proceedings, so we dropped them." Robert Dow, a former territory police officer who had helped Letty, told the Herald: "She uncovered the truth and she put the truth in the hands of authorities and asked them to deal honestly with it."

In her other life, Letty Scott busied herself promoting the cause of her people. In addition to her painting, she wrote songs. With Nathan, she wrote a song: Alice, Alice, I Love You. With her sister Rhubee Neale and daughter Dianna Cavanagh she formed a company to promote the artistic output of Anmatyerre people. But her life was cut short by cancer. Letty Scott is survived by her husband, children Michele, Dianna, Nathan and Monica, granddaughter Soraya and sisters Linda and Rhubee. She will be buried at Alice Springs today.

Original Publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 28 February 2009

Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Scott, Letty Marie (1953–2009)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/scott-letty-marie-16860/text28756, accessed 18 November 2017.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2012