UPDATED, September 24, 2013: Lawyer acting for Grace Beasley in this case, Tanya Collins, told the Alice Springs News Online that the Nolle Prosequi was filed subsequent to her writing to the DPP that there was insufficient evidence against her client to substantiate her involvement in the death of the deceased. There was no direct evidence to say that she was responsible for the deceased’s fall to the ground, nor that she hit her in a way as to cause significant injury. The evidence at its highest suggested some pushing and pulling and hair pulling.
Ms Collins pointed out that Reggie Nelson, under cross-examination, agreed that the women were pulled apart quickly and that Kumunjayi Nelson was not punched by Grace Beasley; that when Kumunjayi was on the ground, Grace was nowhere near her. In my synthesis of the events below, I inadvertently overlooked this admission. – K.F.
UPDATED, September 4, 2013: A Nolle Prosequi has been filed in this case by the Director of Public Prosecutions. This means that it will not be pursued. In keeping with DPP policy, no explanation has been offered to the media.
Cars, grog, jealousy, death
By KIERAN FINNANE
After a long day’s drinking four carloads of people ended up at the turn-off to Ali Curung on the Stuart Highway, south of Tennant Creek. Most of them lived at Ali Curung and were family or knew one another. Most were a bit drunk, or very drunk. Grog was running low, arguing and jealous fights broke out. And a woman died.
Cause of death: a subdural haemorrhage. The only external injuries were some superficial abrasions, but the autopsy revealed that she had suffered a number of blows to the head, including two to the middle of the face, one or all of which may have contributed to the haemorrhage. The injuries were classified as “mild”; there were no broken bones.
Her blood alcohol reading was .224. While subdural haemorrhage is always associated with trauma, this “acute alcohol toxicity” may have contributed to her death. Forensic pathologist Terence Sinton explained: the woman’s self-defence abilities would have dropped; and there may have been “a synergistic effect” between the toxic chemical delivered direct to the brain tissue and the trauma from the blows.
She had a pretty French first name; her second name was Nelson. She’s referred to now by the bereavement term, Kumunjayi. After a two and a half day preliminary examination in the Alice Springs Magistrates Court this week a young woman named Grace Beasley was ordered to stand trial for causing her death, negligently or recklessly. The Crown conceded that a charge of murder could not be maintained: there was no overt action that could indicate an intention to kill or cause serious harm, said prosector Ron Noble.
Grace Beasley looked relieved. She’s an attractive young woman in her mid-twenties, with an eager manner and bleached strands at the front of her dark shoulder-length hair. She nodded sagely as the bail conditions were read out: she must reside at Ngukurr and report weekly to police there, she’s not allowed at her home community of Ali Curung, nor at Wycliffe Well or Wauchope – roadhouses on the highway that cropped up frequently in the evidence – and she’s not allowed to drink.
Her mother, Lucy Jackson, was waiting at the courtroom door. Grace smiled and waved at her to come in. Lucy, who works as an Indigenous Engagement Officer at Ali Curung, is acting as surety and was ready to set out immediately on the long journey to Ngukurr with her daughter.
The day of “the trouble” was Saturday, December 8, 2012. In the early hours that morning a nurse was called to the home of Kumunjayi who was having difficulty breathing. Kumunjayi declined to be examined and refused to go to the clinic the next day. Instead she set off for Wauchope with her partner, Lance Brown, and other relatives. A first round of five six-packs of VB was bought and drunk, followed by two more six-packs before they moved on to Wycliffe Well.
Here, around mid-afternoon at a drinking spot near the roadhouse, Lance and Kumunjayi crossed paths with a carload of five women from Ali Curung, including Grace, her sister Gabrielle Beasley and their mother Lucy. The women were making their way through four six-packs, having started around lunchtime, but they didn’t want Lance and Kumunjayi to join them. Lucy “growled” them away. Why, asked Grace’s defence lawyer, Tanya Collins. They were “already drunk”, Lucy said, and were asking for more grog. Meredith Riley, though, was welcomed. She’d started drinking at about 11 in the morning, with a six-pack to herself; she had a couple more cans with Lucy and family.
Sundown and another eight six-packs
Around sundown Lucy set off for Wauchope to replenish supplies. She bought another eight six packs and went back to the same place near Wycliffe Well, joining her daughters and staying there until the sun went down.
Another group from Ali Curung turned up. They were in a little white car that was missing its front windscreen. On board were Reggie Nelson, his wife Roslyn Egan, Verena Friday and Jason Lane, all of them young people, at a guess in their mid- to late twenties. They’d been drinking at Wauchope, sharing four six-packs and then topping up with two more. Verena and Roslyn each said they’d had about 10 beers by this time. The white car needed fuel and they asked Lucy’s group for help. The women agreed in return for more grog.
In the meantime Lance and Kumunjayi were having a sleep in a red Ford they’d been travelling in. Lance’s uncle then asked them to go back to Ali Curung to pick up other family to join the party. The dangers of drink-driving don’t seem to have been given a second thought (by them or anyone else). By Lance’s account, the couple seem to have gone back and forth a few times between Ali Curung and the roadhouses before finishing up at the turn-off. He says he was a “little bit” drunk by this time, having had eight or nine cans of VB. There was no sign yet of anything going badly wrong for Kumanjayi. He said she’d had seven cans. She was still walking and talking.
The turn-off (at right, Google Earth view) is a cleared area by the highway with a bus shelter, a solar light, a mail-box. Ali Curung, population 200, is about 22 kilometres to the east.
Some people stayed in their cars, listening to music. Others gathered in or near the bus shelter. The white car was having trouble. Lance helped Reggie and Roslyn try to push start it. Tempers were getting frayed. Reggie and Roslyn started arguing and then Reggie, who admitted to getting a bit wild when he’s drunk, smashed the rear windscreen (the front was already gone). Jason, who’d been with them much of the day and had bought them grog, then got into a fight with Reggie. “He was jealousing me for his wife,” he said.
That fight was “finished”, said Reggie, when another broke out, between Grace and Kumunjayi.
Grace had asked for some beer; Kumunjayi got angry with her, “jealousing her for Lance”, said Reggie. He saw Kumunjayi pull Grace’s hair, but didn’t see Grace pull Kumunjayi’s hair. In his first statement to police, his evidence was far more damaging. He said he saw Grace hit Kumunjayi five times with a rock. In a second statement, however, he said he saw Grace pick up a rock and try to hit Kumunjayi with it but he stopped her, along with Gabrielle and another young woman, Aisha Rice. But, he told police, Grace did punch Kumunjayi a couple of times. Which was the “true story”, prosecutor Noble asked him. Grace only punched Kumunjayi, said Reggie.
The court did not hear Grace’s version of events: she has exercised her right to silence.
Jason said he saw the two women pull each other’s hair but he didn’t see or hear anything else; he was “busy”, “hungry” (rubbing his stomach), and looking for more beer, which he got from Gabrielle.
Jealousy going on
Verena was off in the bushes, going to the toilet, and Roslyn was with her. Verena said she could hear Grace and Kumunjayi – there was “jealousy going on”. Grace was saying, “You keep jealousing me.” Kumunjayi was accusing, “You and Lance together.” She also heard Lance speaking angrily, telling Kumunjayi to leave it, that he wasn’t with Grace, that she (Kumunjayi) was his wife. When Verena came back, Kumunjayi was lying on the ground near the white car.
Roslyn too said Kumunjayi “was jealousing Lance for Grace”. Kumunjayi wanted Lance to go back to the car. He didn’t want to listen. “You know how they are when they drink and don’t want to listen,” Roslyn commented. Lance was “busy”, she said, going around looking for smokes and grog. She didn’t see the fight.
Meredith was “drunk and sleepy”. She didn’t see anything, but heard the two women’s voices. They were speaking in “pidgin English”. “I heard Grace saying, ‘She always jealousing me about her husband,’” said Meredith.
Roselda Hogan arrived at the turn-off. She’d been to Wauchope earlier in the day to get smokes and had been drinking there. She parked near the shelter and stayed in her car listening to music. She didn’t see the fight but afterwards tried to calm Grace down and took her back to Ali Curung.
Aisha had spent the day with Lucy’s group. She called Kumunjayi “Aunty”. She’d seen her earlier in the day at Wycliffe Well. She’d asked her for a smoke: “She was sober then.” Next time she saw her was at the turn-off. Aisha herself was very drunk by then. How many cans had she had? “It must be more than 10 cans,” she answered.
She saw Grace and Aunty pulling each other’s hair. They were saying “jealousing things”. And Grace was saying “things about herself – ‘I’m not that kind of girl’”. Aisha and Gabrielle pulled Grace away. Aisha couldn’t say if anyone pulled Kumunjayi away: “I was busy controlling Grace.”
In her first statement to police she said Lance was hitting Aunty and she told him to stop. Now her evidence was that she heard someone “calling his name, ‘You can’t do that, she’s drunk.’” She turned around and saw Lance walking away and Aunty lying on the ground near the white car.
Gabrielle said Kumunjayi grabbed Grace by the hair only once, before Gabrielle pulled them apart. Someone else pulled Kumunjayi away, but she didn’t know who. She didn’t see Lance. She saw Kumunjayi lying on the ground but didn’t know how she ended up there.
Lucy said she didn’t see contact between the two women (contradicting her first statement to police) but she saw Lance run towards Kumunjayi. She thought he must have hit her but someone was in her way, blocking her view. A couple of people were pulling Grace away. She could hear Aisha saying to Grace, “You come with me.”
Grace was Lance’s ex-girlfriend. He confirmed this. He saw Kumunjayi walking towards her. She was upset, swearing. The women grabbed one another by the hair. He didn’t see other fighting, it was too dark. Lance pulled Kumunjayi away, telling her “I don’t want to see you fighting.” He said he did it “gently” and took her to sit down. Reggie, though, said Kumunjayi fell on the ground when Lance pulled her away and that she lay still after that. He said she hit her head but it was a “soft” impact.
Lance then left the scene, “took off”, as Gabrielle described it. When he got back, a couple of hours later, Kumunjayi was inside the white car.
Verena agreed that it was “little bit long” before he came back. A couple of hours? Yes. She said she had sat with Kumunjayi after the fight. Kumunjayi told her she was scared of Lance. She was complaining of pain in her back and said “they was just hitting me”. She wanted to go home.
The white car wasn’t working. Kumunjayi could no longer move herself. The rear doors couldn’t open, so she had to be dragged through the front. Lance said he held her tight and asked Roslyn and Verena to help carry her to another car.
Verena said Kumunjayi was moved first to the red car, but it wasn’t working either, so then she was moved to a blue car. Roslyn said she and Verena pulled her into the blue car from one side, with Lance pushing from the other. She said Kumunjayi was still talking a bit to Verena, telling her she wanted to go home and that she was feeling sick.
Once they got her inside the blue car, though, they realised she wasn’t breathing. They drove straight to the clinic at Ali Curung. A subdural haemorrhage is not always fatal, but for Kumunjayi it was too late.
Pictured, top: A roadside drinking camp. The inscription on the cross-piece reads, “Let there be light in the darkness.” Both photos courtesy Russell Guy.