Prompted by the deaths of two Aboriginal women in the Northern Territory, an inquest has been held to examine ‘extreme domestic violence’ and the seeming inability of the justice system to protect those at risk. By Kieran Finnane.

Inquest examines infractions of NT domestic violence orders

“We would tell him off, ‘Stop hitting her.’ He’d say, ‘That’s my wife, don’t interfere.’ ”

Daniel Stafford was giving testimony to the Northern Territory Coroner’s Court about his late niece’s violent husband, Stanley Scrutton. Stafford is from Mount Allan, north-west of Alice Springs, but would visit his niece at Charles Creek town camp, where she’d lived since her teens.

“We’d tell her, ‘Go back out bush, he might do something.’ ”

But his niece, Kumunjayi (a name used to replace that of a recently deceased person) Murphy, wouldn’t leave. Her friend from childhood, Lorna Inkamala, had watched the fights and beatings for years. They were often motivated by jealousy. 

“Stanley was like that, jealous of anyone,” said Stafford.

Inkamala would want to call police but Murphy stopped her: “She said she loved him, she didn’t want the police to lock him up.” 

Even so, police were called, 45 times their records show, from 2003 until Scrutton finally killed Murphy on December 20, 2014. And he was locked up: during the preceding decade he had been behind bars for six years and five months all up, for repeated assaults on Murphy and repeated breaches of the domestic violence orders (DVOs) intended to protect her. The jail time, the DVOs did nothing to deter him.

Many of his attacks involved blows to Murphy’s face or head; twice she had been punched or kicked unconscious. The final, fatal attack involved severe injuries to both chest and brain. Head injuries are a feature of violence against Indigenous women, hospitalised for this cause at 69 times the rate of non-Indigenous women, according to a study published in the Medical Journal of Australia in 2008. 

In June, in the Supreme Court in Alice Springs, Scrutton was sentenced to mandatory “life” (serving a minimum of 20 years) for Murphy’s murder, described by the judge as a “vicious and prolonged beating” that “almost defies imagination”. He had “stomped and kicked her to death”, inflicting more than 40 blows, following a drunken, jealous argument. She was 36 years old, the mother of two daughters, one just two years old.

There can be no doubt that Murphy’s death fits the description of “extreme domestic violence”, examination of which was the object of the inquest, held in early August. Coroner Greg Cavanagh wanted to go beyond recognition of its incidence and extent, to understand why police and the criminal justice system could not protect women such as Murphy. He also wanted to look for responses outside of that system, though it was not clear how, as he took no external expert evidence. NGOs working in this sector would likely have highlighted the lack of housing options in Alice Springs – beyond crisis accommodation – for women who want to escape violence. They may also have proposed that family violence death reviews, supported by a dedicated research position such as exists in South Australia, become systematic in the NT Coroner’s Court. The Alice Springs Women’s Shelter could have provided the perspectives of the women themselves, having had repeated contact with Murphy and many in similar situations. As it was, the coroner heard only police and civilian witness evidence. 

Murphy had mostly refused to co-operate with police in charging Scrutton and love was not the only reason: she told police she would have more problems with him if he were jailed. She also wanted him to get help for his drinking, which she consistently linked to his violence against her. 

She futilely hoped a DVO would restrain him. In February 2011 she told police she was “very scared”. “One day he will go too far and I will end up dead,” she said. She asked for a DVO for two years. She got one, but Scrutton was also sent to jail. As she feared, shortly after release he attacked her again. In 2013 he was sent back to jail, despite her refusal to co-operate. Released in January 2014, he breached his DVO 12 times in the first half of the year before a spell in prison, followed by further breaches and short stints behind bars until he killed her. 

Scrutton is not alone in his disregard for DVOs. At the inquest Assistant Police Commissioner Jeanette Kerr, appearing as a civilian, had the hard data. Her master’s in criminology from Cambridge focuses on Aboriginal intimate partner violence (IPV) in the NT. She studied the five-year period to 2014, analysing 61,000 domestic disturbances, with 21,000 involving criminal incidents. First offence cases aside, in 60 per cent a DVO was in place. This analysis certainly “brought into question” the effectiveness of DVOs, said Kerr.

Repeated DVO breaches were also a feature in a second case examined in the inquest, the killing of Kumunjayi McCormack. A key difference was that no one had been charged over her death.

McCormack lived in suburban Alice Springs, had a job, and at times had separated from her husband, Nathan Swan. They had two young sons. Swan, too, was prone to jealousy and, like Scrutton and Murphy, they both drank heavily. From 2003 police had been called to 32 domestic disturbances between them, some involving physical violence. DVOs – often reciprocal “no contact if intoxicated” – were in place on and off from 2008. At times they both tried to stop drinking, but it didn’t last.

At the end of 2008, McCormack reported Swan to police for punching her several times in the head. She later withdrew her statement, and charges were dropped. By mid-2009, after she had been knocked to the ground during an argument, she told police: “I don’t want him to go to court for hitting me but I do want a domestic violence order for if anything happens again.” Once again reciprocal orders were made. The last order, after Swan had punched McCormack in the face, was for 12 months from May 19, 2014. It didn’t prevent him doing the same in November, but this time McCormack resolved to have him charged. 

The case was still unheard when she died on March 29, 2015. She was 31. Perhaps reflective of her new determination, just the day before she had called police on behalf of her niece, whose drunk husband, angry with his wife for having spent some of his money, had threatened to stab their young son.  

That night McCormack and Swan went out separately, both drinking. They were alone at home in the early hours when Swan made a panicky call to 000, claiming his wife had “fallen on something sharp and she’s bleeding and she’s drunk”. Paramedics found her on the floor in a pool of blood from a single knife wound to the thigh. When police arrived Swan told them, in a number of versions, that she had stabbed herself. He refused to answer questions in a formal interview and later fled the NT. The coroner declined to make a formal finding on who or what had caused McCormack’s knife wound, referring the case back to police and prosecutions, in “the belief that a crime had been committed”.

Senior police acknowledged that the investigation of McCormack’s death “could have been more robust”. While its accumulated failings had been plain to see in the evidence before the inquest, no broad conclusion was drawn from them. In contrast to his criticism of police in 2005, the coroner was at pains to recognise their current efforts.

A third of NT police time is spent dealing with domestic violence. Aboriginal women are victims in 72 per cent of all cases. Prosecutions against perpetrators fill the jails. As a Supreme Court judge commented in 2013, about half the inmates in the Alice Springs jail are there for violence against their intimate partners. This victimisation of Indigenous women by Indigenous men is a flip side of the debate on the high rate of Indigenous incarceration.  

The situation is worst in Alice Springs. Kerr’s analysis showed that while domestic disturbance incidents in the town accounted for 23 per cent of the Northern Territory’s total, they yielded 33 per cent of the total crime harm. This was in contrast to the proportion elsewhere in the NT, except for the remote southern region. Alcohol was strongly implicated. Alice Springs reported the highest levels of offender and victim intoxication, a factor correlating with an increase in crime harm, and where the victim suffered significant levels of harm the offender was intoxicated 90 per cent of the time.

On this basis, whatever recommendations the coroner makes, it is clear that victims would benefit from bolstered supports and controls to curb heavy drinking – just one of the challenges confronting the new Northern Territory government.

National Domestic Violence Hotline 1800 799 7233

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 3, 2016 as "Fatal infractions".

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Kieran Finnane is a senior writer with the Alice Springs News. She is the author of Trouble: On Trial in Central Australia.

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