ON OUR WATCH: The death of John Pat

Jan Mayman’s photo of John Pat’s friend Peter Coppin, who was arrested with the Aboriginal teenager. John died in police custody in Roebourne in 1983. This photo made the front page of The Age newspaper.

NATIONAL: The death in custody of Aboriginal teenager John Pat shocked a nation, and journalist JAN MAYMAN*, who won a Gold Walkley for her reporting on the case. But what has changed since 1983, she asks.

“…The end product
of Guddia [white] law
is a viaduct
for fang and claw,
and a place to dwell
like Roebourne’s hell
of a concrete floor
a cell door
and John Pat…’

—Jack Davis. Poet, writer and Indigenous activist.

John Pat was 16 years old when he died in West Australian police custody in 1983. His death led to national outrage, and a long, costly Royal Commission into deaths in custody that bitterly disappointed many Australians.

From October 1987, it spent over three and a half years and $40 million investigating 99 deaths in custody, 32 of them in WA.

There were startling revelations of brutality and violence by police and prison officers. Yet none were convicted of any crime.

Our British based legal system permits violence only in certain, clearly defined circumstances, but these ancient laws were flouted all over this country, the Royal Commission revealed.

This is why so many now believe the majestically named investigation, by its failings, gave custodial authorities the power of life and death over their captives.

John Pat was a handsome, popular young man of 16 when he died alone in the Roebourne police juvenile cell. On the brink of manhood, a proud member of the Yindjibarndi people, he was already studying its complex law and culture.

Today, he would have been an initiated Elder, battling with his mother Mavis for justice from the mining companies now destroying the Pilbara country where his ancestors lived for 30,000 years.

John Pat probably died in agony. Witnesses said they heard him crying and groaning after his violent arrest in the main street of Roebourne. Two post mortem examinations detailed appalling injuries. He had a fractured skull and other head injuries.

His lips were bruised and cut, and he had broken ribs and many bruises on his belly and elsewhere. He had a torn aorta, the body’s main artery, and a palm sized bruise on the back of his head.

The official cause of death was a subdural haemhorrage, heavy bleeding inside his skull that shut down his brain function. The Inquest into his death heard evidence that he might have lived, had he received prompt medical help. But instead, he was dumped in a prison cell and left to die.

The late Elliott Johnston QC, then in his seventies, was the Commissioner who conducted the John Pat inquiry. This death was “… a major catalyst behind national and international demands for the Royal Commission,” he stated in his final report.

His staff spent over a year investigating the last hours of this teenager, amidst a barrage of racist hostility. They were sent hangman’s nooses and death threats.

There were mystery break-ins at the Perth offices: one burglar set fire to original evidence in the Pat case. Police were unable to find the culprits.

Elliott Johnson found that John Pat received his fatal injuries in a fight started by an off duty policeman in the town’s main street, outside its only hotel. The Commissioner said he had been unable to find the truth about all aspects of the death, calling a previous police inquiry inadequate.

He found that police had assaulted John Pat and four others arrested with him as they were hauled from the police van to their cells.

There was little comfort for John Pat’s bereaved parents or his people in Johnston’s final report. At times he used oddly obscure, carefully understated language to deliver his findings:

“It is a measure of their dedication to truth, honesty and openness with their own force that the officers did not tell the investigators of this incident,” was one example.

Long before the Royal Commission, a 1983 Inquest into John Pat’s death by WA’s senior Coroner David McCann ended sensationally, when he committed five police officers to stand trial for manslaughter.

A year later they were declared innocent by an all-white jury in the mining town of Karratha, near Roebourne. They returned to active police duty and were later promoted.

Shocking evidence emerged in the six week Coronial Inquest: the police were drunk, a series of witnesses testified. Some said they saw John Pat punched to the ground by one policeman, and later dragged unconscious by his hair to a police van, and thrown in “like a dead kangaroo”.

Witnesses who lived nearby said they saw him assaulted in the police yard, before being dragged off to die alone in the juvenile cell. One of the exhibits was a picture of John Pat lying on a mortuary slab, a horrifying wound on his forehead. He was a good-looking boy, with a mass of curly hair, long eyelashes and the beginnings of a beard.

His old father, Mick Lee sat impassively beside me in court, day after day, his face a mask of pain.

I drove him to the hearing because white authority never bothered to provide him with transport in the brutal heat. Few of his people dared attend: they were intimidated by a heavy police presence around the old bluestone courthouse.

John Pat’s friend Peter Coppin was also arrested with him, but lived to tell the story (SEE PICTURE).

When I met him a week later, he said he had been dragged by the hair to the police van and beaten up before being flung into a cell.

My photo, showing big bald patches on either side of his head made front-page news in the Melbourne Age newspaper.

He was a witness at the Inquest, the manslaughter trial and the Royal Commission. At the Inquest, a Sergeant had testified about the problems of maintaining law and order in the Roebourne Aboriginal village.

He was not surprised to see his officer grab an Aboriginal prisoner by the hair:

“Aboriginal people when stirred up and looking for a fight tend to get very greasy and slippery. You grab Aboriginals where you can get a secure hold on them… you use as much force as you consider necessary…”

I will always be haunted by the memory of Peter Coppin, small and wiry, a truly brave man: he spoke out strongly and often, which so many others were afraid to do.

I believe my newspaper reports and photo that made him a public figure may have led to his death at the hands of unknown racists, like those who sent the nooses and death threats to the Royal Commission.

Shortly after its report on the John Pat case was released in 1991, Peter Coppin was found mysteriously dead in the bush far out of Roebourne. He was just 41, and left a widow and five children.

My reports on the death of John Pat and the inquiries that followed were strongly supported by The Age newspaper and its great editor of the day, Mike Smith.

The stories won me a Gold Walkley journalism award. I was grateful for this show of support from fellow journalists, but uneasy as I accepted the trophy from then Prime Minister Bob Hawke at a dazzling ceremony in Canberra.

I felt bad winning a prize because a 16-year-old Aboriginal boy died in a police cell, I said in my acceptance speech, looking at Bob Hawke, knowing his reputed concern for Aboriginal welfare.

I hoped he would use his vast power to launch a national inquiry that might check the killings, but it was another three years before the Royal Commission began work. A big factor in the long delay was determined resistance by state governments, especially
WA, where so many Aboriginal people had died in custody.

As Aboriginal leaders like the late Rob Riley campaigned for a Royal Commission, I persuaded Four Corners to take up the issue, with strong support from the fiery academic nun Dr Veronica Brady, a former ABC board member.

It was a powerful program, ‘Black Death’, focussed on some of the most scandalous cell deaths in WA, with some tough interviewing by David Marr. It shocked the nation.

But reporting on the Pat case and other custodial deaths became legally difficult when the West Australian Police Union launched a defamation lawsuit against the ABC after the show went to air.

I opened my Sunday paper one morning to read that the Four Corners production team, including me, would each be sued for a quarter of a million dollars for our work. Once a writ has been taken out, reporting on a lawsuit is illegal under the law of sub judice—under justice, in legal jargon.

After the Pat report was published in 1991, the police union dropped its case, each side agreeing to pay its own costs in a private settlement the next year. There was no huge payout by the ABC, contrary to rumors spread by police sources.

Many serving police officers in WA were unhappy about the long, costly lawsuit, I learned as it dragged on. Many were deeply disturbed by the 32 cell deaths.

Commissioner Johnston quoted one in his report, CIB Sergeant Michael Bartlett, who had helped investigate the case of John Pat :

“…The boy died from injuries he should not have received and I think there was no doubt of that from day one…”

John Pat’s father Mick Lee died of pneumonia at 65 not long after the five Roebourne police officers were acquitted of manslaughter charges. His heart was broken, his people said.

He was sitting in the dark outside his shabby old home when journalists brought him the news he had expected.

“It seems there is one law for Aboriginals and one for whites,” he said, with immense dignity and restraint. His words were written on banners and carried in protest marches for years, until Mavis Pat asked for them to stop, to let her son’s spirit rest. She was just 16 when he was born.

Today Mavis Pat is an honored Elder, and a director of the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation now battling to win fair compensation from the miners who want to take their ancestral land.

She lives surrounded by loving friends and relatives in a community well outside the town made infamous by her son’s death. She spoke about him to the Royal Commission:

“He was always happy. He never gave me trouble.”

He often talked about the two months he once spent working on a station near Roebourne, she said. It was the only job he would ever have. Most of Roebourne’s Aboriginal people still live in few streets of shoddy, overcrowded houses, surrounded by stupendous iron ore wealth.

John Pat’s grave is a local landmark, set in a dusty paddock of pitiful, unmarked mounds. White and Indigenous Australians sent money for a memorial, after national publicity about his death, but it was not handed over to his family until discovered by Royal Commission staff. White authority had argued with his kin for seven years over the words they would be allowed to inscribe on his headstone.

“Shall never be forgotten,” is his final epitaph.

Kevin Rudd’s Apology and the great Harbour Bridge walk made many people feel good, but the cell deaths continue.

I am tired of hearing of well- meant reconciliation plans, welcome ceremonies, the endless proliferation of grand schemes designed to solve the mysterious ‘Aboriginal problem’.

It is no mystery to me. This small national community, with its extraordinary, ancient culture is today battling to survive an endless, crushing weight of communal grief and mourning, constantly renewed by more cell deaths and more injustice.

Indigenous Australians have often told me how they fear arrest on some minor charge like drunkenness, which has led to so many cell deaths.

They say they avoid leafy, all-white middle class suburbs in case they attract police attention. Many are terrified for the lives of their children, with good reason.

I have spent countless hours talking with bereaved families, and felt the pain of Indigenous Australia pierce my soul.

I can never forget their suffering, especially the family that lost two sons in cell deaths.

Or the grieving father who bitterly dismissed the official verdict that his son had hanged himself in a prison cell. He said his boy had everything to live for. There were plenty of trees in the bush if he had wanted to end his life at the end of a rope.

As I write, another sickening message comes in about yet another Aboriginal death in custody. This is a country allegedly based on the rule of law, but while the original Australians remain outside its protection, this is no democracy. It is a police state.

*Jan Mayman is a white journalist whose life has been immeasurably enriched by friendships with the original Australians.

• Royal Commissions and Omissions: what was left out of the report on the death of John Pat

Dr Jeannine Purdy is a highly qualified and outstanding lawyer. She condemns some of its procedures and findings in a challenging report, twenty pages long, meticulously documented from official sources. Published widely on the web, it is called ‘Royal Commissions and Omissions: What was left out of the report of the death of John Pat.’ Here is a summary :

“… The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody examined 99 deaths. The Commission did not find even one of these to be ‘the product of deliberate brutality or violence by police or prison officers’. Why?…”

What made these officers different is not that they did not resort to violence or brutality, but that they were authorised to do so by law, Dr Purdy said :

“In the case examined, 16-year-old John Pat was found dead, alone, on the floor of a police cell to which he had been dragged, seriously injured, by police some hours earlier. There was certainly no absence of brutality or violence in his dying. This article examines how a system that is so very adept at blaming and criminalising Aboriginal people was unable to suggest that even one person was responsible for any Aboriginal death in custody…”

In the article, Dr Purdy said the treatment of witnesses during the Pat inquiry, black and white, was more like a trial by ordeal than a civilised legal process:

“Witnesses were made physically ill by stress at what is euphemistically referred to as ‘ vigorous cross examination ‘ , some shook, some were barely able to speak, some spent hours being interrogated, were accused of lying and had their character impugned.”

“For Aboriginal witnesses in particular, the ordeal must have been alienating and inhibiting…if their opinion was really being sought, this would hardly be the way to go about it…’

Dr Purdy questioned a claim by the presiding Royal Commissioner, the late Elliott Johnson QC, that the Roebourne Aboriginal community wanted factual answers about John Pat’s death:

“…I find it difficult to imagine that people who had personally experienced or witnessed many of the events of that night had waited seven years for someone who was not there to come along and tell them what had happened…’

One issue omitted from the Royal Commission was the riot that followed John Pat’s death in police custody, she pointed out.

A few days later, when an Aboriginal woman was taken into custody by the police, Roebourne Aboriginal people staged a riot and continued to riot until police released their prisoner.

“…This would indicate to me that Aborigines held police responsible for Pat’s death. However, the Commissioner regarded this incident as beyond the scope of his inquiry…”

Dr Purdy reveals she was ordered to delete a proposed key recommendation that the Commissioner find police attempted to resuscitate Pat. This was contrary to police evidence and related to the state of John Pat’s body when his death was officially reported.

It was remarkably clean after his bare-chested street fight with police according to evidence from a forensic pathologist, and could have suggested that there had been an attempt to clean his body to remove evidence of a fight when resuscitation failed.

• For more detail, see:
‘ ROYAL COMMISSIONS AND OMISSIONS’ published in the Australian Journal of Law and Society 1990 (volume 10) pp 37-66. It is also on the internet at

This entry was posted in Editor's Pick, Features and tagged , , ,


  1. Minnamurra
    Posted February 10, 2013 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

    Lest we forget John Pat and all the other Aboriginal men and women who have died by a form of vigilante violence dealt out by the Australian state, where the state officials, police, warders and others murder with impunity! This phenomenon of lynching is the most damning scar of the Australian psyche, a human rights issue of immense proportions that is not only ignored by governments but is also ignored by human rights agencies across the country. Shame on you! This is the most convincing evidence of race hate and violence and the deaths are only the tip of a very large iceberg, that being the racist nature of the Australian state and the undeclared and continuing war against the Indigenous peoples of this country.

  2. Jim
    Posted February 23, 2013 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    And it could happen again today. The Inspector of Custodial Services, and any of his officers are prohibited from entering police lock-ups. They may only enter and inspect and report on Corrective Services prisons. Progress?

  3. DLC
    Posted September 28, 2013 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    It continues to happen…when are all the dirty people going to be told out by those who try to provide the best ‘duty-of-care’ for those arrests and subsequent incarcerations to keep everyone safe?
    This was a bone-chilling, heart-wrenching account of a horrible event that is not a sole incident of the past and will continue into the future if we [collectively, Australians who CARE about Deaths in Custody - both Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal] are not prepared to speak out as Jan Mayman has in her report through her in-depth investigation.
    This story and the [WAY TOO] many like it makes me weep…the sadness makes my gut ache for those whom have lost their lives in this way and for those family and friends left behind by these abusive actions.
    Let us ALL tell our representative ministers to demand a STOP to DEATHS IN CUSTODY!

  4. Julia Hewett
    Posted October 1, 2013 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    As a white person, I am so sorry for the actions of my people. I am ashamed, and continue to be sad by the treatment of First Nations Peoples here in Australia. I am trying my hardest to tell other white people about what we are doing, and tune into Tiger Bales on 98.9 FM and learn lots more.

  5. Joyce Capewell
    Posted October 10, 2013 at 1:13 am | Permalink

    Sadly – I am very familiar with the horrors of Deaths in Custody and attempted suicides. I had worked as a Aboriginal Visitors Scheme Employee over a 20 year period in W.A. – until recent. I was dismissed due to whistle blowing, after the attempted suicides of 2 young Brothers (within a span of 12 hours). I would not let the DCS or anyone else intimidate and threaten me to keep quite about their hideous racist inappropriate culture awareness operations towards our Aboriginal People, which is allowing Deaths in Custody and Generational Racism Injustice Aboriginal Incarceration to continue (stolen generations continue on within the DCS)! Many of the Royal Commission Recommendations for the Prevention of Deaths in Custody has been abandoned by the W.A. DCS system. I now advocate against Deaths in Custody and Aboriginal Incarceration (seek the Media), I certainly am familiar with the horror of what is happening to Aboriginal People within incarceration and it needed to be exposed, those within Government need to be made accountable and come forward to seek solutions to stop DIC and Generational Racism Injustice Incarceration of Aboriginal People.

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