Aboriginal woman's slaying exposes racial divide in Australia
This photo released by the Daley family shows Lynette Daley cuddling her dog, Bunyip, in Australia in 2010. (Daley family via AP Photo)
Kristen Gelineau, The Associated Press
Published Thursday, December 15, 2016 11:52PM EST
Last Updated Friday, December 16, 2016 12:17PM EST
WARNING: Some of the details in this story may be disturbing to readers
YAMBA, Australia -- The life was long drained from Lynette Daley by the time the cops rolled up to the lonely beach where her naked body lay.
Her blood was everywhere: It was between her legs and on the remains of the recently burned mattress partly hidden in the sand. And it was on the jeans worn by one of the two men who were with Lynette when she died.
A coroner would later find Lynette bled to death from a sex act she was subjected to while so deeply intoxicated, she could not have consented. A forensic pathologist dubbed her injuries more severe than those which occur in even precipitous childbirth.
Yet for five years, despite the urgings of the coroner and police, prosecutors refused to try the men charged with her death. It was not until June, under pressure from an outraged public, that they at last agreed to bring the case to court.
Prosecutors have never publicly explained their reluctance to take the case. But Lynette's parents believe the reason is both painful and obvious: Their daughter was Aboriginal. The two men accused in her death are white.
"If it was two Indigenous people who'd done it to a white girl," her stepfather Gordon Davis says bluntly, "they'd be in jail."
Whether racial prejudice played a role in Lynette's case depends on who you ask. Some suggest there may have been a problem with the evidence. Others say that, as a poor mother of seven battling alcoholism, the 33-year-old may not have been viewed by prosecutors as an "ideal" victim.
Whatever the truth, the horror of Lynette's death has shaken a nation long uncomfortable talking about race, especially when it comes to the suffering of Australia's original inhabitants. The denial runs so deep that anthropologist W.E.H. Stanner once dubbed it "the Great Australian Silence."
When the British claimed Australia in the 1700s, they did so by declaring it "terra nullius" — owned by no one — ignoring the fact that Aboriginal people had lived there for at least 50,000 years. Forced off the land by colonists and exposed to new diseases, the Indigenous population shrank drastically.
Today, Aboriginal people make up just 3 per cent of the population of 24 million. And by almost any measure — from health to wealth, employment to imprisonment — they lag far behind everyone else.
"The shame of this country is the treatment of Aboriginal people," says former New South Wales state lawmaker Jan Barham. "Lynette's case — it's an example of that cultural ignorance or denial that we don't value equally the lives and the treatment of an Aboriginal person."
Lynette, a cheeky tomboy who preferred the nickname Norma, started out so strong, her parents remember. When it came to boys, she was fiercely competitive; she threw stones farther than them, climbed trees higher. Her mother, Thelma, daydreamed her athletic daughter might one day be an Olympian.
But as a teen, she fell in with a bad crowd and began drinking heavily. By 16, she was pregnant with her first child. Several of her children were fathered by men her family says controlled and beat her. Gordon and Thelma eventually took custody of the children.
No one knows exactly when Adrian Attwater and Paul Maris entered Lynette's orbit. Attwater told police he and Lynette were dating, though her family doesn't believe it.
By 33, Lynette was homeless. One January day in 2011, she showed up at Gordon and Thelma's house and spent a couple of days there, drying out. Gordon thought maybe she'd finally hit bottom.
And then, he says, either Maris or Attwater called her. Lynette told her father they were going fishing.
The trio traveled to desolate Ten Mile Beach, on the New South Wales coast. The state coroner compiled a detailed summary of what happened next, based on the statements of Attwater and Maris and testimony from witnesses, police and paramedics:
They had all been drinking when they parked in the dunes. An autopsy later showed Lynette's blood alcohol level was between 0.30 and 0.35 pe rcent, high enough to leave her severely incapacitated.
At some point, Attwater told police, he and Lynette began to engage in what he described as a consensual sex act in which he inserted his fist inside her. Asked to demonstrate what Attwater did next, Maris — who performed another sex act on her simultaneously — moved his fist back and forth in a vigorous punching motion. Later, Attwater changed his account: he had used only four fingers, he said, and moved them gently.
Whatever the specifics, the act proved deadly.
Just before dawn, Maris set fire to the blood-soaked mattress from the back of his truck, along with Lynette's blood-stained bra. Then he called paramedics. By the time they arrived, Lynette was dead.
The men told paramedics that Attwater had had "wild sex" with Lynette. Attwater said Lynette later collapsed in his arms.
Police charged Attwater with manslaughter, and Maris with accessory after the fact. But a few months later, prosecutors dropped the charges, telling Lynette's family they couldn't prove the men intended to hurt Lynette. The explanation baffled the Daleys: A charge of manslaughter does not require proof of intent.
State coroner Michael Barnes subsequently agreed to hold an inquest, a court-like proceeding convened after unusual deaths. His findings were unequivocal: Lynette died of blood loss caused by blunt force genital tract trauma — injuries undoubtedly inflicted, Barnes wrote, by Attwater.
Barnes determined that there was a reasonable prospect of securing a conviction. So he referred the case back to the prosecutors.
Yet for a second time, prosecutors declined to press charges, saying there wasn't enough evidence.
"Indigenous people have got no chance," Gordon says today. "Not with the justice system here."
Countless studies suggest Gordon is right to remain wary. Aboriginal Australians make up more than a quarter of the prison population, and rates are rising. Legal experts also say cases involving Indigenous victims often are dropped before trial.
The Daleys were running out of hope. Then the Australian media jumped on the case.
Headlines blaring "VILE" and "No Justice for Tragic Norma" followed. An online petition demanding the head prosecutor justify his actions gathered tens of thousands of signatures. Protesters rallied outside the office of a local politician.
There was particular anger among Aboriginal rights advocates, if little shock. Many saw what happened to Lynette as achingly familiar. After all, Indigenous women and girls are about 35 times more likely to be hospitalized due to family violence than their counterparts. And Indigenous mothers are nearly 18 times more likely to be victims of homicide. Yet few cases of violence are ever reported, and far fewer make it to court. Part of that is due to a deep distrust of authorities that dates back to European settlement.
"It's unfortunately behavior that we've learned to live with and we shouldn't have to live with," says Rachael Cavanagh, who runs a support group for Indigenous victims of domestic violence. "My great-grandmother was beaten to death by her partner and there was no trial, there was no charge, there was nothing — because she was an Aboriginal woman."
Skeptics dismissed the idea that bigotry was involved. Some blamed Lynette's death on alcohol and called for prohibition in Indigenous communities (alcohol is already banned in certain Aboriginal settlements — a divisive issue in itself).
With pressure mounting, prosecutors agreed to review the case. Finally, in June, the Daleys got the news they had waited five years for: Attwater and Maris would be prosecuted.
Attwater faces a charge of manslaughter, and Maris accessory after the fact. Both also face charges of aggravated sexual assault. They have pleaded not guilty and their lawyers have declined to comment. The trial is scheduled to begin in July.
For Gordon and Thelma, the future is a frightening unknown. They are in their 60s now, and Lynette's youngest child, Alana, is only 9. They worry they won't be around to protect her and her siblings much longer. And they ache thinking of all the children have missed.
When the need to be near Lynette grows strong, the family travels to the beach where she drew her last breath. Every time they do, they say, Lynette comes to them in the form of an eagle — her totem, or spiritual emblem.
One recent afternoon on the beach, Alana races ahead, hunting for the spot in the dunes where the family placed a cross for her mother. Suddenly, she stops.
"There she is!" she cries, pointing at the sky, where an eagle has appeared. Minutes later, they spot Lynette's cross.
Gordon rests his hand on the memorial.
"We just wait for the justice to prevail," he says. "And then she can rest in peace."
As they head off down the beach, the eagle glides over them once more. Then it turns and disappears into the dunes.