Jail unlikely in cell death case: lawyer

·2-min read

It's unlikely Veronica Nelson would have served any time in prison if she was convicted of charges she was accused of, her lawyer believes.

Veronica died in a cell at Melbourne's Dame Phyllis Frost Centre in January 2020 after her repeated calls for help went unanswered.

She was arrested on December 30, 2020 on warrants for breaching bail and suspicion of shoplifting, and interviewed by police without a lawyer present.

Despite an arrest warrant from a magistrate saying she could be released on bail, Veronica's self-represented application was denied.

For the past year she had used Jill Prior, from the Law and Advocacy Centre for Women as her lawyer. Ms Prior was on leave and referral was made to another lawyer.

Had she been asked to make the bail application she would have done it, Ms Prior told an inquest into Veronica's death.

The inquiry is examining the adequacy of prison healthcare and the impact of Veronica's Aboriginality on her death, as well as Victorian bail laws.

She believes Veronica had an viable case for bail, with no significant prior failures to appear at court and the availability of support and accommodation in the community.

Ms Prior told the court of a practice by some lawyers suggesting clients make their own initial bail application.

If a first application fails the law requires new facts or circumstances to allow a second application, but only if the accused was legally represented.

The inquest heard that letting a client try themselves first gave the lawyer more time and a second chance.

"That is a practice that endures today and it is not a practice that I think is appropriate," she said.

Veronica was on bail for shop stealing offences, and faced further shop stealing allegations.

Ms Prior said she has also never believed those charges warrant a prison sentence and would have argued that the nearly 80 days she had previously spent in custody should also not be considered in punishment if Veronica had pleaded.

Veronica died in her cell from an undiagnosed medical condition in a setting of withdrawal from chronic opiate use.

In the hours before her death she made nine calls over the prison intercom for help.

She asked four times to see a doctor before a guard said "it's not an emergency, stop asking".

Her body was discovered three hours after the last call for help.

The Yorta Yorta woman is one of more than 500 Indigenous people who have died in custody since a final report from a royal commission in 1991.

Five Indigenous people have died in custody in 2022.

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