Transcript of PM ABC Radio - Monday, 12 July, 2004 18:41:12

Inquest continues into death of TJ Hickey

Reporter: Lis Foschia

MARK COLVIN: The inquest into the death of the Aboriginal teenager Thomas Hickey in Sydney earlier this year has been allowed to continue without the sworn evidence of one of the last people to see him alive.The 17-year-old suffered fatal injuries after falling from his bicycle onto a fence in the inner suburb of Redfern. Widespread rumours that police may have been pursuing him at the time of the accident sparked a nine-hour riot in the suburb. Three officers have already given evidence on their actions on that day, and Senior Constable Michael Hollingsworth was to have been the fourth. But as Liz Foschia reports, he objected and claimed that his evidence could expose him to disciplinary action.

LIZ FOSCHIA: Whether or not police were in fact pursuing Thomas Hickey when he fell from his pushbike is a crucial aspect of this inquiry. The Coroner is seeking to discover whether the teenager's death was purely accidental or as a result of a fear of being stopped and questioned by police.

Four officers in two patrol wagons saw the teenager riding his bike that morning. Three have so far given evidence, denying they were in any way chasing him.

The inquest has been told they were looking for a bag-snatcher, but it's also heard the officers discussed the accident before writing their statements.

Constable Maree Reynolds was in the patrol wagon driven by Senior Constable Michael Hollingsworth, which had spotted TJ Hickey on a dead end road minutes before he would suffer his fatal injuries. The wagon had followed him to the end of the road and down a footpath, before finally having to turn around at a fence.

Neither officer would mention the footpath in their first statements.

When the Counsel assisting the Coroner, Elizabeth Fullerton SC, initially addressed the inquest into TJ Hickey's death, she claimed the evidence of Senior Constable Hollingsworth would be in stark contrast to that given by his colleague Maree Reynolds.

But the inquest will never get the opportunity to test his version of the events of that day.

The officer, who since February has been promoted and transferred from Redfern to another station, argued he should not be forced to give evidence because he risked self-incrimination.

The court was told there was a possibility he could face disciplinary action by the Police Commissioner. It was an argument that held sway with the Coroner, John Abernethy.

While acknowledging what he described as the rampant public interest in the case, Mr Abernethy said it was a fine balance between public interest and public jeopardy.

In giving reasons for his decision, the Coroner said:

EXCERPT OF CORONER'S STATEMENT: Constable Hollingsworth has given three versions of events, each before me. There is always a forensic need for accurate, honest and reliable accounts from material witnesses. Frankly, it is difficult to feel confident that I would get that. I have doubts given the versions he has given are self-contradictory and not susceptible to resolution to an appropriate standard.

LIZ FOSCHIA: Legal argument then followed about whether the media should be allowed to report the decision and Senior Constable Hollingsworth's reasons for not wanting to give evidence.

The Coroner said he would allow the publicity rather than risk a misunderstanding about the situation. However the assembled media was warned that in its reports it must include the information that no inference adverse to Senior Constable Hollingsworth could be drawn from his refusal to give evidence in the inquest.

Eyewitnesses who claimed to have seen police officers following closely behind the teenager shortly before his accident are due to give evidence tomorrow, as the inquest continues.

MARK COLVIN: Liz Foschia.