Death of John Pat

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John Peter Pat (31 October 1966 – 28 September 1983) was an Australian Aboriginal boy who, at the age of 16 years and 11 months, was killed in a fight with officers of the Western Australia Police. The officers, attached to the Wickham and Roebourne police stations in the Pilbara region of Western Australia,[1] claimed to be acting in self-defence[2] and were acquitted of manslaughter charges in May 1984. A Royal Commissioner in 1991 acknowledged that "The death of John Pat became for Aboriginal people nation wide a symbol of injustice and oppression. Suspicion and a continuing sense of injustice in the Aboriginal communities throughout Australia saw the anniversary of John Pat's death marked by demonstrations calling for justice."[3]

Early life[edit]

His mother was Mavis Pat (aged 16 years at marriage) and his father was Len Walley (about 36 at marriage), who were married under traditional Aboriginal law.[4] The eldest of three children, he lived with his family at the Mount Florence pastoral station until the age of nine. He attended the local high school for two years and left into a life of unemployment, drunkenness, disorderly conduct and conflict with police. He received five minor convictions and was a regular inmate of the Roebourne Lockup, on drunk charges.

Arrest and death[edit]

On 28 September 1983, Pat and other young Aborigines engaged in a fight with an Aboriginal police aide and four off-duty police officers outside the Roebourne Hotel. Pat was reportedly injured in the fight, striking his head on the road and being kicked in the head and face.[2] He was arrested and taken to the lockup, where he died soon after of "closed head injuries" in the juvenile police cell.[4][5] Subsequent medical evidence indicated that "the fatal injury is likely to have been caused by the contre coup of the back of the head hitting a flat surface..." The separate impacts of punches and kicks were later also discounted by Royal Commissioner Elliott Johnston, QC.[6]


A coronial inquest was conducted on 30 October 1983 at which five police officers declined to give evidence. The coroner, Mr McCann, committed the five officers for trial in the Supreme Court on a charge of unlawful killing.[7]


The five police officers were tried on counts of manslaughter in the Supreme Court in Karratha in May 1984 before a judge and an all-white jury. The trial lasted for just over three weeks with the jury acquitting each officer by a unanimous verdict.[8]


The Police Commissioner monitored the trial, instructing the attendance of a senior officer, Brian Bull, to "independently review" the proceedings. Mr Bull was of the view that none of the officers had done anything wrong except "falsely noting the Occurrence Book".[8] The five officers were immediately reinstated to duty and no further charges were considered against them—which was described by the Royal Commissioner as "a most unsatisfactory state of affairs".[8]

The Police Union succeeded in obtaining government reimbursement of $136,000 costs in representing its members at the inquest and trial. It also campaigned successfully against legislation to give the state's ombudsman increased powers to investigate police misconduct allegations, and sought to weaken or abolish the Aboriginal Legal Service.[5]

The not-guilty verdict has always been bitterly disputed by the Aboriginal community and human-rights advocates. Pat's death is commemorated annually in Australia, and a public monument has been established at Fremantle Prison, featuring a poem by Jack Davis that includes the words

Write of life / the pious said

forget the past / the past is dead.
But all I see / in front of me

is a concrete floor / a cell door / and John Pat.[2]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 8.4 The arrangement to meet in Roebourne. Royal Commission report, at Indigenous Law Resources,
  2. ^ a b c Korff, Jens. Story: Death of John Pat (aged 16) at Creative Spirits (Aboriginal culture website)
  3. ^ John Peter Pat—Introduction. Royal Commission report, at Indigenous Law Resources, [N.B., the Commissioner's 19 main findings are recorded at the end of this introduction.]
  4. ^ a b O'Dea, D. J.: Regional Report Of Inquiry Into Individual Deaths In Custody In Western Australia Volume 1—John Peter Pat (W/19) at Indigenous Law Resources,
  5. ^ a b Grabosky, Peter N. Chapter 5: An Aboriginal death in custody: the case of John Pat in Wayward Governance: Illegality and Its Control in the Public Sector, Australian Institute of Criminology, Canberra (1989) ISBN 0 642 14605 5
  6. ^ 10.3 Whether John Pat was involved in any incident which could have caused his fatal injury. Royal Commission report, at Indigenous Law Resources,
  7. ^ John Peter Pat – 14.8 The Inquest Royal Commission report, at Indigenous Law Resources,
  8. ^ a b c John Peter Pat – 14.1.2 An Overview Royal Commission report, at Indigenous Law Resources,