‘I have nothing now she’s gone’: Family’s plea for justice for Veronica Nelson

It’s Veronica Nelson’s kindness that her partner of 20 years remembers the most.

“She cared about people and she cared about life,” Percy Lovett says. “She would help people if she saw them in the street and she always made sure you were well-off, that you had everything you needed. If you didn’t have it, she would go out and get it.”

Percy Lovett says his partner Veronica Nelson “opened my eyes about life and showed me how to … take notice of everything around me”.Credit:Chris Hopkins

A proud Indigenous woman with a fighting spirit, 37-year-old Nelson spent her life taking care of others before she died alone on the floor of a prison cell at Dame Phyllis Frost Centre as pain from an undiagnosed medical condition ravaged her body.

On Tuesday, coroner Simon McGregor will begin a five-week inquest into Nelson’s death that will examine topics including the cultural appropriateness of her treatment by authorities.

Nelson was arrested in Melbourne on suspicion of shoplifting before she appeared in court without a lawyer, was refused bail and was imprisoned on December 30, 2019. Her body was discovered three days later.

Lovett’s pain at knowing his partner of two decades died alone in a place that was meant to help her is clear from the sadness in his eyes.

Veronica Nelson and Percy Lovett.

Plans they had made to return to Narrandera, in the NSW Riverina region, to reopen her father’s didgeridoo business are no longer. And life without Nelson is proving paralysing as he spends most of his days alone. He says he is left with memories of a woman he knew to be a formidable storyteller and who carried with her a wealth of cultural knowledge and a strong sense of humanity.

“She opened my eyes about life and showed me how to … take notice of everything around me. She showed me how to have fun and be more responsible and take more notice of things around me,” Lovett says.

“I just want someone to be accountable for what happened. I have nothing now she’s gone.”

Human Rights Commission data shows Indigenous women represent 34 per cent of the total number of Australian inmates, and Indigenous Australians are 17.3 times more likely to be arrested than non-Indigenous people.

Initial investigations show that after arriving at Dame Phyllis Frost Centre in the hours following her unsuccessful bail application, Nelson used an internal buzzer nine times to call for help and during this time she was given Panadol and the anti-nausea drug Maxolon before being told nothing more could be prescribed.

Soon after she was told her cries were keeping other prisoners awake.

About 7.30am on January 2, 2020, during morning headcount, prison staff discovered Nelson’s body on the floor of her cell. It had been more than three hours since her last contact with prison staff.

An autopsy later found she had Wilkie’s syndrome, a rare but well-recognised medical condition that restricts the arteries.

The inquest, which is expected to hear from more than 60 witnesses including Aboriginal elders and prison staff, will examine issues including Nelson’s prison management, her arrest and subsequent bail application, and what healthcare she was given or refused.

Lawyers representing the Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, Fitzroy Legal Service and members of Nelson’s family will also appear.

A recent hearing revealed they plan to explore issues including systemic racism and bias, drug use and associated stigma, and the human rights charter.

The inquest is scheduled to begin on April 26 and run for five weeks.

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