By Kalinga Seneviratne
SYDNEY (IDN) — The acquittal of a White Police Officer of murdering an Aboriginal teenager over two years ago, has deeply upset the Aboriginal community with many weeping outside the courts in the northern city of Darwin, after the verdict was announced on March 11. Some could not contain their anger with one Aboriginal elder, reportedly shouting at the police officer when he left court saying, “Black Lives Matter”.
The case, which had undercurrents of race, power, and inequality, and was covered widely in the local media for the past five weeks, was reminiscent of the George Floyd case in the US that led to the birth of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement. But, in Australia, since the landmark Royal Commission report into ‘Black Deaths in Custody’ three decades ago, over 475 Aborigines have died in police custody according to official data.
Among the over 40 recommendations of the 1991 report, was for the states and territories to maintain a statistical database tracking all deaths in custody and report annually to parliament. Because, as the report said, Aboriginal people were more than six times as likely to die in police custody and ten times as likely to die in prison than non-Indigenous people, because of the disproportionate rates of incarceration.
A jury found that 30-year-old police officer Zachary Rolfe, had acted properly when he fatally shot 19-year-old Kumanjayi Walker in a remote outback Aboriginal town in late 2019. He was also found not guilty of two alternative charges: manslaughter and engaging in a violent act causing death, which would have carried a mandatory 20 year non-parole jail term under Northern Territory (NT) laws.
The verdict came a few days after similar police shooting in Darwin, where a White police officer shot another 19-year-old Aboriginal boy who was carrying a spear. Police allege that the boy was about to throw the spear at them. The boy is fighting for his life at the Darwin Hospital.
On the night of November 9, 2019, Rolfe has gone with another police officer to arrest Walker to the remote Aboriginal community of Yuendumu, about 300 km across the desert from Alice Springs. The court has heard that Rolfe shot Walker three times while trying to arrest him. He alleged that Walker, a local Aboriginal youth, stabbed him with a pair of scissors shortly before the first shot was fired. Rolfe was not charged in relation to this shot because it was seen legally as a self-defence strategy according to police training.
But he was charged in relation to the second and third shots fired at Walker. He has pleaded not guilty, and his lawyers have argued his actions on the day were justified considering the risk that Walker posed to him and a colleague, the constable Adam Eberl.
During the hearings in the NT supreme court, the crown prosecutor Philip Strickland alleged that Rolfe had made up parts of his story or rehearsed answers. Rolfe disputed Strickland’s suggestion that he knew he had “gone too far” and been “gung-ho” when he shot dead Walker.
During the trial, prosecutors tried to paint Rolfe as a “gung-ho” officer who wanted to see “action” by serving in the Australian army in Afghanistan, undergoing private weapons training in the United States and joining the NT Police Force, in which he volunteered for tactical response teams.
In contrast, Walker is an orphan, who was raised by an aunty in the midst of poverty, thus his life scarred by misfortune and misconduct. Twelve days before Walker was shot, he had left a residential alcohol treatment program in Alice Springs that he had been ordered by a court to attend as part of a suspended sentence.
The trial allowed Australians a rare window into life in remote Indigenous communities such as Yuendumu, which are among the poorest parts of the country, where tension between White police officers and Aboriginal residents is common. No police officer has ever been convicted of murdering an Indigenous person in Australia.
Thus, many legal experts and activists saw Rolfe’s prosecution as a test for whether the justice system was willing to take seriously Indigenous deaths at the hands of the police, an issue which was raised here again by human rights activists during the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests in the US last year.
In angry scenes outside the courts following the verdict, family members and friends of Walker, and Yuendumu elders called for a blanket ban on the use of guns in remote communities, that would deprive police of using firearms when patrolling the Aboriginal communities.
In Australia, it is very rare for Aboriginal people to use firearms because the purchase of guns is strictly controlled in the country. Aboriginal leaders have also questioned why there had been no Aboriginal people among the 12 members of the jury that gave the Rolfe verdict, because about 30% of the population of the Northern Territory is Aboriginal.
In a statement, North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency chief executive officer Priscilla Atkins said that “Aboriginal people must be safe in dealings with police,” and the Police need to change how they act in Aboriginal communities. “Guns are not the way,” she added.
Speaking outside the Supreme Court on March 11, NT Police Association president Paul McCue said the not guilty verdict in the Rolfe murder trial vindicated criticism of the case against him. “A young man lost his life, but let’s not forget Constable Rolfe and Constable Eberl were set upon viciously, and they followed their training and today, we’ve seen justice prevail,” he noted.
Rolfe was subdued and in a short statement outside court, he said he felt the right decision was made by the jury but acknowledged that Walker’s family and community “are hurting today.” He abruptly left after saying “I will leave the stage for them”.
Thus, speaking outside court after the verdict was handed down, deputy chair of the Parumpurru Justice Committee Valerie Napaljarri Martin, said to supporters that they were all feeling “empty” and “devastated” by the jury’s unanimous decision.
“We are all so full of anger and grief,” Ms Martin said, adding that the court had not recognized the needs of her people and that Australia was “divided by racism”. She echoed other indigenous community leaders saying “we demand an end to guns in our communities (and) we have every right to speak and to say: this must stop. Do not silence us”.
Walker’s cousin, Samara Fernandez-Brown, said the family “cannot put our grief into words… we are all in so much pain, particularly our young men”. She lamented that throughout the trial, her cousin was “depicted solely as a dangerous individual” who was “picked apart” by people who didn’t know him. “They saw only his flaws and wish to put him on trial for his own death,” she said. “That is disgusting, and that’s the system we live in.”
The NT government has promised a coronial inquest into the death. Crown Prosecutor Strickland said the shooting in Yuendumu, and Walker’s death, “raised issues”, some of which could not be explored in the murder trial. “We fully respect the decision of the jury, as we must,” he said.
“We anticipate that those issues and the evidence that could not be examined in this trial will be very carefully scrutinized at the inquest. “It is our view that the family of Kumanjayi Walker and the Warlpiri community and the Australian people deserve no less than that full scrutiny.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 12 March 2022]
Photo: Darwin City Centre. CC BY-SA 2.0
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