Point-Blank First Nations Custodial Shooting: Killer Cop Walks Free

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One man holds down another who’s struggling, but the scissors the captive had struck the first man’s mate in the shoulder with no longer pose a threat. The guy who was hit with the household implement walks across the room and fires two shots directly into the side of the restrained man.

Is this murder? Well, not if the man who fired the point-blank shots from his Glock semi-automatic handgun was a white Northern Territory police officer, and the man his fellow white officer was holding down was a First Nations teenager.

Neither was it considered manslaughter. Indeed, an NT Supreme Court jury found on Friday that it wasn’t even a violent act causing death. It sided with NT constable Zachary Rolfe, who argued he was defending himself and his partner, as well as having acted in “good faith” in the line of duty.

Prior to delivering the “double-tap” maximum damage side wound, Rolfe had already shot 19-year-old Warlpiri man Kumanjayi Walker. This was after he’d been hit with the small pair of medical scissors. No one has ever contested that Rolfe did anything wrong in firing this initial shot.

This was a landmark case, as it was the first time an NT cop had stood trial for the murder of an Aboriginal person. And if he’d been found guilty, it would have been the first time an Australian police officer had ever been convicted of murdering a First Nations person in custody.

So, it would also have been a turning point for this nation, where Aboriginal deaths in custody are endemic.

What the jury acquitting Rolfe on 11 March 2022 says in a broader sense is that the white man runs this land now, under white man justice and if a white man decides to kill a First Nations individual – a sovereign person – that’s just, and the killer can walk away free.

Yapakurlangu Warnkaru Matters

“There is no justification for any of the shots fired against our young felIa. Larva, none,” Warlpiri elder Ned Jampijinpa Hargraves said in a statement following the verdict. “The police should have never been in that house. They should have never been holding military guns.”

“The only reason Rolfe was charged with murder was because our people stood up strong and demanded justice,” the advocate for no guns in remote communities continued. “Justice for Walker means that Rolfe must be accountable, he must be charged and locked up for this shooting.”

Hargraves is also more broadly calling for NT police to stop patrolling remote Aboriginal communities with firearms, as Rolfe was doing when he killed Kumanjayi, in the town of Yuendumu, which is also home for the Warlpiri senior elder.

Remote towns, like Yuendumu, comprise of First Nations communities living their lives in their distinct cultural manner, while heavily armed white police patrol the streets in a similar way to Australian troops patrolling sensitive areas in occupied foreign lands.

“Since the NT Intervention in 2007, the police have been getting more weapons, more power and more racist towards us,” Hargraves makes clear.

“We want a ceasefire. No more guns in our communities. It must never happen again. The police must put down their weapons.”

In good faith

Constables Rolfe and Adam Eberl entered Walker’s grandmother’s at around 7.20 pm on 9 November 2019 to execute a warrant. The officers called for Walker to put his hands behind his back, but the teen lunged at Rolfe with the scissors and the constable then shot him in the back.

Eberl wrestled Walker to the ground and was on top of him, when he said, “I’ll fucking smash you, mate”. Rolfe crossed the room and fired the two fatal shots in quick succession. His partner then said, “Did you? Fuck.” Rolfe responded, “It’s all good. He was stabbing me…. He was stabbing you.”

Following the shooting, Walker was taken to the police station, which officers locked down for fear of reprisals. There was no medical staff in the town. And despite the teen having died before an ambulance arrived one hour later, his family weren’t told of his death for another nine hours.

Rolfe was subsequently granted bail and has been free in the community ever since, even after he was officially charged with murder in July last year.

The trial was supposed to begin last August, but it was stayed, so the High Court could deliberate on whether Rolfe could argue a 2018 law that absolves officers of criminal liability when acting in good faith. The court agreed but with the stipulation the actions must be “reasonable and necessary”.

Settler colonial justice

“We have been devastated by this injustice and the court has not fulfilled its responsibility to hold Rolfe accountable for what he has done,” said Parumpurru Select Committee deputy chair Valerie Napaljarri Martin. “The court system has not recognised our needs as Warlpiri people.”

In her statement following the delivery of the verdict, Martin pointed to another young First Nations man, who was shot by police six times just this week in Palmerston. “They were confident to shoot because look at what happened to Rolfe after he shot and killed a young man,” she stressed.

Over 490 First Nations people have died in the custody of police or corrections since the Royal Commission handed down its findings in 1991. And, of course, that inquiry was established because of the ongoing custody deaths that had been occurring since the British invaded.

“We felt this trial was not fair. We wanted the jury to hear our stories and the truth of what happened on that irreversible day,” reads Kumanjayi’s family’s statement.

“We thought we could have a multicultural jury instead of just non-Indigenous people. But to our surprise there was not one Indigenous person on the panel.”

The Walker family further asserted that Rolfe should have been sent to prison, and they questioned why the police officer was granted bail and able to reside in the ACT for the past two years, when the crime was committed in the NT.

“Kardiya justice system is really dishonest and it’s about time for change. It helps kardiya avoid instead of making them accountable,” the family concluded.

“When has a police officer ever been charged and convicted of any wrongdoing in relation to any deaths in custody for yapa? Never.”

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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