Australia police officer found not guilty of murder of young indigenous man

An Australian jury found a police officer not guilty Friday of all charges related to the death of a young indigenous man in the remote community of Yuendumu, in the Northern Territory of Australia.

Constable Zachary Rolfe shot and killed 19-year-old Walpiri man Kumanjayi Walker during an attempted arrest on the night of November 9, 2019. Following the incident, Rolfe was charged with murder, manslaughter and engaging in a violent act causing death.

Rolfe pleaded not guilty to all charges, with his defence barrister David Edwardson QC stating that his actions were reasonable and justifiable in the context of the danger faced and that they were supported by police training.

The events leading to the death were captured on a body-cam worn by Rolfe. The footage shows Rolfe and another officer, Adam Eberl, questioning Kumanjayi about his identity. Soon after, an altercation breaks out and Rolfe shoots Kumanjayi once after being struck with medical scissors in his left shoulder. Subsequently, he fires another two shots in quick succession as Kumanjayi lies face down on the ground, with Eberl on top of him. Rolfe was charged in relation to the second and third shots.

Eberl is heard on the body-worn vision saying: “Did you — f**k.” Rolfe, in response, says, “It’s all good, he was stabbing me. It’s all good, he’s got scissors in his hand. He was stabbing me, he was stabbing you.”

Kumanjayi is heard calling out for his adopted mother Leanne in the footage. He died an hour later in the local police station without being given professional medical assistanc, because the community health clinic was unstaffed.

At the trial, Rolfe said that he “immediately feared for Eberl’s life” and believed Kumanjayi was trying to stab his partner. Rolfe disagreed with prosecutor Philip Strickland SC, who had alleged that Kumunjayi was “effectively restrained” before the second and third shots were fired. Stickland said that the barrel of Rolfe’s gun was so close to Kumanjayi’s body that it may have been touching it and that the second shot was fired 2.6 seconds after the first shot and 0.5 seconds before the third.

Edwardson, for the defence, said that Rolfe had “no choice” but to shoot Kumanjayi, whom he labelled the “author of his own misfortune.” The jury, which did not include any indigenous people, ultimately accepted Rolfe’s account, acquitting him of the charges.

In a statement, Rolfe’s police union said it looked forward to him returning to work.

A former soldier, Rolfe served in the Australian Army in Afghanistan prior to joining the police force in 2016. In 2018, he had applied to join the Special Air Service (SAS) unit of the Australian Defence Force. Coincidentally, in separate proceedings it emerged that Australia’s former most decorated serving soldier Ben Roberts-Smith was a “mentor” to Rolfe. Their relationship was outlined in a supporting statement given by Rolfe’s mother in Robert-Smith’s ongoing defamation proceedings against a number of newspapers, which he alleges defamed him by running reports portraying him as committing war crimes in Afghanistan.

Outside the court, Kumanjayi’s family said they were “deeply saddened by the results and cannot begin to explain our grief in words.” “He died without the support of his family, though we stood outside begging for answers on the night of the 9th,” Kumanjayi’s cousin, Samara Fernandez-Brown said. She said that Kumanjayi had been wrongly depicted as a “violent and dangerous individual” during the trial. “He has been criticised and picked apart by people who did not know him, they saw only his flaws and wished to put him on trial for his own death,” she said. “We as a family and community will continue to remember his as a young man who loved animals, who loved his community and homelands, his partner, his family, his friends, and loved music. … A traditional Aboriginal young fella who loved hunting and being out on Country. A joyful young man who was generous.”

The case has brought renewed attention to the disproportionate rates of indigenous incarceration, particularly among young men, and role of guns in remote Aboriginal communities. Walpiri People were the majority of the victims of the most recent and most well documented mass killing of indigenous people in Australia, the Conniston Massacre of 1928, led by police Constable William George Murray.

Outside Court, senior Warlpiri man Ned Jampijinpa Hargraves called for guns to be banned in remote communities. “Enough is enough. It’s got to stop,” he said. “We want a ceasefire. No more guns in our communities. It must never happen again. The police must put down their weapons.”

As of late 2021, 500 Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders had died while in custody since 1991, the year a royal commission made 339 recommendations to prevent such deaths.