NT Supreme Court clears cop in Aboriginal teen's shooting

Zachary Rolfe was the first NT cop to stand trial over the death of an Aboriginal person in custody

NT Supreme Court clears cop in Aboriginal teen's shooting

The NT Supreme Court has acquitted police constable Zachary Rolfe of all charges related to the fatal shooting of Aboriginal teenager Kumanjayi Walker.

Last Friday, the jury declared Rolfe not guilty of murder, manslaughter and engaging in a violent act causing death after five weeks of hearing evidence and seven hours of deliberation. There have been more than 500 Aboriginal deaths in custody since the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, but Rolfe’s case marks the first time a NT police officer has faced trial for one.

The incident in which the cop was charged occurred in November 2019, when Rolfe shot Walker three times at the latter home in Yuendumu following an attempt to arrest Walker for breaching a suspended sentence. Walker died an hour later in the Yuendumu police station.

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Rolfe pled not guilty to all the charges including murder, which carries a minimum non-parole sentence of 20 years.

The trial came to a halt in November last year when the prosecution, acting for Walker, sought leave to ask the High Court to quash Rolfe’s “good faith” defence – a defence that would have opened the door to acquittal under s 148(1) of the NT’s Police Administration Act. The High Court ruled that the defence could be used “subject to constraints,” including proving that Rolfe’s actions were “reasonable and necessary”. 

The prosecution did not contest the first shot, which was fired after Walker stabbed Rolfe in the shoulder with a pair of scissors. However, the prosecution argued that Rolfe did not honestly believe that the second and third shots, fired 2.6 and 3.1 seconds after the first, respectively, were necessary.

Rolfe’s lawyer, David Edwardson QC, claimed that Rolfe acted in accordance with his police training, which directs officers to fire “as many rounds as necessary to ‘incapacitate’ a threat involving an edged weapon,” the ABC reported. Edwardson argued all three shots were fired in defence of Rolfe and his partner, constable Adam Eberl.

“A young man died and that’s tragic,” Edwardson told the media shortly after the verdict was released. “At the same time, Zachary Rolfe, in my view was wrongly charged in the first place. It was an appalling investigation and very much regretted.”

Nonetheless, co-chair of Change the Record Cheryl Axleby called for “greater accountability and oversight of police.”

“It is hard to feel justice has been delivered when time and time again Aboriginal people are killed in custody but no one is held accountable. Interactions with police should not result in the death of our people,” Axleby said in a statement. “Too often police are a law unto themselves. Our mob are subjected to over-policing, racial profiling, harassment and assault. Ultimately, there will be no end to the death of our people in custody as long as governments continue to rely on police to respond to social, health and poverty-related issues.” 

“It is both tragic and predictable that introducing armed police into situations which require mental health intervention or other forms of expertise and support runs the risk of someone getting hurt or killed.”

The National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services said it stood “in solidarity and deep respect with all the families whose loved ones have died in custody in their calls for change, justice and accountability.”

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