The Supreme Court of the Northern Territory is a vast, cavernous structure held up by enormous white pillars on the curved edge of Australia’s northern capital.
It sits adjacent to the Northern Territory Parliament, another giant building, which overlooks the turquoise waters of Darwin Harbour, on Larrakia country.
To get to Courtroom Two, you must cross a gleaming floor of brown granite, under the watchful eyes of six former Northern Territory justices, their portraits looming large on the walls above.
The court’s centrepiece is a mural etched into a sunken floor of stone. It is based on ‘Milky Way Dreaming’, an evocative artwork by Warlpiri artist Norah Napaljarri Nelson depicting a significant Dreamtime story for her people.
For the Warlpiri people, more than 1,000 kilometers from their desert home of Yuendumu, the Jukurrpa (or Dreaming) was a touchstone inside an unfamiliar structure.
They traveled from Central Australia to the Top End courtroom for one of the most significant — and closely watched — murder trials the nation has ever seen.
At the trial’s conclusion this week, after seven hours of deliberation, 12 jurors found Constable Zachary Rolfe not guilty of murdering Aboriginal man Kumanjayi Walker, who Rolfe shot during an attempted arrest in November 2019.
Justice John Burns had instructed the jurors against being swayed by “strong emotions” as he made his final address after a difficult trial that spanned five weeks, hearing the testimony of dozens of witnesses.
Constable Rolfe’s arrest was described as “appalling” by defense barrister David Edwardson QC, and ultimately the jury found the officer was legally justified in shooting Mr Walker, who had stabbed him in the shoulder with a pair of medical scissors.
As the jury’s verdict was delivered, Constable Rolfe hugged supporters and relatives, elated that he would walk free alongside his parents.
On the left of Courtroom Two, Warlpiri elders marked their grief and anger with only bowed heads, and silent tears.
Before they spoke outside the Supreme Court to express their sorrow and anger over the verdict, the Warlpiri acknowledged the Larrakia for welcoming them to this land — a respectful protocol that Aboriginal people adhere to no matter the occasion.
It was a nod to the interconnectedness of Aboriginal tribes across the nation, and to the pain so many Indigenous people felt at hearing the verdict.
‘Sometimes I think about how he must have felt in his last moment’
Kumanjayi Walker was shot by a police officer on his ancestral land with family members close by.
He died on the same day his people had buried one of his grandfathers, a revered elder and community leader whose death had brought scores of Warlpiri people home for ceremony.
In a few hours’ time, on that hot spring evening, many of the mourners would begin grieving a fresh loss — that of a much younger man than the elder they had just commemorated.
As the sun set on the old man’s funeral, a convoy of cars returned to the community. As she traveled home with her mother and sister, Kumanjayi’s cousin Samara Fernandez-Brown began to notice her aunts and grandmothers crying uncontrollably.
She wondered were they still affected by an emotionally draining day, a funeral of great significance?
She wound down the window to ask if they were OK. “They shot him,” her aunts replied.
Kumanjayi Walker’s family waited in vain for information.
The court head the teenager lay dying on the floor of a police station with injuries to his spleen, kidneys and lung.
This week, after a decision to acquit the police officer who shot him, Ms Fernandez-Brown wondered what those final moments must have been like for her cousin.
“Was he scared? Terrified, I’d imagine. Was he hurt? In terrible pain, I would think.”
The parameters of a criminal trial are well-known — a jury had to consider the legality of three split seconds, and the evidence before them.
It will be for a coronial investigation to examine not only those three gunshots, but the hours that followed, and what the Yuendumu community considers a deeply inadequate emergency response. There is much more the Warlpiri wish to say about the trauma this inflicted on their community.
Crown Prosecutor Philip Strickland SC believes the nation must bear witness to this testimony when the time comes.
Warlpiri elders urge the nation to ‘listen to us’
In the same year, the new Supreme Court of the Northern Territory had its grand opening – 1991 — the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths In Custody handed down its final report.
Three decades ago, the ABC News television bulletin summarised the commission’s findings this way: “The final report of the Black Deaths report slates Australia as a racist society … with police enforcing policies of control over Aborigines.”
Most First Nations communities and legal experts will tell you there has not been a full and meaningful response to what the commission recommended three decades ago.
Hundreds of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men and women have died in police and prison custody since 1991 — Kumanjayi Walker among them.
Like many of the case studies investigated by the commission in the 80s and 90s, the teenager had been in and out of the custodial system as a young man, and had suffered with addiction and trauma.
One of the most poignant moments at the conclusion of the trial came when Warlpiri elder Valerie Napaljarri Martin spoke about the lack of autonomy her people have on their own land.
“The system traps our young people in youth detention and then in jails,” she told a crowd of national and international media.
“The Elders and the community know what to do. We are trying to help our young people but we need more support to keep our young people out of the system.”
Her words were a reminder that the reaction to this verdict was about so much more than one case – it was a visceral reaction driven by the totality of the dispossession her people still experience.
She spoke to what the Uluru Statement from the Heart calls “the torment of our powerlessness”.
Kumanjayi Walker’s family are home on desert country now. Tired and heartbroken, they will rest now for the next chapter in their fight for justice.
While Kumanjayi Walker’s story is unique – his will be among hundreds of coronal investigations that already traversed similar ground, and delivered recommendations of great importance.
This is another source of grief for Samara Fernandez-Brown.