Cheers and shouts of “Justice for Walker!” erupted at the Alice Springs courthouse on October 26, as Local Court Judge John Birch committed a police officer to stand trial for the murder of Kumanjayi Walker.
Family and community members had travelled from the remote community of Yuendumu, where Walker was shot by Constable Zachary Rolfe in November 2019. On hearing the news, one community member told the gathered crowd of supporters: “This is what we needed”, ABC reported.
The decision to commit Wolfe to trial is an historic moment for the Northern Territory. As Thalia Anthony and Eddie Cubillo noted in The Conversation a few days later: “It is the first time a police officer will face a murder trial in a First Nations death in custody case since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody in 1991.”
Rolfe fatally shot Walker on November 9 when he, along with four other officers, entered Walker’s house to arrest him.
During Rolfe’s committal hearing in September, the court heard that the arrest was expected to be potentially dangerous, with prosecutor Philip Strickland saying: “‘There was a careful plan put in place by [a local sergeant] which involved the deceased being arrested whilst he was asleep at five in the morning’.”
That plan was ignored, however, and Walker died after Wolfe shot him during the attempted arrest.
Protests calling for justice for Walker and solidarity with the Yuendumu community took place around the country days later on November 13, and that day Rolfe was charged with murder.
But within hours of being charged, Wolfe was released on bail, after applying for it via telephone.
Marty Aust from the NT Criminal Lawyers Association described this as unusual: “It’s very unusual in the extreme that a homicide charge would be the subject of a successful bail application via telephone, given the presumption is against bail,’” the ABC reported.
As Anthony and Cubillo observed: “The freedom that Rolfe enjoys on bail contrasts with the high remand rates for First Nations people (85%) in the NT. Rolfe has also been stood down from the police force while on bail, but is still receiving pay.”
While the community welcomed Wolfe’s arrest, and cheered at Birch’s decision that there is sufficient evidence against Wolfe for the matter to proceed to trial, their calls for justice since Walker’s tragic shooting have been more far-reaching.
In the aftermath of his death, the community called for police there to be disarmed. Community leaders have also pointed to the NT intervention and its continuing legacy of over-policing in NT communities.
Senior Warlipiri elder Harry Jakamarra Nelson, speaking at an event to mark the 13th anniversary of the intervention earlier this year, said: “The biggest lot of money ever spent on Yuendumu was more than $7 million to build a new police station.
“We have more police than ever and more people in jail than ever. The welfare mob keep taking children away and don't respect our extended families.
“We want our local council back, we want our houses back, we want police to respect us and stop wearing guns.”
Rolfe’s bail has been extended, and he will face the Supreme Court on November 25.
Meanwhile, the Yuendumu community held Walker’s funeral service on October 17, days before hearing the news that Rolfe will stand trial.