JASMINE JOYAN | NEWS
On 11 March 2022, Northern Territory police officer Zachary Rolfe was found not guilty of all charges in relation to the death of Kumyani Walker.
Rolfe was charged with murder, manslaughter and engaging in a violent act causing death when he fatally shot 19-year-old Mr Walker. He was acquitted of all charges.
Rolfe had shot Mr Walker three times in an altercation with police in 2019. The defence had argued self-defence in Rolfe’s use of force for the two additional shots. The prosecution maintained that the additional two shots had been an excessive use of force. The proceedings lasted five weeks and included testimonies of over 40 witnesses.
Despite the duration of the proceedings, a recent article released by the ABC has showcased that much of the prosecution’s tendency evidence was barred from the jurors.
Under section 97 of the Evidence (National Uniform Legislation) Act 1939 (NT), evidence pertaining to a person’s character, reputation, conduct or their tendencies is inadmissible unless the court thinks that the evidence will have significant probative value. Probative value requires taking into consideration the extent to which the evidence supports the tendency and the extent to which the tendency makes more likely the facts making up the charged offence.
Tendency Evidence Acquired
The prosecution submitted into evidence that Rolfe has been put on trial in December 2021 for four charges of excessive use of force.
Regarding the first of these charges, the Court found that Rolfe “lacks credibility” in his testimony, where it was found he deliberately assaulted Malcolm Ryder, an Aboriginal man, and lied about his evidence to court.
The second charge pertained to a chase with a 17-year-old boy. The prosecution maintained that the boy gave up chase, “stopped running and placed himself on the ground”. The prosecution held that Rolfe had then repeatedly slammed the boy’s head against a rock. Rolfe claimed that the boy must have injured himself when he placed himself on the floor.
The third incident, in September 2019 involved Rolfe running full force into an Indigenous man he was chasing, after he had slowed down, the force forcing the man into a barricade of a nearby restaurant.
The fourth charge involved Rolfe pushing a man into the wall of a building, after seeing the man threaten his partner.
In light of the above evidence, the prosecution attempted to establish that Rolfe has a tendency to “use excessive force on a male” and to “make a false statement…seeking to justify that use excessive use of force”.
In considering tendency evidence, the courts have generally had to balance the prejudice the evidence has against the defendant in ensuring they are given a fair trial and allowed the presumption of innocence with the probative value of the evidence. However, there can be circumstances where evidence is of high enough probative value that it can be inconsistent with a defendant’s innocence. However, Justice John Burns held that Rolfe’s previous charges did not have significant probative value.
Calls Against the Over-Policing of First Nations People
The death of Mr Walker and Rolfe’s acquittal are a reminder of the need for reform in policing of Indigenous people and communities. The 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody had over 339 recommendations. Since then there has not been a meaningful or supported response to the recommendation according to legal experts and many First Nation communities. Rolfe was the first Northern Territory officer to be charged for the death of an Indigenous person since the publication of the report in 1991. As of December 2021, more than 500 people have died in custody since the recommendations were originally made.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, June Oscar called for guns not to be carried by police in Indigenous communities.
“We have long held the solutions, and countless inquires and reports have given us the way forward. But…we fail to effectively implement them, and as a result we continue to see First Nations men, women and children dying in our so-called justice system. Enough is enough,” said Oscar.
The Northern Territory Police Association has rejected the proposal to ban guns.
Human rights lawyer, Hannah McGlade has emphasised the need for greater law reforms and dialogue with Aboriginal leaders and activists.
It has been recently been confirmed that a coronial inquest will investigate Mr Walker’s death in September.