After a three-week trial, a Western Australian police officer last month was acquitted of the murder and manslaughter of 29-year-old Yamatji Wajarri woman JC.* It took the jury, with no First Nations peers, just three hours to reach its verdict.
JC, who suffered from schizophrenia, had been released from prison ten days before being shot dead in September 2019 in the Geraldton suburb of Rangeway. The jury heard that she had serious substance abuse issues and was distressed because she had lost custody of her young son.
Eight police officers responded to a report that JC was walking along the street carrying a pair of scissors and a bread knife. JC’s family had earlier contacted the police, concerned that she could be a danger to herself.
At the trial, the jury was told that five officers remained in their cars while one approached JC unarmed, urging her to drop her knife, and another drew his taser but did not use it. The police were armed with batons, tasers and capsicum spray, as well as pistols.
The accused officer, who was the last to arrive on the scene, got out of his vehicle, ran towards JC and shot her in the abdomen at close range. He testified he had acted in self-defence, claiming JC had turned towards him and raised the knife before he shot her. Yet the director of public prosecutions, Amanda Forrester SC, told the jury that CCTV footage showed that JC “did not take one step, at all, in any direction, let alone towards a police officer”.
JC died from her wounds in hospital, leaving behind her six-year-old son Caesar, who is now in the care of his aunt.
The verdict prompted protests in Geraldton and Kalgoorlie, where JC had family, and later in Perth and other capital cities on 28 October.
In Perth, JC’s family members addressed a rally outside the parliament alongside Noongar and Yamatji activists and elders, including renowned Yamatji actor Ernie Dingo. Speakers condemned both the WA police and the racist criminal “justice” system.
“Our ancestors—they ain’t happy”, JC’s sister Jennifer Clarke told more than 100 protesters. “They’re not gonna be happy until this man that pulled the trigger is accountable. He has to be accountable for what he’s done to my sister. He fucking killed my sister, and he can walk free on this land? That ain’t right.”
Protesters demanded that Premier Mark McGowan and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Stephen Dawson address the rally but, unsurprisingly, their calls went unheeded. “Cowards!”, yelled the crowd.
“We’ll never get [justice], unless we stand together”, Clarke continued. “And it’s not gonna stop here. [We’re] taking this to Canberra next. [We’re] taking this to next big parliament house, see how you like that. We’ll march all over Australia, for JC. For my sister!”
Dozens of police officers surrounded the entrance to the parliament and, at one stage, descended upon Noongar activist Herbert Bropho when he attempted to place a red handprint on the windows.
Curtin University associate professor and Noongar activist Hannah McGlade condemned the McGowan government’s recent $1.6 billion funding pledge to the WA police, who she described as “nothing but killers”.
“For the police commissioner to tell us to respect this horrendous verdict, this unjust verdict—we cannot respect it”, she said. “We know justice. Our people came from an ancient law, and people were punished when they committed crimes. But not under this law. This is a law of liars, white liars and white thieves. There is no justice here.”
McGlade spoke of several cases of racist verdicts and deaths in custody, describing such crimes as “an ongoing genocide against our people”. She called on the police commissioner to resign, rejecting his apology as a “mockery” and declaring that he was “not fit to govern”.
In an opinion piece at WAtoday.com.au, McGlade observed that not since 1926 had a serving WA police officer been charged with the murder of an Aboriginal person.
In that year, a lynch mob of police and civilians descended on the community of Oombulgurri on the Forrest River Mission, murdering and burning the bodies of twenty Aboriginal people, according to the 1927 Wood Royal Commission.
German anthropologist Helmut Reim later concluded from interviews with three Aboriginal elders that between 80 and 100 Aboriginal people were killed in the massacres on the Marndoc Reserve, where the Forrest River Mission was located.
Two police officers, James St Jack and Denis Regan, were charged with murder and arrested. Yet, the case never went to trial: a preliminary hearing concluded that a jury would never convict the men.
Nearly a century later, little has changed.
Several high profile cases of Indigenous deaths in custody have led to charges being laid against police, but no police officer has ever been convicted.
In 1983, five WA police officers stood trial on a charge of unlawfully killing 16-year-old Aboriginal man John Pat. After being surrounded and brutally beaten by the off-duty officers outside Roebourne’s Victoria Hotel, Pat died of head injuries.
An all-white jury found the officers not guilty.
In 2007, Queensland Sergeant Chris Hurley faced trial in Townsville on charges of assault and manslaughter nearly three years after the death in custody of Aboriginal man Cameron Doomadgee (Mulrunji). The jury heard that Mulrunji’s spleen was severed as Hurley repeatedly punched him on the floor of the Palm Island police station.
An all-white jury found Hurley not guilty. After his acquittal, Hurley was transferred to the Gold Coast and given a promotion.
On 22 October, outside the WA Supreme Court, Clarke family supporter and Noongar woman Megan Krakouer told a rally that Indigenous people continue to be denied justice 30 years after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
Since the royal commission issued its findings in 1991, 471 Aboriginal people have died in custody. Western Australia has the highest Indigenous incarceration rate and the country’s highest number of Aboriginal deaths in custody since 1991.
“This is what we have to deal with in the state of Western Australia. This happens far too many times, and it hurts, and it’s wrong”, Krakouer said. “No conviction ... and you wonder why Aboriginal people are so angry and disillusioned with the police and the system.”
* JC’s family have requested her name not be used for cultural reasons.