Monday, June 24, 2024

The freedom of the press still furnishes that check upon government which no constitution has ever been able to provide – Chicago Tribune.

HomeIssue 43Rolfe trial would not be the 'first' that is widely contended

Rolfe trial would not be the ‘first’ that is widely contended

“The Northern Territory court decision this week to commit Police Constable Zachary Rolfe to stand trial for the shooting death of 19-year-old Warlpiri man Kumanjayi Walker marks a historic moment in accountability for First Nations deaths in custody.

It is the first time a police officer will face a murder trial in a First Nations death in custody case in the Northern Territory in modern history.”

So begins an article published this week in The Conversation, an online journal in which academics collaborate with journalists to produce research-based news and analysis.

The article, headlined “Kumanjayi Walker murder trial will be a first in NT for an Indigenous death in custody. Why has it taken so long?” has since been reproduced on the ABC’s site.

This contention of an historic first has also been made this week in the Sydney Morning Herald and the National Indigenous Times, possibly among others.

Local historian ALEX NELSON however points out that a police officer has previously been charged with the murder of an Aboriginal man and tried here in Alice Springs.

The Conversation’s article has been updated to include a reference to this case, but the headline and introduction making the claim of an historic first remain unchanged. The ABC’s version has not been updated.

Mr Nelson’s article follows:-

Exactly 39 years ago this week a murder trial in the Alice Springs Supreme Court concluded with the unanimous jury verdict of not guilty for First Class Constable Lawrence Clifford for the shooting death of Johnny Ross Jabanardi at Ti Tree, 180 km north of Alice Springs, on July 20, 1980.

This event involved a violent altercation between two NT police officers and a group of Aboriginal men, when police stopped the car in which the men were travelling. This culminated in beatings of the officers and the killing and wounding of two Aboriginal men respectively with a firearm. (This incident, by the way, occurred within a month of the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain at Uluru on August 17 that year).

Two court cases arose out of the Ti Tree shooting. The first involved five Aboriginal men charged with assault and resisting arrest. There was considerable anger and outrage generated by this case, including protests at the entrance to the then new Alice Springs courthouse, now the Local Court.

The court hearings were relocated to Darwin where, on March 26, 1981, the NT Supreme Court found three of the five men guilty. One was sentenced to gaol for three months (reduced to one month and a $1000 12-month good behaviour bond), and the other two received $500 12-month good behaviour bonds.

The second case was triggered on August 14, 1981, when the Alice Springs Coroner’s Court’s adverse findings led to charges being laid against Constable Lawrence Clifford for the murder of Mr Jabanardi and the malicious wounding of Geoffrey Pepperill.

The Supreme Court trial commenced on October 10, 1981 in Alice Springs; and it’s of interest to note the Crown Prosecutor was Ian Barker QC, later to become prominent in the prosecution of Lindy and Michael Chamberlain. However, unlike the Chamberlains, the jury in this case determined on October 30, 1981, that Constable Clifford was not guilty.

The Ti Tree shooting incident was one of five cases in Central Australia considered by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody during hearings in Alice Springs held in the first week of October 1988. There had been some controversy over the inclusion of this case for consideration by the Royal Commission. [ED – This turned on whether it could be considered a “death in custody”. The commissioner took the view that it could be, that the deceased reasonably would have seen himself as held by police and not free to leave. The commission’s detailed discussion of the case can been seen here.]

It’s quite extraordinary, in my view, that such a significant legal case in the Northern Territory is apparently all but forgotten.


Images: Centralian Advocate reports of the trial and verdict, dated October 18 and November 4, 1981. Courtesy Alex Nelson. Unrelated to the case, the girl in the feature photo of October 18 is named as Christeen Kopp, aged 11, practising for a “Sing Out” at Alice Springs High School.


Related reading:

Zachary Rolfe will stand trial for murder


  1. @ Alex: It is all rather depressing.
    I think we could all do with a dose of levity.
    Could you please dig up the facts on the incident of the frozen kangaroo tail – which from memory also took place at Ti Tree (or as the Centralian Advocate headline says, Tea Tree). As I recall the evidence was consumed.

  2. @ Bob: Haha, something I knew at the time, an extremely young and deeply embarrassed Constable Mark Coffey would rather have forgotten.
    But here we are, almost 40 years since, and Coffey still can’t live this down.
    Policing the Territory, is difficult and sometimes funny.
    Greg Dick would also have many stories to tell.

  3. Thanks Bob Beadman, it was one of the funniest stories I ever filed for the Sydney Morning Herald.
    For years, on a slow news Sunday, the chief of staff would ring me to ask: “Have you got any other kangaroo tales?”

  4. @ Sandra: Yes you’re right Sandra. I have to confess that, when in a large meeting with him when he headed up FCATSIA for the NT, I emailed his executive assistant a copy of the yarn.
    She nearly burst out laughing in the meeting, then promptly emailed it to all staff nationally!
    The law lecturer I quoted, Jenny Blokland, is now a Supreme Court judge.
    I handed the story across to a friend at ABC Darwin, who re-interviewed Greg Dick and ended up getting a run on the BBC World Service!

  5. William Willshire, 10 March 1852 to 22 August 1925, was the first Central Australian policeman to be charged with murdering Aboriginals, as I recall.
    Sent for trial down south. Acquitted unsurprisingly. Has a street in town named after him.

  6. @ Ian Sharp: The claim in the original reports was that the Zachary Rolfe case is the first time a police officer has been charged for murder of an Indigenous person in “modern history”.
    Uncertain of the cut-off point for modern history but it’s likely to be post Second World War, or perhaps it’s within living memory. At any rate, the Willshire case predates this period and is a part of colonial history.

  7. The Conversation is using strange definition of “modern history”, Alex.
    The Willshire case certainly “colonial,” but also certainly Central Australia and certainly involving a police officer being charged with murdering Aboriginal people.
    Willshire and his actions should not be forgotten. That’s why I believe in keeping the street name, every few years someone wants it changed, and keeps the story alive – as it should be.
    I remember when Peter Donovan’s book Alice Springs, its history and the people who made it came out in 1988 (published by the Town Council), one prominent local citizen criticised the book for including the negative aspects of our history. Apparently he was a subscriber to the Coles Mural approach to our past.
    I think we should own the lot, warts and all, good and bad.
    People should know that even before modern history began there were people who were prepared to stand up against police brutality and support the rule of law for all. Hooray for Frank Gillen.

  8. Ian, the article published by The Conversation didn’t define “modern history” so I gave this some thought before attempting to point out the oversight concerning the Clifford murder trial in 1981.
    Prior to being updated, the earliest case the article referenced (under the subheading of “Trials against police in other states”) was the WA trial for the manslaughter of John Pat in 1983; and there were plenty of references to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
    Those were my cues to decide the Ti Tree shooting case of 1980 and consequent trial of Constable Lawrence Clifford fitted within the article’s implied definition of modern history.
    With regards to the Willshire case and the street named after him, his record is by no means forgotten and that lies at the core of why there have been several calls (and lots of support) for changing that street name.
    Indeed, your concluding remark that “people should know … there were people who were prepared to stand up against police brutality and support the rule of law for all. Hooray for Frank Gillen” echoes the point I made earlier this year.
    It was: “I think the case for changing the name of Willshire Street is justified; and I don’t think by doing so that the unpleasant history of William Willshire’s role in Central Australia will be erased as a consequence.
    “Keep in mind that we have other place names in honour of far more admirable individuals from that time who are associated with events connected with Willshire.
    “For example, the Telegraph Station master Frank Gillen, also special magistrate and sub-protector of Aborigines, ordered the arrest of William Willshire on murder charges.
    “He is commemorated with Gillen Park in the old Eastside, Gillen suburb and Gillen Primary School.
    Similarly, Mounted Constable Bill South was the officer who arrested Willshire and transported him to trial in Port Augusta.
    “Bill South also prevented the felling of the Todd River’s red gums for timber supplies by early European settlers. His memory is honoured by South Terrace which runs beside the Todd River and the trees he helped to save.
    “So there are means available for ensuring the full history of Alice Springs is acknowledged but in such manner to avoid offence to many people confronted by the record of such as Willshire.”

  9. The commencement of the Zachary Rolfe murder pretrial this week happens to coincide with an important anniversary date of the Ti Tree police shooting case – it’s exactly 41 years ago today that Constable Lawrence Clifford fatally shot Johnny Ross Jabanardi; a case that has largely disappeared from public memory in sharp contrast to the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain at Uluru less than a month later.


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