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ABC News
ABC News
Melissa Mackay

Northern Territory coroner visits Yuendumu, as Kumanjayi Walker inquest resumes after break over anniversary of fatal shooting

Along a rough highway in Central Australia, lonely metal road signs are surrounded by red dirt dotted with dry grass, wildflowers and wrecked cars.

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains an image of a person who has died, used with the permission of their family.

Spray-painted on the back of several signs are phrases like "no guns" and "Justice for Walker".

The bitumen leads to a turn-off for the tiny remote community that was thrust into the glare of an unwanted national spotlight in 2019, when 19-year-old Kumanjayi Walker was fatally shot by Northern Territory police officer Zachary Rolfe.

Thousands of stories have been written about Yuendumu and its Warlpiri residents in the three years since Kumanjayi Walker's death, but few have been told from within the community.

Even the coroner investigating his death has only seen glimpses of it in footage played in a courtroom 300 kilometres away in Alice Springs.

In body-worn camera vision, she has seen broken fences around run-down homes, barking dogs and the moment police spotted Mr Walker inside house 511, seconds before the struggle that led to his death broke out.

Through mobile phone videos and CCTV, she has seen the police station and airstrip, as officers and distressed community members reacted to the police shooting.

And from pictures taken in the days afterwards, the coroner has seen officers armed with rifles, standing guard at the home that became a crime scene on November 9, 2019.

They are not the kinds of images Mr Walker's family want Yuendumu known by to the coroner, and the world.

Today coroner Elisabeth Armitage will see the community for herself for the first time.

She will be shown the shrine that is now known as 'Memory House' — the red house, House 511 — where the shooting that sparked her months-long inquiry took place.

Inquest paused to mark anniversary of Kumanjayi's death

More than halfway through the hearings, the inquest was suspended last week as the third anniversary of Mr Walker's death came and went.

In a social media tribute, his cousin Samara Fernandez-Brown called it "a day that changed our lives forever… the day that left him 19 forever."

"Kumanjayi, you are missed and mourned every day. You are a constant in our thoughts and hearts," she said.

"I am so sorry this happened to you.

"We will continue to remember you as you were, not who they tried to project you as. I hope you are resting and at peace.

"Your family and friends love you."

Earlier this year, Constable Zachary Rolfe was unanimously found not guilty of all charges relating to the fatal shooting of Mr Walker during an attempted arrest.

Today, the coroner and lawyers for each of the parties involved in the inquest, including Constable Rolfe's lawyer, will be welcomed to Yuendumu to visit the sites which have become significant to the inquest and to hear from community members on their own terms.

"Normally we expect people to come into this very formal environment which must be extremely foreign and intimidating to most people who haven't been to court before," Judge Armitage said.

"It will be a very different opportunity for people to speak on their own country."

The coroner is expected to visit House 511, where Kumanjayi Walker was shot and House 577, where, days earlier, he confronted police armed with an axe during an earlier arrest attempt.

She is also expected to view the police station, health clinic and nurse's quarters.

At Yuendumu's basketball court, there will be a meeting with the community.

Barrister for Yuendumu's Parumpurru Committee, Julian McMahon SC, has foreshadowed some discussion about Mr Walker's death "from a spiritual perspective and how that is understood in Warlpiri culture."

He said he expected discussions about grief, sorry business, Warlpiri justice and culture to take place with the coroner.

Judge Armitage said the invitation to visit the community was gracious and "incredibly generous."

"I take it very much to heart, that we are being welcomed into Yuendumu," Judge Armitage said.

"At the end of this process, however painful the process is, we do hope that we have a sense of hope.

"I am very pleased to be able to come to the community, to listen to the hurt and the pain, but also, the plans for the future."

Select media outlets, including the ABC, have been invited to attend parts of the coroner's visit to Yuendumu.

Constable Rolfe due to give evidence, but court challenge underway

The inquest is expected to sit informally in Yuendumu for two days, before witnesses resume giving evidence to the coroner from Wednesday.

Constable Rolfe is currently scheduled to answer questions over three days starting from Wednesday.

But legal action in the NT Supreme Court could impact his evidence.

Lawyers for Sergeant Lee Bauwens, the officer formerly in charge of the specialist Immediate Response Team, are  seeking judicial review of a decision handed down by the coroner relating to penalty privilege. 

The officer's lawyers are effectively arguing the Sergeant Bauwens should not be forced to answer questions which could lead to disciplinary action against him.

Constable Rolfe and his lawyers last week filed documents to join the action.

The coroner will sit in Alice Springs until December 2, before resuming in early 2023 for further hearings.

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