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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Lorena Allam and Australian Associated Press

Yuendumu community greets coroner investigating death of Kumanjayi Walker with ceremony, song and sorrow

Senior Walpiri women welcome coroner Elisabeth Armitage to the outback community of Yuendumu, northwest of Alice Springs
Senior Walpiri women welcome coroner Elisabeth Armitage (right) to the outback community of Yuendumu north-west of Alice Springs. Photograph: Aaron Bunch/AAP

The remote Aboriginal community of Yuendumu has welcomed the coroner who is investigating the police shooting death of Kumanjayi Walker with a ceremony, song and sorrow.

Constable Zachary Rolfe shot and killed 19-year-old Walker during a bungled arrest at a home in Yuendumu in November 2019. Rolfe was charged with Walker’s murder four days after the shooting and acquitted in March following a supreme court trial.

NT coroner Elisabeth Armitage travelled to the tiny town with a population of 800 on Monday to meet community members and hear first hand how Walker’s death had affected them. She was formally welcomed by senior Warlpiri elders during two ceremonies – one by senior men, the other by senior women – before visiting the house where Walker was shot in the back and torso.

Flanked by legal representatives involved in the long-running inquest, the coroner first walked across the community to meet a group of men sitting in the ochre earth under a eucalyptus tree.

The Warlpiri men sang and danced for Armitage before she was escorted to about 30 women dressed in black clothing, who wailed in grief and softly sang a song described as Kumanjayi’s song while onlookers stood in silence.

Armitage toured house 511, where Rolfe shot Walker.

Afterward, the group moved to Yuendumu’s undercover basketball court, where a truth-telling session is scheduled for community members to air their feelings and talk about the impact of Walker’s death.

The coroner had planned to start the inquest with a visit to Yuendumu in early September but it was postponed until it received broad communitysupport.

More than two months on, her presence and that of the legal parties involved in the inquest, including Rolfe’s lawyer, Luke Officer, was welcomed.

The trip will conclude late on Tuesday, with the inquest returning to Alice Springs on Wednesday to hear Rolfe’s evidence.

However, it is now unclear the extent to which Rolfe will be required to give evidence, after his legal team filed documents in the NT supreme court seeking to limit the scope of questions he may be asked.

Rolfe’s legal team have applied to join a case brought by his fellow police officer, Lee Bauwens, who is seeking an injunction restraining the coroner and other parties from calling him to “give evidence or answer questions on matters that could give rise to a claim for penalty privilege”.

Lawyers for Bauwens and Rolfe are arguing that even though the coroner can provide witnesses with indemnity against any charges which may be laid as a result of their evidence, this may not protect them from internal disciplinary proceedings.

They are arguing the coroner does not have the power to compel a person to answer a question, notwithstanding a claim of common law penalty privilege.

The matter will be heard in the supreme court in Darwin before Judge Sonia Brownhill on November 22.

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