NT coroner dismisses Zachary Rolfe’s call to step down
Former Constable Zach Rolfe has been unsuccessful in persuading the NT Coroner to step aside. Photo: AAP
The Northern Territory coroner has dismissed an application from former police officer Zachary Rolfe for her to step down from the inquest into the death of Indigenous teen Kumanjayi Walker due to bias.
NT Coroner Elisabeth Armitage has been investigating Walker’s death since September 2022 and was set to resume on Monday October 23.
Rolfe shot the 19-year-old three times while on duty in the remote community of Yuendumu but was acquitted of murder in a five-week trial last year.
Rolfe’s lawyer, Luke Officer, filed a submission two weeks out from the resumption of the inquest asking the coroner to consider recusing herself from the inquest on the grounds of apprehended bias.
Armitage dismissed the application on Wednesday, saying she would not be stepping down from leading the inquest.
“I am not persuaded that a fair-minded lay observer might reasonably apprehend that I might not bring an impartial mind to the resolution of the issues arising,” she said.
“Accordingly, I decline to recuse myself from proceeding with the inquest.”
In his application, Rolfe’s lawyer Luke Officer said the coroner had colluded with police to get him sacked earlier in the year and the way she engaged with the family of Walker was unnecessary.
Rolfe’s lawyers said the coroner could have distanced herself from the grieving families, particularly from conversations about punishing Rolfe for killing Walker.
“I do not accept that the mere fact that community members expressed their views about such matters, in my presence, might cause a fair-minded lay observer to reasonably apprehend that I might not impartially determine the issues arising at the inquest,” Armitage said.
“The Yuendumu Visit was, as Mr McMahon explained, ‘essentially a listening experience’. That is what I did.”
Walker’s family, NT Police and the Yuendumu Parumpurru Committee have previously urged the coroner not to step aside.
The sitting where Rolfe was set to give evidence was vacated last month and no alternative date has been set.
The inquest into the Warlpiri man’s death has been repeatedly disrupted by legal stoushes about whether Rolfe and another officer have the legal right to refuse to provide evidence to the coroner.
Rolfe previously refused to answer questions on the grounds they may expose him to disciplinary action while he was still in the force.
Judge Armitage ruled witnesses could not decline to answer questions and appeals by Rolfe in the NT Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal were unsuccessful.
The rulings meant the coroner could now be able to compel Rolfe to answer questions about racist text messages the inquest was told he sent.