The trial of an Australian police officer accused of murdering an Indigenous teenager began in Darwin Monday, with prosecutors hoping to secure a landmark murder conviction in a decadeslong endemic of hundreds of Indigenous deaths in police custody, including 11 in the past seven months alone.
If found guilty, 30-year-old Zachary Rolfe will be the first Australian police officer ever convicted of murder for an Indigenous person's death in custody, of which there have been hundreds in the past three decades.
Rolfe shot 19-year-old Kumanjayi Walker – who later died at a police station – during an attempted 2019 arrest in a remote outback town in a case that prompted nationwide protests. Rolfe has pleaded not guilty.
The trial kicked off amid growing outcry over the number of Indigenous deaths in police custody in Australia.
More than 500 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have died in custody since 1991, when detailed records began, including at least 11 in the past seven months.
Australia also has a disproportionately high number of Indigenous people incarcerated, which is beginning to receive some global criticism. According to the state-owned Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), 30% of the prison population in Australia is made up of Indigenous Australians, but they only make up 3% of the country's population.
Rolfe is being tried in Darwin, about 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) north of the community of Yuendumu, where Walker was killed on Nov. 9, 2019.
According to court documents, Rolfe and another officer entered a house to arrest Walker for an alleged bail breach and told him to place his hands behind his back.
The police allege that Walker stabbed Rolfe in the shoulder with a pair of scissors, and a struggle ensued during which Rolfe fired three shots into Walker killing him.
The teenager died that night at Yuendumu police station and Rolfe was charged with murder four days later.
It is unclear why the teenager was not taken to hospital after being shot three times.
Walker's death sparked passionate protests in Yuendumu and around Australia, with large crowds calling for justice.
Given the profile of the case, and the rising risk of COVID-19 in Indigenous communities, Walker's family has asked the media not to travel to Yuendumu during Rolfe's trial.
The trial has been long delayed by the coronavirus pandemic and legal complexities.
In a surprise decision last November, Australia's High Court blocked an attempt by Rolfe to argue he acted in "good faith" when he shot Walker.
Experts say the ruling took away a key legal defense available to police when carrying out their duties.
In October, another police officer went on trial for murder in the state of Western Australia over the death of a 29-year-old Indigenous woman in the first such case in that state in a century. However, he was found not guilty.
Several other Australian police officers have faced murder charges but have been acquitted or had the charges dropped.