What is going on in the often troubled town of Alice Springs? Trouble goes into the ordered environment of the courtroom to lay out in detail some of the dark disorder in the town's recent history. Men kill their wives, kill one another in seeming senseless acts of revenge, families feud, women join the violence, children watch and learn from the sidelines. Journalist Kieran Finnane follows the stories through witness accounts, recognizing the horror and tragedy of violent events, and the guilt or innocence of perpetrators. She draws on a 25-year practice of journalism in Alice Springs, as well as experience of its everyday life, to add fine grain to the portrait of a town and region being painfully remade.
|Publisher:||University of Queensland Press|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Kieran Finnane is a founding journalist at the Alice Springs News, an independent weekly started by Central Australia’s longest serving journalist, Erwin Chlanda, in 1994. Kieran also writes for national publications such as Crikey, Griffith Review, Art Monthly Australia and Artlink.
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On Trial in Central Australia
By Kieran Finnane
University of Queensland PressCopyright © 2016 Kieran Finnane
All rights reserved.
IN THE MINDS OF MEN
His court appearance was only a mention and likely to be by video link from the gaol. I expected the public gallery to be deserted. As it was, I got the very last spot in the back row. All of the visitors were Aboriginal. The smell of cooking smoke was on their clothing, which suggested to me they either lived in town camps or had come in from the bush.
The defendant, Sebastian Kunoth, entered the small video-link room, wearing an orange t-shirt, prison garb. On remand he was allowed to keep his long hair. It fell in thick waves to his shoulders. His clean-shaven skin was dark and smooth over high cheekbones, eyes dark and deeply set, serious. He was charged with murder. He was shockingly youthful – nineteen years old at the time of his arrest. His wife was twenty-two when she died, three days after receiving severe head injuries at Abbott's Camp on Christmas Day 2012.
As Kunoth sat down he seemed to wave, a low pass of his hand in front of the camera. There was a ripple of response in the gallery. I saw faces all around lifted towards him, smiling. They were not waiting for another case, they were there for him.
The court started its business. It was 8 August 2013. Kunoth's committal hearing had been scheduled to begin the day before, delayed, we learned, by extra matters that the police have been asked to follow up. Now instead of two days, the prosecution asked for three. The magistrate commented about his under-employment that week – no doubt a rare experience in the Alice Springs courts – but set new dates for ten weeks hence.
There had been no discernible reaction to any of this among the visitors or by the defendant. He was told he could go and rose. The video buffering slowed his movement, heightening a sense of submission. His face began to turn from the camera. As one, the visitors raised their arms in a wave to him. There were more eager smiles but not so much as a murmur. As soon as he was gone, they all got up and filed silently from the courtroom.
Who was this for? Kunoth may have been able to see a few of them or at least an impression of their arms raised and moving, but no more than that. Was it for the magistrate, the lawyers – a show of clan strength, of their own judgment of this son, fiercely loved in spite of what he may have done? Was it for themselves – a way of demonstrating their relatedness, of showing support to one another in a time of trouble? They would continue to make their presence felt throughout the hearing. At times they would come close to scuttling it.
The first day of the committal arrived, 28 October, but the extra time had not helped in getting it smoothly under way. Of the original eighteen witnesses, one had died, thirteen had been summonsed but only three had come to court. And of them, only one was present at Abbott's Camp on the night the young woman had been attacked.
The hearing began in Courtroom Four. It is no bigger than a large bedroom and, while there's a witness box, there's no dock. A prosecutions staffer rolled her eyes about it being used to hear a murder charge, having the accused in such proximity to witnesses. Sebastian Kunoth was brought in, wearing handcuffs and civvies – probably the clothes he was arrested in, a sky-blue t-shirt, checked shorts, new-looking runners. In the flesh he was somehow less striking than on the video link. He seemed to have gained weight during his inactive time on remand; his middle was padded and his face had filled out, rendering his expression less intense.
His lawyer pointed out to the magistrate her client's parents. Kunoth's mother stood up, smiling, gesturing to her son. She seemed more assertive than his father. Kunoth takes after him in appearance.
Other relatives squeezed onto the two short benches of the tiny court, among them a man with snowy hair and beard, likely to be Kunoth's grandfather. Tall and broad-shouldered, wrapped in a lumber-jacket, the old man used a walking stick, but this took nothing from his air of authority.
The charge was read, the murder of R Nelson 'on or about' 25 December 2012. We heard the young woman's first name at this time but thereafter, in deference to Aboriginal cultural practice, she would be referred to as 'the deceased' or 'Kumunjayi'.
The first witness was called, Cathy Dean. I recognised her as Kumunjayi's mother. I had spoken to her months earlier on the date of Kunoth's first court appearance. She had dressed quite formally on that occasion, in a draped black dress and gold earrings. On this day she was still wearing black, but her clothes were less formal. Her head was wrapped in a black kerchief and her right forearm was in plaster.
She entered the court and took her seat in the witness box. She had a little girl with her, who looked to be about three years old, with sun-bleached curls, dressed in pink. There was momentary confusion over the child's presence. Kunoth's lawyer said it was not appropriate for the child to be in the witness box – perhaps one of the other grandparents could take her? Kunoth's mother moved forward and attempted to take the little girl by the hand. The child started crying and shrank back behind her maternal grandmother.
Paralysis in the court. The child's cries turned to shrieks. Kunoth's lawyer was furious, pointing out that her client was the father. Whether her concern was for him or the child or both was not clear.
One of the younger female relatives tried to take the child, but the screaming only got louder. The lawyer put an end to it by saying she didn't require cross-examination of this witness. Cathy Dean left with the little girl in her arms.
The next witness was called. He was in custody. Minutes went by. The magistrate looked exasperated. The clerk called down to the cells and reported back that at present there were no prison guards to bring the witness up. More waiting. We would have been able to hear the courtroom clock ticking if it weren't for the child's ongoing screams still reaching us through the walls. Kunoth was visibly upset. He asked his lawyer for tissues.
The witness, Elwyn Brokus, entered the court in handcuffs, which were removed before he took his seat. He looked to be in his mid-twenties, reasonably tall and fit-looking, with the close-cropped hair of a prisoner. In the tiny court the witness box was right next to one of the benches provided for members of the public. Brokus exchanged words briefly with the man nearest to him. Nothing was said about this.
Brokus gave his evidence without an interpreter. On Christmas Eve 2012 he started drinking before noon in 'the Peanut Bar' at the Todd Tavern in the centre of town. Together with the Gap View Hotel, the pub closest to Abbott's Camp, and to a lesser extent the Heavitree Gap Tavern, they were known at the time to conduct an infamous trade, opening in the mornings to sell overpriced drinks to an almost exclusively Aboriginal clientele until closing at 2 pm when their associated bottle shops opened. The three venues were widely known as 'the animal bars'.
Brokus said he drank six schooners at the Peanut Bar. When the bottle shop opened he bought a twenty-four-pack and took a taxi back to Abbott's Camp where he shared the beers with friends. He took a break around five, then resumed drinking around seven. With a mind to the next day being Christmas, just before closing time he went with a friend to the bottle-o at the nearby supermarket where they bought four thirty-packs and a 'four corner' (a two-litre bottle of Jim Beam). Back at the camp they got into one of the thirty-packs. Brokus said he drank half, fifteen cans.
He and his friend were at House Three. A party was getting under way at House Four – loud music, lots of people. When he finished drinking – around ten or eleven, maybe later – he retreated to 'the painting house' to sleep for a while. He woke when a cousin turned up in a car. It was dark except for the beam from the headlights and a streetlight out the front of House Seven. Brokus heard a voice coming from that direction, speaking in Luritja (a Western Desert language). He recognised the voice of Sebastian Kunoth. He could see him dimly, enough to see that he was wearing only shorts. Kunoth was calling out for Lionel Minor: 'Where's Lionel? I want to see him,' was how Brokus translated Kunoth's words. Kunoth was holding what Brokus thought was a stick by his side. Later Brokus saw Lionel Minor, who told him he had had a fight with Kunoth. Brokus knew there was 'trouble' between them, that they were 'enemies', that the problem was 'long-standing'. Minor told him that he had won the fight, that he'd knocked Kunoth out.
The Crown prosecutor pressed Brokus. What did he remember Minor saying about the fight? Brokus hesitated, sighing. Eventually he spoke: 'He said jealousing.'
Who did he say was jealous?
'I can't remember, I think that's it.'
The prosecutor repeated his question. Brokus sighed again, frowning. Looking down, he pressed a forefinger and thumb to the bridge of his nose. He seemed very unhappy. Nothing more was said.
An anthropologist friend explains that 'jealousing' in the Aboriginal domain covers a wide range of reasons for conflict. The reasons include but are not confined to disputes between lovers. The common thread in the other reasons she lists is 'offended entitlement'. The sense of offence, in best-case scenarios, is managed by mediation and negotiation through family networks, even allowing for degrees of violence between parties. But alcohol often escalates 'jealousing' beyond the reach of mediation.
In the criminal cases I have observed I have never heard cultural subtleties like this explored. Any off-the-cuff attempt to do so has been met with a challenge to the speaker's expertise. 'Jealousing' has simply been taken to be an Aboriginal English equivalent of 'being jealous', typically one sexual partner of another.
Brokus's evidence had begun to set the scene: heavy drinking, a party, a jealous fight, a seemingly reluctant witness. That was as close as we got on the first day. The next witness, Glenis Wilkins, was nowhere near Abbott's Camp that Christmas Eve, but she had had some past contact with Kunoth. Wilkins is a non-Aboriginal woman running the aged care service at Mount Liebig, north-west of Alice Springs. This is Kunoth's mother's country where he spent most of his youth.
Although Kunoth's lawyer suggested that a lot of Wilkins's evidence was hearsay, an impression of Kunoth's past began to emerge. Wilkins, who had lived in the community for years, working in a number of different roles, said Kunoth's mother had told her of him smashing things in their home, smoking ganja, getting mad. He had lost a brother when he was in his teens. A visiting mental health worker tried several times to speak with him after this loss but Kunoth rejected his approaches. Wilkins watched Kunoth getting angrier over the years; she witnessed him in scuffles on the road with family members. She saw him trying to get his little girl away from her mother. She said the mother and child ran to her and she, Wilkins, took the child inside.
There were no further witnesses and it was not even lunchtime. The prosecutor was hopeful that police would find them for resumption at two o'clock. The guard led Kunoth outside but allowed him to linger in the lobby. One by one family members hugged him in silence. The first and longest embrace came from the old man I assumed to be his grandfather.
At 2 pm, the witnesses still hadn't showed up. Warrants were issued for their arrest. I was told by someone familiar with the community that they were hiding from police – they didn't want to speak 'against family'.
Whatever the reason, the prosecutor was up against it. The next morning he told an unimpressed magistrate that while a 'large operation' had been planned for picking up the missing witnesses, police attention had been diverted by a dead body found in the creek.
He meant the Todd River. As I drove home later, I saw the search area on the western bank and extending well down into the dry riverbed, bounded by police tape, with a paddy wagon and a couple of officers stationed there. A small group of Aboriginal women and children watched from a nearby street corner. ABC News that evening reported that police were treating the death as suspicious and would continue their investigations into the night.
The hearing moved to Courtroom Three, quite a bit larger than Four, but still without a dock. Kunoth sat sometimes at the bar table alongside his lawyer, sometimes on the bench directly behind her. The prosecutor was able to produce one witness. Stephen Morgan looked to be around forty and seemed unhappy about being there, this impression strengthened by a weeping eye which he continually wiped with a tissue. As he can't read English very well, the prosecutor had read his statement to him and he accepted it as 'a true story'. He spoke through an interpreter.
Morgan had been at the party at House Four with his wife. There were other people dancing and listening to music, among them Kumunjayi and Lionel Minor. Kumunjayi was 'on her own', he said, which I took to mean she was not with Lionel Minor. 'They was all dancing', 'mix up'.
Morgan had been drinking rum and agreed he was 'full drunk' before arriving. At the party he had a couple more beers, standing, watching the dancing. It wasn't that dark when he left, and Kunoth had arrived.
What did you see him do? asked Kunoth's lawyer.
'No, I didn't see that,' he replied through the interpreter.
Did you see him do anything?
'No, I didn't see him, I was full drunk.'
Did you see him holding anything?
'No, I didn't see.'
Did he hit you?
'Yes, just once.'
Did you see any fight between Lionel Minor and Sebastian Kunoth?
'No, I was sitting down in the creek, drinking, I didn't see nothing.'
Did you see Sebastian hit Lionel with an iron?
'No, I was at home asleep.'
Did you see Sebastian with Kumunjayi at any time?
'No, I must have been drunk at that time.'
There was evidence from the police crime-scene examiner and then, 'That's all I've got,' said the prosecutor. He suggested reconvening at 2 pm when 'hopefully there may be more'.
'On what basis are we living in this hope?' asked the magistrate. The police firmly believed that all parties bar one for whom warrants had been issued were in town, said the prosecutor. The magistrate consented to come back at 2 pm.
Kunoth's family had again been in court in good number. They filed out now, but his mother lingered. She was looking quite pleased with the way things were going. She hugged her son and rubbed his back. He was unsmiling.
The prosecutor was out of luck. No further witnesses were produced and the matter was adjourned.
The third day proved a little more promising, but the prosecutor foreshadowed needing a fourth. The magistrate was not happy: three days for a committal was already a lot.
Kunoth attended, again in the same clothes. His mother arrived and had his little daughter by the hand. He smiled at the child. Today she seemed quite comfortable with his mother and other relatives. They slowly filled the single long bench for the public in this courtroom and then began to occupy the bench behind the bar table, usually reserved for legal and court personnel.
The little girl soon became restless and she went in and out at will, pulling at the heavy door until various relatives got up to help and then follow behind to keep an eye on her.
Stephen Morgan's wife, Christine Peterson, was called. She looked around thirty and had roughly cut short hair, possibly following a recent bereavement. Like all other Aboriginal witnesses in this hearing, she looked unhappy to be there. This is not always so. I have often observed Aboriginal witnesses much more at ease in the witness box, including in murder charge proceedings.
Peterson gave her evidence through an interpreter, but it took more than interpretation to get her going. She was very reluctant to accept that she had given two statements to police, one in Alice Springs on Christmas Day, one three days later at Papunya, a community to the north-west, not quite as far as Mount Liebig. Eventually she agreed.
Are they true stories?
Again, a long hesitation. Then a question came back through the interpreter: 'Is that [the statement] from Papunya?'
Yes, said the prosecutor who told the magistrate that he had read both statements to the witness that morning. Do you remember? he asked her.
She stared uncertainly, finally nodding her head in agreement. At that moment there was murmuring and some movement in the public gallery.
This prompted the magistrate to speak: 'People in court cannot talk and gesture to the witness.'
Excerpted from Trouble by Kieran Finnane. Copyright © 2016 Kieran Finnane. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
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Table of Contents
ContentsA note on names and usage,
Introduction: One stone room,
In the minds of men,
Trouble at the turn-off,
Race in the dock I,
Race in the dock II,
Warlpiri versus the Queen,
Epilogue: Coming through the Gap,