CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia’s highest court ruled on Wednesday that a police officer cannot use his law enforcement job as a defense against a charge of murdering an Indigenous man.
The seven High Court judges unanimously agreed that Constable Zachary Rolfe could not rely on a statute that states a police officer is not “civilly or criminally liable” for performing law enforcement work “in good faith.”
The ruling is a win for prosecutors who have charged Rolfe with murdering Kumanjayi Walker in a bedroom of his family home in the central Australian Indigenous township of Yuendumu on Nov. 9, 2019.
Rolfe shot the 19-year-old three times during an attempted arrest.
He could become the first police officer to be convicted in Australia of unlawfully killing an Indigenous person.
Walker had stabbed Rolfe with a pair of scissors during a struggle. The murder charge relates to the second and third shots that killed Walker and that prosecutors allege were unnecessary.
The High Court heard a challenge by prosecutors to the Northern Territory Supreme Court’s interpretation of defenses available to Rolfe.
Five Supreme Court judges found that Rolfe could claim immunity from criminal liability under a law that protects police officers acting “in good faith in the performance or purported performance” of law enforcement duties.
The judges ruled that a jury should decide whether Rolfe’s actions fitted the criteria of the immunity clause.
But the High Court ruled that legal protections for police officers doing their job were “subject to constraints, such as doing only that which is reasonable and necessary.”
He could defend himself with other arguments, including that he had killed Walker in self-defense or in defense of police colleagues.
Rolfe, 30, has pleaded not guilty to the murder charge. He would face a potential sentence of life imprisonment if convicted.
His trial had been delayed until after the High Court made its ruling. He is out on bail and lives with his parents in Canberra, the national capital where the High Court is based.
He has been suspended with pay from the Northern Territory Police Force since he was charged.
Walker’s death was protested at rallies around Australia that followed the death in custody of George Floyd, a Black man, in the United States last year.