Tri­als, tribu­la­tions of a town like Alice

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Rose­mary Neill

Trou­ble: On Trial in Cen­tral Australia By Kieran Fin­nane UQP, 296pp, $29.95

Alice Springs has long seen it­self as a rugged fron­tier town de­vel­oped from lit­tle more than tin sheds, red dirt and the world’s old­est liv­ing cul­ture. Yet it has also ac­quired an unen­vi­able rep­u­ta­tion as a cen­tre of vi­o­lence and dys­func­tion. As Kieran Fin­nane points out in Trou­ble: On Trial in Cen­tral Australia, in 2015 the desert town’s homi­cide rate was al­most 13 times the na­tional av­er­age. Most of that vi­o­lence is in­flicted by Abo­rig­ines against other in­dige­nous peo­ple, and ru­inous lev­els of drink­ing are of­ten in­volved (though per capita drink­ing lev­els for whites as well as blacks in the Ter­ri­tory are above the na­tional av­er­age).

This is a grimly fas­ci­nat­ing and deeply thought­ful book that de­rives its power from Fin­nane’s metic­u­lously de­tailed re­portage and her ground­ing of the crim­i­nal cases she de­scribes in the wider con­text of the desert town’s race re­la­tions. A jour­nal­ist and long-time Alice Springs res­i­dent, she views the town’s courts as a “cru­cible through which pass the strug­gles of this hard and beau­ti­ful place”.

Mostly she fo­cuses on man­slaugh­ter cases — some of which at­tracted na­tional me­dia at­ten­tion — that have come be­fore the Alice Springs court in re­cent years. She ac­cen­tu­ates the hu­man dy­nam­ics of the court­room, where raw emo­tions chafe against the stric­tures and stilted lan­guage of the law. Sk­il­fully cap­tured is the col­lec­tive sense of dread that set­tles over pro­ceed­ings while per­pe­tra­tors and vic­tims’ fam­i­lies await sen­tenc­ing. Fin­nane writes af­fect­ingly of vic­tims’ fam­i­lies weep­ing along­side of­fend­ers’ rel­a­tives or of such fam­i­lies sit­ting me­tres apart but never look­ing at one an­other. She also be­comes per­son­ally em­broiled in one case when she hears a de­fen­dant’s rel­a­tive threaten a wit­ness in open court.

The most no­to­ri­ous case the jour­nal­ist and au­thor re­vis­its in­volved the man­slaugh­ter of an Abo­rig­i­nal man, Kwe­mentyaye Ry­der, by five white men in 2009. In a drunken “joy ride”, these young whites drove a ute reck­lessly through an Abo­rig­i­nal camp on the dry Todd River bed. Sev­eral of these of­fend­ers then bashed and killed Ry­der, who in anger had thrown a bot­tle at their ve­hi­cle. Some com­men­ta­tors drew par­al­lels be­tween these crimes and race-hate killings in Amer­ica’s deep south. With­out deny­ing the racial hos­til­ity in­her­ent in this ugly crime, Fin­nane draws on her ex­ten­sive knowl­edge of the town to con­clude this view is sim­plis­tic and over­wrought.

In the same year, Ed­ward Har­grave, a white man who worked for an in­dige­nous or­gan­i­sa­tion, was stabbed to death by an Abo­rig­i­nal man in an Alice Springs street fight. The fight started af­ter Har­grave’s white boss had been racially in­sulted. Again the town was on ten­ter­hooks and de­fence lawyers, re­fer­ring to the case’s racial over­tones, urged the jury to put aside their prej­u­dices.

Also high­lighted is a case that gen­er­ated na­tional head­lines: that of former AFL star Liam Jur­rah, who was ac­quit­ted of one as­sault in 2013 but jailed for an­other in 2014 (he pleaded guilty to as­sault­ing two women, an ex-part­ner and re­cent part­ner). In a sign of just how deep the dys­func­tion runs in some in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties, Jur­rah’s mother and fa­ther were in jail at the same time he was.

Fin­nane ex­plores how tra­di­tional Abo­rig­ines are caught be­tween fray­ing cus­tom­ary laws and (some­times mis­guided) fam­ily loy­al­ties on the one hand and the de­mands of the West­ern le­gal sys­tem on the other. She be­lieves the le­gal sys­tem should give more weight to cus­tom­ary law (though not cor­po­ral punishments) but she of­fers lit­tle ev­i­dence of how this might work in prac­tice. She is rightly crit­i­cal of the Ter­ri­tory’s manda­tory 20-year sen­tences for mur­der, which re­sults in most de­fen­dants plead­ing not guilty. (These re­stric­tive laws also seem to re­sult in prob­a­ble cases of mur­der, in­clud­ing hor­rific cases of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, be­ing down­graded to man­slaugh­ter.)

Two of the book’s more per­plex­ing cases in­volve in­dige­nous pay­back punishments in which in­no­cent peo­ple were wrongly tar­geted. In one of these crimes, a group of of­fend­ers bashed and stabbed to death two rel­a­tives of a man who had wronged them, even though one of­fender later ad­mit­ted to po­lice, “Yeah, got the wrong ones.” The se­cond crime was widely ru­moured to be a re­venge at­tack for an ear­lier, brutal mur­der of a young in­dige­nous woman. Yet the re­venge at­tack was it­self no­table for its sick­en­ing vi­o­lence. In 2013, a man out walk­ing with his wife was ab­ducted and set on by a mob who beat him into semi­con­scious­ness with weapons in­clud­ing a star picket be­fore set­ting his gen­i­tal area briefly alight. Although the pay­back mo­tive was fu­ri­ously down­played in court, Fin­nane prof­fers this crime as a hor­ri­bly dis­torted ex­am­ple of the tra­di­tion, given how in­dis­crim­i­nate, un­con­trolled and cruel it was.

Heavy, some­times in­cred­i­ble, lev­els of drink­ing were a fac­tor in most of these crimes. So what can be done to ad­dress the twin scourges of booze and vi­o­lence in the Red Cen­tre? Kin­nane ar­gues that a drug court ex­per­i­ment that steered ad­dicts (black and white) away from jail was work­ing well when it was ditched by the Coun­try Lib­eral gov­ern­ment. An­other (ini­tially) ef­fec­tive re­form in­volved sta­tion­ing at bot­tle shops po­lice of­fi­cers em­pow­ered to stop il­le­gal drink­ing in pub­lic places.

How to stem the rivers of grog that are poi­son­ing vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties with­out in­fring­ing civil rights is a great dilemma of in­dige­nous pol­icy. Fin­nane doesn’t pre­tend to have all the an­swers but her com­pelling court­room nar­ra­tives graph­i­cally il­lus­trate why the prob­lem is too deep and dam­ag­ing to be ig­nored.

Rose­mary Neill is a jour­nal­ist on The Aus­tralian and the au­thor of White Out: How Pol­i­tics is Killing Black Australia.


Ten­sions run high out­side the trial of AFL foot­baller Liam Jur­rah

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