The police officer who headed the murder investigation into Constable Zachary Rolfe has told the Northern Territory coroner he was “uncomfortable” investigating a fellow cop and denied being “particularly accommodating” in arresting the officer over the shooting death of Kumanjayi Walker.
- Superintendent Kirk Pennuto was the first police officer in charge of the criminal investigation into Constable Zachary Rolfe
- Constable Rolfe was granted bail around four hours after he was charged with murder
- Details of his after-hours court hearing have been revealed in the coroner’s court
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains an image of a person who has died, used with the permission of their family.
Superintendent Kirk Pennuto was the officer in charge of the criminal investigation into Constable Rolfe, who shot Mr Walker during an attempted arrest in the remote community of Yuendumu in November 2019.
Constable Rolfe has since been acquitted of all charges, including murder, manslaughter and engaging in a violent act causing death.
The coroner investigating the circumstances of the police shooting, Elisabeth Armitage, today heard new details about the decision to arrest and charge Constable Rolfe four days after the November 9 shooting.
Constable Rolfe was granted bail in an out-of-hours court hearing, over the phone with an on-call judge, around four hours after he was arrested.
Superintendent Pennuto said while after-hours bail hearings were common, he had never been involved in a situation where someone charged with murder was bailed so quickly.
The court heard despite police opposing bail for the officer charged with murder, that position was not formally presented to the judge.
“The fact that the call had been made to the judge, your Honor, indicates that the police had already considered bail, and that bail had been refused,” Superintendent Pennuto said.
Rolfe ‘not treated in any special way’ during arrest
Constable Rolfe was arrested late in the afternoon of November 13, after he had flown from Alice Springs to Darwin.
Superintendent Pennuto said Constable Rolfe was allowed to have a shower before being taken to the watch house.
“[Mr Rolfe] was hot and sweaty and not properly dressed. There was nothing lost by allowing him to do it and treating him with dignity,” he said.
“On other occasions in the past, I’ve organized food for people, regardless of their race, bought them cigarettes, tried to accommodate them as much as I can in what was a very difficult situation. So, I don’t accept that I’ve treated him in any special way.”
Superintendent Pennuto could not recall if Constable Rolfe was handcuffed during the arrest, but said he posed “no threat” to the police.
‘Limitations’ on brief given to prosecutors
Superintendent Pennuto told the coroner a “short file” was provided to the Director of Public Prosecutions, who decided there was a prima facie criminal case “just prior” to Constable Rolfe’s arrest.
“It was an unusual situation… I was wrestling with what to provide [the DPP] and in what sort of format,” Superintendent Pennuto said.
“The fact that [the file] wouldn’t have everything in it … it had some limitations.”
The officer told the court he was under time pressure to provide information to prosecutors, but said he was not pressured “to arrive at a certain position”.
Superintendent Pennuto told the coroner he watched the body-worn camera footage of the shooting two days after the fact, and at that point decided any version of events taken from Constable Rolfe would have to be under caution, with the officer likely to be a suspect in a criminal case.
“I was possibly thinking we were in the manslaughter basket or thereabouts,” Superintendent Pennuto said.
Constable Rolfe’s lawyer, Luke Officer, said “hours after the incident” a document had been filled out which indicated the officer was suspected of manslaughter, but Superintendent Pennuto rejected that.
“Police are not in the practice of making up offenses for the documentation. But in order for the documentation to be completed, there needs to be an offense populated in a particular section of the document. Manslaughter was the category chosen,” Superintendent Pennuto said .
The coroner heard Constable Rolfe was charged amid “problematic” public commentary around the shooting, but that the officer in charge did his job “without fear or favor”.
“Obviously working in the space that we found ourselves in was particularly challenging,” Superintendent Pennuto said.
Under cross-examination from North Australian Aboriginal Justice Agency (NAAJA) barrister Philip Boulten SC, the officer said commentary about Mr Walker being Aboriginal and Constable Rolfe being white was “present” but did not impact or complicate the investigation.
Asked if there was any “political interference” in the decision to charge Constable Rolfe, Assistant Police Commissioner Martin Dole said there was “absolutely none whatever” and that Constable Rolfe was treated like any civilian in a similar situation.
“There were polarizing views within the Northern Territory Police Force and police forces all over Australia,” Assistant Commissioner Dole said.
The current coronial hearings are expected to run for another two weeks, before the inquest returns early next year.