On the third day it is not difficult to find a seat in the courtroom. The crowds that spilled and filled the streets on Monday have stayed away. I sit in the back row of the rectangular courtroom. The presiding officer in his traditional robes and the stenographer and the sheriff occupy the frontmost places. They sit facing the barristers. At their left sit the jury, two rows of mature faces and bodies, leaning forward, held tight in attention to every word and gesture. Serious people, taking their serious duties seriously. Opposite them, the defendant is seated so far to the left of the court that I can see his profile from the very back.
The defendant sits alone. Neither relatives nor his lawyers are at his side. Unlike his clansmen present in court, he is thin, with the body and bearing of an athlete. With his crown of tight black curls he might be an ancient Spartan at an Olympic Games. His full lips are a cherub’s. Lean and triangular, his not very black face is a wedge of concentrated intent, sharp enough to split the phalanx of jurors opposite.
Along with the judge, the lawyers are the actors here. They speak only sufficiently loudly for the judge and jury to hear. They stand with their backs to us, their quaint wigs and heavy black gowns somehow not absurd. They address witnesses gently, their speech respectful, patient even in cross-examination. On March 7 last year, how did you spend the day? What alcohol was it you were drinking? What time in the day did you begin to drink? Do think you were affected by alcohol? ‘Little bit drunk, not full drunk’: can you explain that to me? I see – full drunk means you lie down and fall asleep. So, on that day you were not full drunk?
Due procedure, due ceremony, due deference: a man is on trial for his liberty; a man, a citizen, a human being.
Seated next to me is a spherical lady who might be in her thirties. I ask her does she know the defendant: I’m Liam’s aunty, she whispers. In Alice, in Yuendumu, avuncular status might make you closer than a parent – or precisely the opposite, your foe.
But Aunty’s bearing is not hostile towards her nephew.
Clustered in the row in front of ours are half a dozen more who would be relatives and supporters of the accused, men, women, two children. Even the children are quiet, church-quiet, respectful to the rituals.
I was not in court for the empaneIling of the twelve good men and true, the peers of the accused who will determine his innocence or guilt. I see that nearly half the good ‘men’ are women. The jurors dress decorously, as does everyone else in the court – from the defendant to his relatives to the journalists: all present themselves tidily, unostentatiously. Only the three actors wear fancy dress.
I search among the jurors for black faces. I see none. I recall that about fifty percent of the population of the Territory is Aboriginal. But among the twelve, not a single black face. I look again, taking in faces: perhaps there are, unshown, indigenous people of lighter colouring among the jurors.
If I were in Aunty’s shoes, I would gaze upon that jury, searching for Liams’ peers, and I would feel troubled.
A promising opening, clouded by an outbreak of “I”‘s in the last third. You know me: every sentence that contains one of these “I”tems would be improved, in my reading of the text, by pruning the superfluous personal pronoun.
e.g. “Seated nearby is a [hmm…] lady who might be in her thirties. Does she know the defendant? I’m Liam’s aunty, she whispers.”
Troubling indeed. Such a sad story for a young man with so much potential. The legal system only seems to make things worse. Have you read ‘Dog Ear Cafe’ set in Yuendumu? It was a story of hope …
In so many ways the legal system is constructed to trip up Aboriginal people. Jury of peers? Lack of translators. Cultural requirements about answering questions. And much more besides. Sometimes there are judges and magistrates who are courageous enough to seek wisdom and truth, in the broadest sense, as distinct from hard shock-jock justice. It is not easy when two disparate cultures collide. But when they do collide the same side is ascendant, every time.