"A license to kill": Family mourn Aboriginal woman JC
The police officer who killed Aboriginal woman JC in Geraldton has been acquitted of her murder and manslaughter.
In the last update on Friday, I mentioned that today I was publishing a long-read. It was about Mark Mason Snr who was shot by a cop in Collerenebri in November 2010. Then, on Friday, the officer who shot and killed Aboriginal woman JC in Geraldton in September 2019, was found not guilty of her murder and manslaughter.
In both cases, the justice system has shown that is not about ‘justice’ but about legitimating state violence against Aboriginal people. In Mark’s case, the family waited three years for an inquest focused on ‘police protocol’, which found the police were right in their use of force. And in JC’s case, after the historic murder charges, a jury of non-Indigenous “peers” have handed down a similar determination. I don’t believe we have to accept these decisions. After viewing the CCTV footage of JC’s death, I can not accept that this police officer was in such “fear” or under such “threat” that he was justified in taking her life. For context, JC was a woman who had been the victim of state-sanctioned violence throughout her life, and on leaving prison had been left with no support. She was vulnerable. How could she be seen as the threat when there were eight police officers there, surrounding her, on that suburban street?
Her family held a vigil on Saturday and will hold another protest on Thursday. I will keep following this because I don’t believe that this can be the end. I also will be publishing Mark’s piece next week.
A huge thank you to Tamati Smith, a young Yamatji photographer who has been following the inquest, for allowing me to use his photos in this piece. You can find him on Instagram here.
No Justice, No Peace: Cop walks free but JC is still not here
A protest for Aboriginal woman JC (Credit: Tamati Smith).
Outside the WA Supreme Court, JC’s sister Bernadette Clarke could offer few words other than “I’m in shock”. JC’s mother, Aunty Anne Jones would later tell the West Australian of the emotional toll that the verdict had had on her family: “I don’t know when I am going to crack,” she said. “I just have to stay strong for my grandchildren and children. It’s them that are hurting.”
The family and their supporters had just spent the past month attending the trial for JC, who lost her life on a suburban street in Geraldton in September 2019. The trial, held in front of a jury of non-Indigenous “peers”, had found the cop who shot JC was “not guilty” of both murder and manslaughter. Now, Bernadette told me, she was finding it hard to speak. The verdict had taken so much of her voice.
Earlier that day, I had spoken to Mineng Noongar woman Megan Krakouer, a powerful advocate for mob, as she made her way to court for the verdict. She said that the decision could go “either way”. The family had been concerned about the prospect of an aborted trial. SBS reported that “on the first day of the trial, proceedings were aborted”, a jury was dismissed and a “new jury was arranged”. The family was worried about speaking to media; about anything further delaying the proceedings. The courts had protected the man on trial with anonymity - his identity had been suppressed; but the family could not speak out for JC, whose identity was front and centre; whose ‘criminal history’ and ‘mental illness’ had been detailed so forensically in the media and courts as to make it seem like she was the one on trial.
Megan told me that while the family members had only been allowed to bring in ten people to support them, the cops had been allowed as many as they wanted. They had filled the courtroom. JC was painted as a criminal, her life seen as less than nothing, while the reputation of the man with the gun had been protected by legal processes.
(Credit: Tamati Smith)
Her family and their supporters though had attended the trial and had stood there, in their presence, to contest this view of their loved one. The family had hoped for a just outcome - an outcome that had been denied every single Aboriginal family who had suffered and grieved for those who had died in custody - Mulrunji, John Pat, Lloyd Boney, Robert Walker, Ms Dhu, Ms Wynne, Ms Day, Mr Briscoe, Mark Mason snr. There are so many names, so many families, so many communities, where history tells us there is no “justice” in the white man’s system. Despite hundreds of black deaths, there has never been a single conviction. While blackfellas continue to die behind bars, in paddy wagons, on the street in handcuffs, the police and prisons see this as business as usual, and the coronial processes and the courts legitimate that view.
With the historic murder charge over JC’s trial, this was supposed to be different. And yet it wasn’t. The jury delivered its verdict after only three hours, and just before the weekend: not guilty.
In the aftermath, JC’s mother Aunty Anne told the West Australian of the toll it was having not only on her, but JC’s seven-year-old son:
“Caesar, he knows what happened,” she explained. “My grandkids, Caesar, they keep asking me ‘why didn’t the police officer go to jail?’
“They keep watching the video (of the shooting). It’s heartbreaking. And its traumatising them. I tell them to stop looking at it but they keep doing it. I can’t do nothing about it. They can see what happened to her.”
On Friday night, Bernadette struggled to speak outside of her shock; but when I asked her about the memories of her sister, the words flowed.
“I’m just furious and angry. I know nothing can bring her back but where is the fairness in the courts? There’s no fairness,” she told me.
“It’s been hard. I just had the feeling it wasn’t going to go our way. I’m just trying to think of the positives as the older sister.
“She would want me to do better. She would want me to turn my life around. She wouldn’t want me to go the wrong way.
“She was a very innocent girl. She was a very sweet, kind-hearted girl. All she ever wanted was to be a mum.”
Bernadette said that JC had loved her seven-year-old son dearly, who now has to grow up without a mother: “She wanted the best for her baby you know. This will never bring her back but I have to carry on her legacy for the rest of my life. She did not deserve to go out the way she did. It’s just not fair.
“For the policeman to get off on murder… I’m just in shock. I can’t even speak.”
The media reporting of the trial had largely upheld the version of events put forth by defense lawyer Linda Black, that JC was a threat to the cops who were called to do a ‘welfare’ check on her that day, on a suburban Geraldton street. Eight police officers turned up. JC had been holding a small pair of scissors, and a bread knife.
The cop, through his lawyer, argued he had acted in self-defense, that he thought she was a danger to the police. The prosecution though had said he had no such justification; that JC had stopped and was not moving her feet.
In CCTV footage released after the trial, JC can be seen walking along the street while police cars move in behind her. A cop jumps out and starts approaching her, and then another, and another, when she slumps over and falls to the ground. The tragedy occurred in about 16 seconds.
CCTV footage of JC walking down the street in Geraldton.
The cop who was seen walking over to her was Senior Constable Adrian Barker, who was unarmed. He told the court he had recognised JC because he had been with her 10 days before after she was released from a 2-year prison sentence. JC had been extremely vulnerable and had been threatening self-harm. Snr Const. Barker had told the court he had been the one to transfer JC to the hospital and he had stayed with her there while she was sedated and given a mental health assessment.
He told the court that on that day he had “said goodbye to her, she gave my hand a squeeze and a smile and a wave.”
The next time he saw JC was on the day she was shot. He told the court he had approached JC with the intent to talk to her:
“Guns or a firearm — even a taser or pepper spray — for me, I feel, is a barrier to communication,” he told the court.
"I was trying to talk to her, to get her to drop [the knife].
"I was aware other officers were there to assist me.”
He had been focused on JC’s face, he told the court, and not her hands, as he had approached her. He told the court he felt “there was never a threat”. But as he had done this, another cop had approached with a taser, and then he had heard the sound: the cop on trial had fired the gun: “Shortly after that, I remember a pop, a crack ... and I remember JC going slightly backwards to her right."
The defense lawyer Linda Black turned this around on Snr Const. Barker by asking if he had “tunnel vision”. In defense cross-examination, another officer - who was one of the first on the scene - Lucinda Cleghorn - had claimed she was fearful for Snr Const. Barker’s safety: “I was afraid for him because from what I could see, he was so close to JC. I thought he was going to get stabbed.
" [He] had no force option, no weapon in his hand — he was completely vulnerable.”
But if you watch the CCTV footage, it is difficult to understand how there was such a threat, especially when one of most senior police officers that day did not feel there was one. One has to ask how a vulnerable Aboriginal woman could be seen as more of a threat than eight cops? Who was the one who died?
For Megan Krakouer, this is not just a story of the violence that ended JC’s life, but of the state-sanctioned violence that is endemic in society. It is this violence that left JC vulnerable on the streets of Geraldton that day; highly visible in the eyes of the police and seen as ‘unworthy’ of justice in the white man’s courts.
On leaving prison, JC had been left homeless. She was depressed and traumatised. She had already threatened self-harm. She was offered no support on her release and she was struggling. It was like leaving one prison, for another.
“There was no justice for the family of Mr Ward,” Megan says. “There was no justice for the family of Ms Dhu. When will it change? There is no political will to change the system. There is no political will to ensure the most vulnerable and marginalised of this state are given a fair go. This is racism,” Megan told me.
“This is what we have to live with every single day of the week.
“What we are saying is this decision today has given the police a license to kill.”
“When he shot her, he went home for six months with his wife…. no charges then… and then he still walked free. If this was a black man, he would have been all over the media. There wouldn’t have been a suppression order. And he would be in jail to this day.”
Megan says “everything is getting worse” as more and more blackfellas die in custody, more than 20 years after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.
“There is a disconnect between the haves and the have-nots, and our black people on the ground have been denied the right support.”
At a protest held on Saturday, an Aboriginal woman who had been at the court verdict gave a speech.
She spoke powerfully about the fear within black families in the state that follows the decision:
“That verdict… it made it worse for our mob,” she said. “It made it worse. Because yesterday, that guilty verdict would have changed the way the justice system sees us. They would have started treating us equal. But this morning, I woke up, my god I’m looking at all my kids. I’m going to wrap them up in cotton wool because the police have got the right to shoot them whenever they want.”