Warlpiri versus the Queen

In Alice Springs, the trials of young Warlpiri men reveal the threads of anarchic Warlpiri resistance to Australian law. Police and the courts grapple with cycles of violence wrapped in a web of kinship, custom and rupture. Since the middle of last century Warlpiri have come to live in small settlements scattered across their desert lands in the south-western corner of the Northern Territory. Yuendumu, some 300 kilometres northwest of Alice Springs, population 1000, is one of the largest. Most of the protagonists in this story come from there. It has been the seat of an ongoing feud between rival families, at times breaking into armed raids and riots. Some have fled the settlement for the town camps (Aboriginal housing estates) of Alice Springs. The charming names of the two camps in this story, Little Sisters and Hidden Valley, belie the over-crowding, squalour and violence often found there.


OUTSIDE THE ALICE Springs courthouse there was cheering and shouting to celebrate Liam Jurrah's 'not guilty' verdict and this favourite Warlpiri son was telling reporters that his dream was to return to elite football 'to make my families happy again'. Inside, in Courtroom One – where Jurrah had spent most of the past two weeks – a little-known Warlpiri man sat alone, looking down the barrel of years in jail. Just ten minutes earlier the courtroom had been full of Jurrah's family and friends, a large media contingent and the usual smattering of lawyers and court staff who gather to hear a verdict. Now it was deserted. No relative or friend stood behind Peter Delano Hudson as he was sentenced to four years and nine months for a cruel assault on his wife.

Outside, Jurrah had set off down the street, surrounded by the adoring young boys of his large extended family. Cecily Granites, his grandmother, brought up a joyful rear with aunties, uncles, cousins and countrymen. (Their joy was to be short-lived: one week later Jurrah was again arrested and charged over a violent incident at Alice Springs' 24-Hour Store.)

Inside, Hudson's non-parole period was set at three years. He heard Chief Justice Trevor Riley express the opinion that his prospects of rehabilitation were poor. Hudson accepted, the court was told, that his fourteen-year long relationship with his wife was now finished. His future plans were focused on regaining access to his three children. The eldest would be almost an adult by the time of his earliest release. In fact, she would be as old as he was, sixteen, when he began living with her mother.

All of this had been a long time coming. Hudson had first been convicted of failing to comply with a restraining order in 2004 and since then, seven further times. He had six prior convictions for assaulting his wife and one for causing her serious harm for which he had been sentenced to two years in jail. Alcohol had fuelled every one of the attacks.

After the last assault he had fled, but surrendered to police some ten days later. He had been in jail ever since. His early guilty plea meant that his wife was spared attending court to give evidence against him. So I would never have known anything about her and probably would not have lingered in Courtroom One if it hadn't been for the Jurrah trial. Coincidence doesn't seem the right word to describe her appearance in that trial as a witness.


HER NAME IS Daphne White. I recalled her from the Jurrah committal hearing, held in late July 2012. She wore her hair afro-style; her light-coloured skirt and top were flattering on her full figure and dark skin; she projected a sense of herself as an attractive woman, even though she looked toughened by drink. In her committal evidence she agreed that she'd been drunk on the night of the events that had ultimately led to the arrest of Liam Jurrah. She'd started drinking in the afternoon, after 2 pm when the take-aways opened. The grog was bought by a relative from the Todd Tavern drive-through – two cartons of VB beer as well as a bottle of rum which she was drinking mixed with Coke. Later with family she bought another bottle of rum and some food from Heavitree Gap store, across the river from Little Sisters town camp, where she was stopping with her sister.

Eight months later at the Jurrah trial she looked very much altered. Her hair was pulled back in a little knot; she was heavier; her face looked puffy; her tough, rather defiant air was gone. Throughout her evidence she held a tissue to her right eye, wiping it. She looked uncomfortable, miserable even, and spoke in a low monotone, mostly through a Warlpiri interpreter. What had happened in those intervening eight months?

On the day of Jurrah's verdict I found out. Although a domestic violence order required Hudson to keep away from her if he was drinking, they were on the grog together on the day of the assault. It was late September and they were at Nyirripi, a small Warlpiri community about 150 kilometres west-southwest of Yuendumu. White worked at Nyirripi in the store; Hudson had sporadic work with the Community Development Employment Program. Their younger children were aged seven and five. The first-born, then thirteen, had been boarding at Kormilda College in Darwin, but had become homesick and returned. Hudson was disappointed, the court was told, as he too had been sent to Kormilda, completing Year Ten and gaining a good level of literacy and numeracy.

The court did not hear anything of the whereabouts of the children on the day of the assault. It was a Friday, and their parents got steadily drunker until supplies ran out and an argument blew up about where more was going to come from. Alcohol (sales and consumption) is banned in Nyirripi, as in most Northern Territory Aboriginal communities and town camps. Hudson got into a rage and punched White with enough force to knock her to the ground. She hit her head and passed out. He kicked and punched her repeatedly to her head, face and body. He was wearing pointy-toed cowboy boots. She suffered multiple lacerations, swelling, bruising, grazing, a puncture wound to her left leg, and a number of facial and other fractures. She lost a tooth, walks with a limp and lost the sight in her right eye.

That explained then, at least in part, the changed demeanour, the air of misery and the swabbing of her eye. It needed ongoing treatment but she was having trouble keeping appointments, the court heard.

Her evidence at the Jurrah trial was less detailed about her drinking on the night of the Little Sisters events but one thing stood out, as either sad or unlikely or both. She'd been with family when she was drinking in the nearby dry creekbed, but back at Little Sisters she'd been drinking rum, alone.

It was a Wednesday, the middle of the 'working week', but that was of little relevance to the lives of any of the twelve civilian witnesses in the Jurrah trial. Almost all of them were drinking and so was Jurrah. In the interview he gave to police the day after the events, he told of drinking that day with four companions, at the back of Old Timers aged care village in the creek under the bridge. They started about 4 pm, drinking VB, a bottle of rum and a bottle of Smirnoff. After they finished they had a feed, then bought more grog – 'the same thing' – from AJ's, the take-away at Heavitree Gap. This session finished about 10 pm. Describing his state by this time, Jurrah said: 'I knew what I was doing.' The interviewing officers did not ask him just how much he had drunk.

Most of the witnesses agreed they were a 'bit drunk' or more so, 'half-shot'. Daphne White was pressed on this. Wasn't she 'full drunk'? No, 'just a little bit', she insisted through the interpreter: the bottle of rum was 'still half full'. Besides 'when I'm full drunk I go to sleep'.

Her sister, Ingrid White, said she was 'half-shot'. Her brother, Samuel White, casually described 'drinking grog' outside at Little Sisters. He may even have been under the influence when he was giving his evidence at the trial (the prosecutor, Stephen Robson, in his summing up described him, 'with all due respect', as not having been 'particularly alert' in the witness box). At the committal, Samuel had been more precise. He was 'charged up' but not 'full drunk': 'I was alright, feeling drunk, that's all.' He said he'd bought two 30-can cartons of VB that day, that they'd been shared by about a dozen people and that another thirty-can carton was taken back to Little Sisters. All of the male witnesses had been drinking, bar the oldest of them, Murray Woods, who suffers from diabetes and kidney disease.

Basil Jurrah, the victim in the case, agreed at the committal he was 'half-shot' having been drinking all day, starting before lunch at the Todd Tavern's Riverside Bar in town. At the trial he initially resisted this picture of the day in question – 7 March, 2012 – but eventually agreed that it was so. This time there was a new detail: his take-away grog purchases included a bottle of Jim Beam, 'a four corner'. The interpreter explained this meant a 2-litre bottle. It was partially drunk and Basil claimed to have had it in his pocket when he got to Little Sisters that night. One witness, 22-year-old Philomena White, when asked whether Basil Jurrah had been trying to hit people, said no, 'he was too drunk'. At the committal she'd described him as 'full drunk'.

She herself had not been drinking and when the fighting erupted had taken the young children – until then sitting with their mostly 'little bit drunk' or 'half-shot' relatives – inside. It was she who called the police.

Freda Jurrah is the mother of Daphne, Ingrid and Samuel White, and the grandmother of Philomena. She is also Liam Jurrah's aunty. She was with her children at Little Sisters on the night of 7 March. She told the court she had 'never tasted grog in her life'. I felt like cheering. I thought of her again when listening to Hudson receive his sentence. After the assault, he had dragged his wife into the shower to try and clean her up and then left the house, apparently to get a towel. When he got back he had found Freda Jurrah (and her present husband) attending to her battered daughter. It was they who sought medical help. Hudson took off.


I'VE NEVER KNOWN anyone personally to arm themselves. Some men close to me have been caught up in fistfights but that's it. I was on an errand in the centre of town one weekday, about 3 pm, passing between Adelaide House and Flynn Church whose unfenced grounds open onto Todd Mall. There was an Aboriginal man walking ahead of me with an air of purpose. Suddenly he bent down and picked up a stout stick and without a glance in any direction, reached behind him and tucked it into his jeans, pulling his jacket over it. I was struck by his lack of hesitation or inhibition in arming himself – in a public place, in broad daylight.

Where do he and multiple others like him fit in the definition of the 'ordinary person similarly circumstanced' against which the jury was told to judge Liam Jurrah if they found him responsible for the attack on Basil Jurrah?

The Chief Justice provided the jury with a definition (similar to standard) of such an 'ordinary person': he would be a male of similar age 'living today in the environment and culture of a community such as Alice Springs'. He wouldn't be drunk or affected by drugs, not particularly bad tempered, or excitable or pugnacious. 'He possesses such power of self-control as everyone is entitled to expect an ordinary person of that culture and environment to have.' This assumes a degree of homogeneity in the culture and environment of Alice Springs that might be desirable from the judicial point of view but which does not currently exist.

Little Sisters camp on the night of 7 March by most witness accounts was bristling with weapons. People were picking them up and sometimes using them with devastating effect and throwing them down again. The police, however, found only a nulla nulla (a heavy hardwood hunting and fighting stick) and a metal pole. They disposed of both without any forensic testing. The officer in charge (OIC) of the investigation described their search as a 'quick look around'. The Chief Justice was incredulous. Basil Jurrah had been severely beaten, suffering multiple lacerations 'down to the skull' and six fractures to the head and face. Some forensics might have helped the jury decide who had had what in their hand, the Chief Justice told the OIC squirming in the witness box.

Basil Jurrah was not the only victim. The agreed facts revealed that a fourteen-year-old boy also suffered severe head injuries in the fracas. This was Liam Jurrah's 'little nephew', who joined the fighting on his famous uncle's side.

Freda Jurrah tried to stop the fighting. When Christopher Walker, who ultimately pleaded guilty to causing serious harm to Basil Jurrah, arrived at the camp, she and her family could hear him singing out in the darkness, 'Anybody there who wants to fight with me?' (This was the polite version. Freda's granddaughter Philomena also left out the swear words but suggested he was more provocative: 'I'm here, come and try me. I'm the murderer, come and fight.') Freda told Walker nobody wanted to fight, to go away. 'You wait till I go get my family,' he said. As the police arrived, for the first time that night, he took off. Later he returned with family, including Liam Jurrah. Freda told Liam, 'You can't fight.' He told her to 'stay away'.

During the fight Freda's daughter Ingrid, thirty-seven, was hit on the forehead with an axe by Josiah Fry, causing a four- to five-centimetre laceration. She was 'bleeding all over'. She also received a small cut to the head from Liam Jurrah but said this was an accident that happened when she got between him and the young man he was arguing with, Lemiah Woods. Her evidence put a nulla nulla in Liam Jurrah's hands and that was not contested by his counsel. She also got into a fight with another woman who hit her on the arm with a nulla nulla. She said she didn't hit back, just pushed her away.

Lemiah Woods, 'just half shot', got into a fistfight with one of Liam Jurrah's drinking companions. He said they'd come running towards him and his family and that they were all armed, with axes, crowbars, sticks and rocks. He had a crowbar too but threw it down in favour of fists. He gave as good as he got, 'fifty/fifty'. While he was fighting, he was struck from behind, possibly with an axe. He showed the court a scar on his left arm.

Daphne White armed herself with an 'iron picket' and was fighting with the fourteen-year-old (Liam Jurrah's 'little nephew'), who, she said, had a nulla nulla, and with his aunt, similarly armed. It was not clear from evidence at the trial if the fourteen-year-old's head injuries resulted from this contest but Daphne was arrested on the night and he was taken to hospital.

Reinforcements arrived from Hidden Valley town camp to stand with the Woods and White families. Among them was Basil Jurrah. He denied that the group gathered weapons at Hidden Valley to take with them and mostly insisted that he only went to Little Sisters to drink, not to fight. Essau Marshall was with him. He agreed that the group was 'fired up' because they'd heard their family members were 'threatened'. Marshall said he picked up a rock when he got there and put it in his pocket, ready to use 'in self defence'. Then a relative gave him a nulla nulla. There was no evidence that he used it. When the fighting got too hot, he took off into the scrub.

Allan Collins was also with the Hidden Valley party. His evidence put a nulla nulla in Basil Jurrah's hands during the fighting at Little Sisters. Another witness, Douglas Watson, had the group all picking up weapons at Hidden Valley before leaving for Little Sisters. He had a nulla nulla, he said, and Basil Jurrah had a machete. (At the committal Watson said the weapons had included iron bars and boomerangs, but he hadn't seen anyone with machetes.)

Liam Jurrah told police that when he and his companions were advancing into Little Sisters, the Woods and White families, supported by the Hidden Valley reinforcements, were throwing weapons at Christopher Walker – axes, machetes, wheel-spanners. He said people in his party, including women, had armed themselves with branches, ripping them from trees. He said Walker may have had an axe and many other witnesses also put an axe in Walker's hands. Josiah Fry, according to Liam, had found an axe near the railway line and he, Liam, tried to take it from him at Little Sisters. When it was put to Liam that witnesses said he was carrying a small axe and a crowbar, he admitted to carrying a machine part in the shape of a number seven which might look like an axe. Later he said he picked up a crowbar 'to pretend' he was going to fight, and he broke a piece of wood, 'a stick', from a couch, for 'self defence'. It was put to him that another witness had seen him with a knife and an axe: 'I didn't have any knife.' It was put to him that he chased Basil Jurrah with an axe and hit him with a machete: 'I had a crowbar, something I told [you] before.' He consistently denied striking Basil Jurrah and the jury believed him – or at least could not find otherwise beyond reasonable doubt.

A few days after Liam Jurrah was acquitted, two men who had been before the courts in relation to the same events (this much was known during the trial) were sentenced. They were Christopher Walker and Josiah Fry – two of Liam Jurrah's drinking companions on the night. Every account of the serious assault on Basil Jurrah – those implicating Liam Jurrah and those not – had indicated more than one assailant. It was chilling to learn from the Chief Justice now that the second assailant was unidentified. This person had struck Basil Jurrah on the head with a machete and then dealt other blows. Clearly the police investigation and the court had not got to the bottom of what had happened at Little Sisters. Walker pleaded guilty to his part in causing serious harm – with the blunt head of a small axe – but Fry's guilty plea was to lesser charges of unlawful assault on Ingrid and Samuel White. His weapon was a nulla nulla.


IF THE CHALLENGE to 'ordinariness' is stark in the town camps, it is also evident in the streets of downtown Alice Springs. During both the committal and the trial of Liam Jurrah, there were outbreaks of physical fighting and angry shouting outside the courthouse. At the committal the unrest was reported as 'rival factions square-off' while 'inside a story of tribal feuding and warring factions emerged' (Ten News, one of a number of national media organisations covering the story because of Liam Jurrah's football fame). Much the same media treatment was given to a briefer incident during the trial but this time it emerged that the crowd was swelled and emotions fuelled by a separate incident of violence on another town camp.

The trial had broken for lunch when a few punches started flying. Shouting reached a crescendo as officers came pouring out of the adjacent police station. Most of the crowd was on the lawns opposite the courthouse. Some police took up position at the edges, making their presence felt; others went up to people and started talking, to calm them down. The young men who'd engaged in fisticuffs melted away. I approached a group of women who'd withdrawn from the crowd to sit under a tree. Did they know what it was all about, I asked. A young man 'from the Granites family' had said things to upset people, they said. Yes, it was part of the feud that had been going on 'for the last four years'. There were sighs and exasperated looks. 'But I'm also upset for my daughter,' one of them said then. I looked at her. Her hair was cropped short – a sign of mourning – and she was dressed in black. 'She died on new year's eve.' It was the first time in court for the man charged with her death.


HIS COMMITTAL HEARING would start after lunch. He was nineteen years old and faced charges of attempted murder, contravention of a domestic violence order, and murder. The dead woman, his wife, had been in her early twenties. She died six days after receiving severe head injuries at Abbott's Camp on Christmas Day, 2012.

Not much happened in that hearing. The case was adjourned to a date two months hence and by the time the Jurrah trial was over for the day all was quiet. A couple of mounted police were stationed photogenically on the corner and were there again the next morning.

By now anyone covering the Liam Jurrah case was familiar with the Granites' name. In tandem with Walker, it designated one side of an infamous Warlpiri feud, said to be at the root of the fighting at Little Sisters; Watson designated the other. Both prosecution and defence dated the feud from the stabbing death of a young Watson man in September 2010. His assailants were from the Granites-Walker side. The feud had festered ever since, with greatest impact at Yuendumu – home community to the families of both sides – and despite numerous sanctions by the courts for offences along the way, as well as extensive government-sponsored efforts at mediation.

A man on the Granites-Walker side is serving time for the manslaughter of the young Watson man, known after his death as Kwementyaye in keeping with Warlpiri custom. Two other men, Dennis Nelson and Christopher Walker, had served prison terms for their actions on the same occasion. Both were drinking in the creek with Liam Jurrah on the night of 7 March and were with him again during the first incursion at Little Sisters. Dennis Nelson might have been saved from getting into more serious trouble then by being extremely drunk and was carted off by police. Christopher Walker went on, as we know, to attack Basil Jurrah.

During both committal and trial, defence counsel for Liam Jurrah, Jon Tippett, QC, tried to open up the running sore of the feud but met with strong resistance. His logic presumably was to create an impression of prejudice and antipathy tainting the evidence against his client.

Basil Jurrah is a big man, tall and heavy-set. At the committal he was led into court in prison garb. (We would learn at the trial, although not in the presence of the jury, that he had multiple convictions including riotous behaviour, going armed in public, and assault.) Scars on his head were visible through his close-cropped hair. Though he appeared to understand much of what was put to him, he spoke mostly through an interpreter.

He went to Little Sisters for 'smoke and grog', he insisted at the committal. He denied getting weapons before he went, denied obtaining a weapon later and repeatedly denied that he and his companions were intending to fight. The crack came when Tippett raised 'the trouble at Yuendumu' that involved 'Kwementyaye Watson'. He suggested Basil Jurrah was angry about the trouble. There was a long pause. Tippett repeated the proposition that he was angry, and it was translated by the interpreter.

'Yes,' said Basil finally, but again he denied that he wanted to fight the enemy.

Tippett named 'the enemy' as the Walker-Granites family. Basil Jurrah agreed but repeated that he had gone to Little Sisters for grog.

'You hated Liam Jurrah' because of the problem with Kwementyaye Watson, said Tippett.

'No,' said Basil.

'Rubbish!' said Tippett, suggesting that he was 'blaming this man' – indicating Liam in the dock – 'for nothing.'

Objection by the prosecutor; mutterings and apparently gestures in the public gallery. The magistrate asked people to sit still and make no comment.

Tippett resumed: Kwementyaye Watson's family were blaming the Walker-Granites families for his death.

It was as if a blind came down on Basil Jurrah's face. Tippett had crossed the line. Again a long pause, then Basil spoke to the interpreter, who explained the difficulty the witness was having with the questions related to 'his obligation'.

Indeed, it was 'his obligation' that had taken him to Little Sisters, Tippett proposed.

Basil agreed.

And because of those obligations he intended to fight and hurt the Walker-Granites mob, suggested Tippett.

'Yes,' said Basil.

He intended to blame people in that mob for the fight that happened, said Tippett. Pause. The interpreter translated and Basil replied: 'I seen Liam Jurrah and Christopher Walker with my own eyes.' He denied that people had told him that they were there. 'I know his face,' said Basil Jurrah.

They went through it all again, at the committal and eight months later at the trial. There was trouble taken then to keep the jury from knowing that Basil Jurrah and the witness Douglas Watson were prisoners. They were in the witness box, in civilian clothes, before the jury entered.

This time Tippett didn't go in as hard on the feud. He spent a long time trying to discredit Basil Jurrah's evidence in relation to how much he had been drinking. On his reasons for going to Little Sisters, Tippett got him to admit that he was 'a member of the Watson family' and that there was 'trouble' between them and the Walker-Granites families. He wouldn't 'press' him on what the trouble was, but got him to admit that his family talked of the Walker-Granites families as 'the enemy'. And the reason he went to Little Sisters was to fight the enemy, right?

'Yes,' answered Basil Jurrah, without the assistance of the interpreter, but immediately returning to speak through him, he again resisted all of Tippett's propositions that he and his companions intended to fight and had armed themselves. He maintained to the end that Liam Jurrah had hit him twice on the head with a machete: 'It was him that hit me', 'When I fell I saw him', 'It was him', 'Even though I was drunk and dizzy, it was him, I saw him.'

Basil Jurrah's long pauses as he gave evidence appeared to prompt the Chief Justice to speak to the jury about Aboriginal witnesses. He said his remarks were not intended to apply to Basil Jurrah specifically, but they were made halfway through his evidence. The Chief Justice spoke of the 'daunting prospect' for anyone of giving evidence in the Supreme Court with all its formality, but it was especially so for a 'relatively unsophisticated' Aboriginal person 'from a remote location'. He then referred to the 'substantial silences' from some Aboriginal witnesses before they gave their answers. In someone from a different background, the jury might think this was because they were 'fudging', but for some Aboriginal witnesses, significant silences might be their 'natural way of speaking…in ordinary conversation', said the Chief Justice. As with witnesses who kept their eyes averted (not the case with Basil Jurrah, who quite often grimly fixed Tippett with his gaze), this might be 'cultural' rather than 'evasive'.

I thought that Basil Jurrah's silences were more significant. They seemed to clearly signal that a proposition from Tippett had gone too far into Warlpiri business. His resistance was just as clear when responding to the prosecutor: asked what trouble had led him to go to Little Sisters, Basil Jurrah heaved a big sigh. He leaned in to whisper to the interpreter who then told the court, 'He doesn't want to talk about that.' The message seemed to be, this was business over which the court had no jurisdiction.

Other witnesses also wanted the court to keep its nose out of 'the trouble'. Fear of retribution might have been a factor for some, and the threat seemed real enough. On day five of the trial the female interpreter complained about intimidation by a member of the Granites family, who had warned her not to take sides. The incident had occurred during the lunch break and it was reported by the prosecutor to the Chief Justice before the jury came back in: the interpreter had come to him in a state of extreme anxiety and was unwilling to go on with her duties. The Granites woman who had spoken to her was outside in the lobby. The Chief Justice had her brought in and spoke to her sternly, warning her of the possibility of being charged with contempt of court and going to jail. Did she understand? Yes, she nodded. The interpreter was satisfied and resumed her place alongside the witness. By the end of the trial, all seemed forgotten. On the day of the verdict she sat happily in the public gallery, ensconced between Warlpiri relatives, all of them Liam Jurrah connections. 'Congratulations,' she said to him in English with a big smile, as he walked from court a free man.

She interpreted for Freda Jurrah, the first witness to be called. The prosecutor established that she had relatives on both sides of the feud. One of her children had married into the Walker-Granites family. On the other hand, it was to support the Watson family that she had come into Alice Springs from her home community of Nyirripi.

In cross-examination, Tippett put to her that the Watson family is 'blaming' the Walker-Granites family for Kwementyaye Watson's death.

'No,' said Freda Jurrah.

The Watson family is 'angry' with the Walker-Granites family, he said.


There is 'trouble' between the Watson family and the Walker-Granites family, he tried.


And through a number of further propositions he tried to lead her into agreeing that the Watsons 'blame' the Walker-Granites family for Kwementyaye's death.

No answer. Then a whispered exchange with the interpreter who told Tippett, 'She can understand but she doesn't want to tell you.'

Tippett wouldn't let it go, not even when Freda Jurrah said that it was 'another trouble' at play on the night of 7 March at Little Sisters.

He went through all his propositions again.

No, no, no, answered Freda.

'Oh!' he finally said with exaggerated irony, before moving on to another line of questioning.

'That Jon Tippett!' a court staffer muttered as we broke for morning tea. 'Everyone is trying to quell the trouble and he just tries to bring it all up again.' A member of the jury was concerned, too. He or she sent a note to the Chief Justice suggesting that the court be cleared when 'cultural reasons' for the fighting were being explored: witnesses might feel subject to influence from people in the public gallery. The Chief Justice declined to do so. He would only consider such a move in an 'extreme case', not on the basis of a 'speculated possibility'. He had been watching the gallery during questioning and had not seen anything to concern him.

Tippett continued to dig into 'the trouble' with Freda Jurrah's daughter, Ingrid White. She agreed to his proposition that she was part of the group 'on the Watson side' during the fighting at Little Sisters; agreed that the two sides had been fighting each other 'since the young man died'; that it had been going on for 'many months'. Whenever the two sides come together, they argue, he put to her.


'I won't press it,' said Tippett, but he did, going on to list the people present in her circle that night on the Watson side.

'They weren't involved with that problem,' she cut in.

Tippett persisted, but Ingrid White was firm: 'We wasn't involved with that problem so I don't want to talk about it.'

Before the fighting began Ingrid had been sitting with her mother, sister, brother and others around a fire out the front of Murray Woods' house, Number One, at Little Sisters. Although the parents of Kwementyaye Watson stop with Murray Woods when they're in Alice Springs, he told the prosecutor that people from the Walker-Granites side are 'part of my family too…I'm in the middle of them two families.'


THE OTHER POIGNANT evidence about being in the middle came from Liam Jurrah himself. He was never in the witness box but video of the interview he gave to police was played to the court. The uncontested victim of serious harm on the night was his cousin, Basil Jurrah. How did two Jurrahs end up on opposing sides of the feud?

Although he consistently denied wanting to fight and rejected utterly the proposition that he had hit Basil Jurrah, Liam Jurrah did admit to getting angry at Little Sisters. He said he was at the back of the group 'rushing in' when he 'heard someone calling my name. That's when I got angry but I didn't have any fight with no one.'

What was he getting angry at, asked the OIC.

'They was saying I didn't respect anybody, I don't want to know my old man as well and my grandfather. All you want to do is to come here and be with your mother's family.'

Is that rude, asked the OIC.

'It sort of made me feel…' Frustratingly, the recording was inaudible for the rest of this sentence.

'Rude' didn't seem to be quite the right term. The taunts had hit a real sore point. Any observer of Aboriginal life in Central Australia begins to understand something of the defining importance for an Aboriginal person of whom they are related to. In Liam Jurrah's case, he seems to have largely missed out on a close relationship with his father and father's family.

Anthropologist Yasmine Musharbash, author of Yuendumu Everyday (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2008), describes the Warlpiri ideal of a stable marriage where children grow up in their parents' camp, but she says this ideal is 'rarely the norm' today. So children often live in jilimi (women's camp), 'sometimes with their mothers, or more regularly with their grandmothers'. The paternal grandmother relationship has a special status and it is 'emotionally often close, caring and comfortable', writes Musharbash. For Liam Jurrah, though, it was his maternal grandmother, Cecily Granites, who raised him.

Tall stature and good looks seem to run in the family. Although she has arthritis in her knees, Cecily Granites appears youthful for a great-grandmother. She and Liam are clearly close. When he first moved to Melbourne to play professional football, she went with him and took the opportunity to enrol in a course to improve her English – 'your language', she stressed with a smile when telling me this. She used to work as a teacher at the Yuendumu school but the feud has completely disrupted her life. Her house in Yuendumu was destroyed during a rampage by the opposing family and she told me she has recently been spending most of her time in Adelaide, South Australia.

Liam had been staying with her at the Alice Springs visitors' park on the night of the fighting. She was often present in court during the trial along with many other members of her extended family. As Liam was free to come and go from the courthouse, he almost always took his breaks with them. He'd come to life in their company, talking, laughing, cuddling babies, playing gentle tussling games with the little kids and computer games with the older, adoring boys.

During the committal, one of his relatives and senior Warlpiri man, Rex Granites Japanangka, had distributed to the media a typed single page – 'Statement regarding Liam Jurrah Jungurrayi'. He signed it and gave his qualifications: 'BA, Education, Elder, Mediator and Interpreter.' It was a call for help, wanting the government and the court to 'support the authority of family elders'. He described Liam Jurrah as an example of young Aboriginal men not listening to their elders. Liam's 'young father' had 'left his family early in Liam's life, and he did not have a strong male role model in his family to provide discipline,' he said. 'We elders taught Liam the basics of ceremony, but he still has a lot to learn.' He wrote of 'several young men who have been misbehaving' and they had asked Liam to help: 'Liam made the decision on his own…He did not consult us.'

This gives perhaps some idea of the emotional context for Liam Jurrah's reactions in the escalating situation at Little Sisters. The taunts began again. 'They started calling out, "I'm not Jurrah",' he told the OIC in his police interview.

'That made you mad?'

'I'm a Jurrah,' he said with emphasis, then attempted to explain: 'It's pretty complicated between Jurrah versus Jurrah.'


THE FIGHTING AT Little Sisters was not only 'a tale of two Jurrahs'. Everyone or almost everyone involved was related, to Liam Jurrah and to one another. How long have you known Liam Jurrah, they were all asked. 'He's my nephew,' said Freda Jurrah. 'He's my cousin, I talk to him anytime,' said her son, Samuel White. 'My uncle,' said her granddaughter, Philomena White.

Philomena had grown up in Yuendumu, as had Liam. She said she saw him hit Basil Jurrah twice on the head with a machete. In cross-examination, Tippett made much of the dark conditions and suggested that she may have confused Liam with Josiah Fry.

Didn't Fry have a haircut like Liam's, wasn't he tall like him?

'Little bit.'

Didn't he have the same build?

'No.' She was quite clear about that.

Daphne White, as Freda's daughter, is Liam's cousin. She'd known him a 'long time'. She gave evidence of him being armed with an iron bar, running towards her together with others.

How did she recognise him in the dark, Tippett challenged.

'He was taller than them.'

Didn't she have trouble seeing in the dark?

'I could see.'

Tippett persevered: she couldn't see who was fighting because it was too dark.

'I can see the fighting, I was busy fighting too,' Daphne insisted.

I was reminded of Musharbash in the jilimi at night: 'When we sat around the fire telling stories and someone or other came towards us in the dark, I used to be perplexed by everybody but me recognising who was approaching long before I could see their faces in the firelight. However, it was not Warlpiri people's night vision that was superior to mine, but their knowledge of others, and of others' bodies.'

The prosecutor made much the same point in his summing up. The eyewitnesses – 'all family, blood or skin way' – knew Liam Jurrah very well, he argued. Even apart from him being a tall man, they would have been 'very familiar with his voice, his physique, the way he walked'. They hadn't just seen him, they recognised him.

Daphne, even as she was busy fighting, said she heard Liam's voice. 'Let's hit her,' he was saying in Warlpiri. (It was not clear whom he was supposed to be referring to.) Several witnesses spoke of hearing Christopher Walker call out from the darkness. They all said they recognised him by his voice.

There were some attempts to explore the Warlpiri distinctions between 'blood' and 'skin' relationships in the trial. Murray Woods, the old man 'in the middle of them two families', described Liam Jurrah as his 'grandson'. Was it this relationship perhaps that led Liam to show him some consideration during the fighting? Woods said he saw Liam try to hit Woods' son, Lemiah, on the head and saw him actually hit the windscreen of Woods' car. But he also spoke of when he, Woods, was hit and punched from behind and became dizzy: Liam 'got hold of me and sat me down in a chair'. Then Liam took him away from the fighting, to a neighbouring house: 'He made sure I was all right.'

Woods' 'grandfather' relationship to Liam may have been 'skin way', meaning a classificatory relationship within the Warlpiri kinship system; it was not specified in court. But when 34-year-old Allan Collins, a companion of Basil Jurrah's on the night, described himself as Liam's 'young grandfather', Tippett wanted clarification: 'There are blood relationships and other relationships.' The Chief Justice was also uncertain about the term – 'except in relation to myself', he quipped. The prosecutor tried to elucidate with further questions. 'I'm Leo Jurrah's young uncle,' said Collins – Leo being Liam's father, which makes Collins 'young grandfather' to Leo's son.

'Blood way or skin way?' asked the prosecutor.

'Skin way.'

'I'm not sure we can do better than that,' said the Chief Justice.

In his summing up, the prosecutor tried to draw some conclusions about what people's inter-connection might mean, although he was generalising about 'Indigenous Australians', not Warlpiri. Tippett had tried from the outset to suggest that the testimony against his famous client was an attempt to 'bring him down' because he was 'a standout', 'head and shoulders above' the rest. The prosecutor refuted this 'tall poppy syndrome' argument. Isn't it 'a cultural nuance' associated with European Australia, he asked. He urged the jurors to consider it in the light of their own life experience, but he hadn't seen too many Indigenous Australians 'wanting to cut down one of their own'. Tippett later expressed concern that the prosecutor was trying to 'get in as an expert on Indigenous culture'. The Chief Justice seemed to think it was dangerous ground and told him to 'tread carefully'.

There are degrees and degrees of being 'one of their own'. Essau Marshall gave devastating evidence about his 'countryman' Liam Jurrah. He spoke for himself, not through an interpreter, in a clear, deep voice, meeting both prosecutor and defence with a steady gaze. He said Liam was 'pounding' Basil Jurrah with a machete, 'celebrating' as he did so, chanting 'BJ, BJ, BJ!'

'Countryman' in Aboriginal English, according to Musharbash, translates Warlpiri concepts that can include family connection, long-term cohabitation or belonging to a certain place. But in the events on 7 March, Marshall's loyalty was explicitly to his 'cousins', Allan Collins and Basil Jurrah. At Little Sisters he'd prepared to fight 'just to defend my two cousins', he said. When he ran off into the scrub, 'thinking to my two cousins' had caused him to turn around, which is how he saw the attack on Basil Jurrah.

Liam Jurrah's interview with police was peppered with relationship references. He seemed to prefer to talk about people in this way. Even when asked to name them, which he would, he would then revert to the relationship designation. So when he was talking of being down the creek drinking, he spoke of one of his companions as 'one of my cousins married to other cousin'. This was Josiah Fry, whom he consistently referred to as 'cousin', even when others cousins were in the picture. The relationships Liam spoke of included 'my little cousin' (un-named); 'my little nephew' who was hit on the head (named); 'my sister', the nephew's mother (un-named); Basil, of course ('my cousin'); 'my little uncle' (named) and 'my little cousin' (named), to both of whom he claimed to have given the axe that he'd wrested from Fry's hand; 'my cousin', a woman (named), the owner of a car who took the injured 'little nephew' back to the visitors' park from where he was conveyed to hospital; 'other families' (not specified); 'my aunty Freda' – the only time he joined a given name to the relationship designation.

Naming people by their kin relations is the way Warlpiri 'describe everyday realities', says Musharbash. Because of the emphasis that this seems to put on relationship, it might be assumed that a special closeness is implied. But, as Musharbash says, a 'multitude of gradations exist within these relations, involving a range of interactions…most Warlpiri can trace genealogical links to each other one way or another, and all of them can trace a classificatory link, but not all of them live together – or even like each other, for that matter'. She draws attention to 'the fact that Warlpiri relationships, and often especially close relationships, are fraught with tensions'. This can lead to relations slowly deteriorating or they can be 'ruptured swiftly and suddenly'.

Despite all the obvious tensions of the long-standing feud and within the Jurrah family, Liam Jurrah still cited his relationship to Basil Jurrah as the reason for throwing down his weapon: 'As soon as I saw Basil, I threw it away. He's my cousin.' When he went back to the visitors' park after the fighting, he said he tried to calm everyone down, 'but I was worried about Basil as well 'cause he's my cousin.'


WHEN THE CHIEF Justice sentenced Peter Hudson for the assault on his wife, Daphne White, he commented on the 'tragically commonplace' nature of the crime – 'a drunken Aboriginal man violently [assaulting] his drunken Aboriginal wife or some other vulnerable person'. He also expressed a sense of futility in his role: imposing severe sentences 'is to address the problem after the damage has been done'. An obvious step, in his view, 'would be to limit the flow of alcohol' to people like Hudson. But this isn't being done, or not adequately, and in his experience, the situation is getting worse: 'The terrible problems we now see are destined to be repeated in the next generation. It seems it is all too hard.'

He had cause to make similar comments when just a few days later he sentenced Christopher Walker and Josiah Fry for their part in the fighting at Little Sisters. Both had been drinking that night (in great quantity as we've seen from Liam Jurrah's account given to police) and both had, according to the sentencing remarks, long-term drinking problems. The Chief Justice regarded Walker's prospects of rehabilitation as poor, but he had more hope for Fry, ordering him into residential rehab immediately upon release from jail.

He gave a brief account of both men's lives to date. Walker's parents separated when he was three or four. His mother took him to Adelaide for a while, then gave him to his maternal grandmother to look after at Hermannsburg, an Aboriginal community quite close to Alice Springs. His paternal grandmother sometimes had him too, at various places including Murray Bridge in South Australia. He was returned to his father when he was thirteen (a typical age for initiation although it was not mentioned in his case). He spent significant periods living with family at Warlpiri Camp in Alice Springs. He went to school only occasionally, but speaks English reasonably well. He has had some work with Community Development Employment Projects.

Fry was born in Adelaide and began school there. His parents separated when he was ten because of his father's heavy drinking. He moved with his mother to Alice Springs and again went to school. He can read and write English although he left school at thirteen after his Warlpiri initiation. He can play keyboards and guitar and was a good footballer in the past. His mother has worked, including in 'responsible employment', but he has never worked. His father worked 'sporadically'.

Fry began drinking when he was eighteen, regularly getting 'full drunk' although he claimed not to have been quite so affected on 7 March. He has convictions for traffic offences including driving under the influence. He also has convictions for going armed in public, damaging property, breaching a domestic violence order, engaging in violent conduct (for which he was fined $500) and breaching bail.

Walker has a history of increasingly serious violence, all of it associated with excessive drinking. In March 2006 he was sentenced to six months for an aggravated assault, and to eighteen months for causing grievous harm. In July 2006, he was again convicted of aggravated assault and sentenced to three months. In October 2007, he was released on a good behaviour bond for threatening with a weapon. He pleaded guilty to the September 2010 aggravated assault on Kwementyaye Watson's brother and was sentenced to fourteen months, suspended after five. He'd been out of jail just over a week when he savagely assaulted Basil Jurrah at Little Sisters. 'It seems you did not learn a lesson from your time in prison,' the Chief Justice observed.

Walker's other criminal history goes back to a first conviction in the juvenile court in 2005. It includes unlawful entry of buildings, stealing, unlawful use of a motor vehicle, breaching orders for release, failing to comply with a restraining order and traffic matters.

Warlpiri elder Rex Granites in his statement of July 2012 asked 'the court to help us restore our traditional role of teaching and disciplining young men so they will grow up in the next generation and stop these cycles of family problems'. It was not clear how he thought this could be done, although he did take a swipe at 'a new system of authority based on money' introduced since the settlement of Australia. 'We teach our young people, but they don't have to listen because they can get what they want from the government. That includes grog and drugs,' he said.

Meanwhile, the 'next generation' already has another on the way. Liam Jurrah at twenty-four years old has a six-year-old son, whom he sees but the boy does not live permanently with him. Walker, at the same age, has two children, aged six and four. He's been in and out of jail for all of their lives and won't be out again now, at the earliest, until March 2015. Fry, twenty-one years old, is also the father of one. His wife apparently intends to stand by him. She'll move to the remote community north-east of Alice where he has been ordered to live after completing rehab. Here, a long way from Warlpiri lands but with the support of his mother and a maternal aunt, the Chief Justice hopes he'll begin to 'make a life' for himself and his family.

1 June 2013

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