The plight of the Aboriginal person in the Northern Territory legal system is truly awful. That goes not only for Aboriginal people facing criminal charges, but those who are victims of crime as well.
A 53 year old white male, Shane Elward, was in Darwin Magistrates Court yesterday as a result of an incident last year in a car park when he hit an Aboriginal woman who was lying on the ground. He got out of the car and, apparently, after being told by a witness that the woman was drunk and would be okay, went into a nearby entertainment venue. Elward was drinking at the bar when another woman came into the club and requested help, because the women he struck was dying.
The prosecution had planned to charge Elward with a range of serious charges, but withdrew them, and Magistrate Dick Wallace handed down a $400 fine for failing to drive with due care, but did not take Elward’s license.
Wallace, according to media reports this morning, essentially said that it’s common in the Territory for drivers to run over Aboriginal people lying on the road or in car parks, because they are hard to see.
“It’s clearly the case that an Aboriginal person in the dark on the bitumen or other places is extremely hard to see,” he said. “It’s easy to imagine how such an accident could happen,” Wallace said.
The decision is troubling on a number of fronts.
Firstly, the perception among some lawyers and human rights activists that the NT justice system is a “white person’s system” is reinforced by what appears to be lenient treatment of the defendant in this case. Even though the defendant is no doubt mortified by what happened, and had absolutely no intention of harming the victim, the reality is that this accident caused a death and the courts generally will impose a penalty that accords with that sad fact. A $400 fine is the sort of penalty one would get for a road accident in which no one was injured.
Secondly, if an Aboriginal person ran over a white victim lying drunk on the ground, would the prosecutors’ and police have been prepared to agree to withdraw serious charges such as recklessly causing injury? Would a court describe it as simply “bad luck”, as was the case here?
And what about the conduct of the witness who told the defendant that he did not have to stop and help the victim because she was drunk and would be okay? Does this not suggest that that the human life of Aboriginal Territorians is worth less than that of white people?
Oh, and where are all the victims’ rights advocates this morning? Why aren’t they hitting the airwaves and the newspapers with outraged commentary about the leniency of the sentence in this case? Is it because the victim is an Aboriginal woman in the Northern Territory? You bet it is. How sad.