October 1, 2007 - 2:04AM
A police officer who fatally shot an Aboriginal teenager in a remote Top End community had failed a firearms instructor's course just over a year earlier, an inquest into the death has heard.
Robert Jongmin, 18, was shot twice in the back during rioting in October 2002 at Wadeye, 350km south-west of Darwin.
Senior Constable Robert Whittington, a married father of one, was charged with murder over the incident, but after protracted court proceedings the Northern Territory Supreme Court quashed the charge.
Three judges dismissed an appeal, but proceedings stalled in February this year when the Director of Public Prosecutions decided not to take the matter to the High Court.
The shooting happened during a large payback fight between rival family members at the community oval.
When the teenager died, the community turned into a war zone as people trashed houses, torched cars and vandalised public property.
A 10-day coronial inquest into the death which started at Wadeye heard Snr Const Whittington had trouble with shooting and had failed a course 14 months before the incident.
"Senior Constable Whittington had general difficulty shooting the Glock pistol, particularly over long distances," said counsel assisting the coroner Philip Strickland CS.
"The senior constable failed the firearms instructor course. The instructor says he did so because he failed to meet the test performance criteria."
Mr Strickland told the court he failed to achieve the accuracy required because of difficulty using his right eye.
In addition, Mr Strickland said the constable shot Robert Jongmin from a distance of 40 metres when the training course only covered proficiency up to 12 metres.
But Mr Strickland said the constable's instructors were of the opinion he met the minimum requirements for an operational member of the police force.
The inquest continues.
More White mans Just arse
Northern Territory Police senior constable Robert Gregory Whittington allegedly drew his Glock semi-automatic pistol on October 23, 2002 and fired four shots during a violent confrontation between two gangs of Indigenous youths at the Wadeye Aboriginal community. One 18-year-old man died with a bullet in the back and another was hit in the arm. Constable Whittington will not stand trial over the shooting incident. Why? Because of a legal technicality that has nothing to do with his guilt or innocence. And the decision is likely further deepen the mistrust within the Indigenous community of a justice system run by white men.
The technicality that has allowed Const Whittington to walk away without having to face trial has to do the charges he faced at various times – murder, manslaughter and committing a dangerous act – and the way they were laid.
The policeman, who at the time was the officer in charge at Wadeye, was originally charged with two counts of committing a dangerous act after Robert Jongmin was shot dead and Tobias Worumbu wounded.
The shooting occurred during a confrontation between two gangs, the Judas Priests and the Evil Warriors, on the oval at Wadeye. At Const Whittington’s committal in 2004, witnesses said Mr Worumbu had been armed with a shotgun and Mr Jongmin had wrestled with him before the gun dropped to the ground and discharged. After the shotgun discharged Const Whittingon allegedly fired off four quick shots.
At the end of the committal Magistrate Anthony Gillies said there was sufficient evidence to lay a charge of murder and a third charge of committing a dangerous act against the police officer.
But sometime before the Const Whittington’s murder trial was due to start in October 2005, the charges were downgraded to one charge of manslaughter and one charge of committing a dangerous act. Then the trial was postponed while the defence went to the NT Supreme Court arguing a number of points of law, including that the case should not go ahead because the prosecution could not prove which of the four bullets from Const Whittington’s pistol killed Mr Jongmin.
In March 2006 the NT Supreme Court ruled the case should go ahead.
Then the prosecution dropped the manslaughter charge and instead issued a fresh indictment with just one charge against Const Whittington of committing a dangerous act. This prompted the policeman’s defence team to go back to the Supreme Court to argue that under the NT Police Administration Act, such a charge should have been laid within two months of the original incident.
The Supreme Court agreed and quashed the charge.
The Northern Territory’s director of public prosecutions then appealed to the Court of Criminal Appeal, with Crown Prosecutor John Tippet, QC, arguing time constraints did not apply because it was an alleged abuse of police power. On Monday the court dismissed the appeal (the decision will be published at a later date).
The DPP initially indicated it would appeal to the High Court, but earlier today issued a statement saying the matter was being dropped and it would take no further action.
“The DPP has been advised by independent senior counsel that a further appeal to the High Court is not recommended and the director has now conveyed that information to the father of the deceased,” the statement said. “The matter is now at an end.”
Const Whittington spent four years suspended on full pay and is already back at work. His legal costs were paid for by the NT government.
Which no doubt leaves the inhabitants of Wadeye wondering what happened to the “just” in justice.