Trial in Darwin
At the coroner's hearing in July 1934 two divergent versions of McColl's death were presented. The key witnesses were Aboriginal men, Harry and Parraner, who recounted their conversations with Dhakiyarr about the spearing of McColl. Harry, whose name was Makarohla, was described as a 'mission boy from Milingimbi' (300 kilometres from Woodah Island), said that Dhakiyarr had confessed to the murder, but said that he had been defending his wife, Djaparri. Parraner, from Dhakiyarr's country, gave evidence through tracker and translator 'Big Pat', that Dhakiyarr, unprovoked, had arranged with Djaparri to spear McColl. With conflicting testimony about motivation, Dhakiyarr was committed for the murder of Albert McColl, and his trial was set for August.
Statements by Harry and Parraner at the coronial inquest into the death of Constable McColl, 27 July 1934.
NAA: A432, 1934/1437, pp.244, 250–251
Controversy over the evidence
But where was the evidence? Without eyewitnesses, Crown prosecution lawyers asked, was there any chance that Dhakiyarr could be convicted?
As the prosecutors prepared the case against Dhakiyarr, another heated controversy erupted. Could Djaparri, Dhakiyarr's wife, legally give evidence against Dhakiyarr? White women could not testify against their husbands. What about Aboriginal women? Would it be possible to find other witnesses? And if they were found, could they be persuaded to come to Darwin? Should they be arrested and forced to come to Darwin?
Violence in apprehending innocent Aboriginal witnesses was the last thing the federal government of Prime Minister Joseph Lyons wanted. Northern Territory Supreme Court Judge TA Wells intimated to the Northern Territory Administrator that if the Crown prosecution did not make 'every endeavour' to produce all available witnesses, he would 'make public comment on that fact'. Minister for the Interior JA Perkins took the problem to Cabinet where it was agreed that a 'native guide' be sent from the Groote Eylandt mission station to persuade any witnesses – but not wives – to come to Darwin. Although the Administrator made strenuous efforts to implement the decisions, the missionary at Groote Eylandt just as strenuously refused to assist the government.
Cabinet paper on the Woodah Island murder case, 1934.
NAA: A6006, 1934/12/31, pp.1–2
The case against Dhakiyarr
Dhakiyarr's trial was set to begin on 3 August 1934. Like the trial of Lindy and Michael Chamberlain in the early 1980s, Dhakiyarr's case drew national and international attention to the Northern Territory's legal processes.
At the trial, lacking eyewitnesses, Dhakiyarr's admission to Parraner, translated by Big Pat, was the sole evidence. As the proceedings were entirely in English, Dhakiyarr was neither able to understand what was happening, nor to recount his version of the events. Judge Wells, a source of worry to the Attorney-General's Department because of his harsh views on punishing Aboriginal criminals, did not know that JA Carrodus, the senior officer of the Department of the Interior, who had been sent to Darwin as Acting Administrater in March that year, was taking detailed notes of his remarks and summing up.
Notes taken at Dhakiyarr's trial by JA Carrodus, Chief Clerk of the Department of the Interior.
NAA: A1, 1936/4022 Part 2, pp.211–225
Towards the end of the three-day trial Wells allowed the prosecutor to call a character witness in favour of McColl, and in his summing up described Harry's story, that Dhakiyarr had killed McColl in an effort to protect Djaparri, as an 'improbable concoction'.
Verdict and sentence
The jury found Dhakiyarr guilty. Immediately after the finding was announced, Dhakiyarr's defence counsel, WJP Fitzgerald, sensationally announced that Dhakiyarr had confirmed Parraner's story of unmotivated attack. Judge Wells made no secret of his delight at the news. After hearing some evidence on punishment, on 6 August 1934, Wells sentenced Dhakiyarr to hang within 28 days.
Northern Territory Supreme Court order, 6 August 1934.
NAA: A1, 1936/4022 Part 2, pp.103, 104
Administrator Weddell wasted no time in cabling the Department of the Interior about the results of Dhakiyarr's (Tuckiar's) trial:
URGENT CLEAR THE LINE
Tuckiar murder McColl sentenced to death
(NAA: A431, 1934/1437, p. 271)
The trial was over, but not the controversy. The next day Chief Protector Cecil Cook applied to the Northern Territory Administrator for a commutation of the sentence and within days Governor-General Sir Isaac Isaacs signed an ordinance enabling a stay of execution.
Minute from the Attorney-General's Department recommending the Governor-General postpone Dhakiyarr's execution.
NAA: A1, 1936/4022 Part 2, p.119