WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains an image of a person who has died, which has been used with the permission of his family.
Just a few metres away, 19-year-old Kumanjayi Walker lay dying after being shot three times by a police officer during a failed arrest attempt.
Three years on from the shooting, Fernandez-Brown took the stand as the first witness in the coronial inquest into Walker’s death.
“It’s a common theme in the conversations that I had (in the community) that if this was a kardiya, or a white person, the treatment would be vastly different,” she told the court.
For the family and community of Walker, Fernandez-Brown says the inquest has been both liberating and shocking.
Earlier this year, the officer responsible for the shooting, Constable Zachary Rolfe, was found not guilty of murder following a six-week trial.
He was acquitted of all charges and has maintained employment with the Northern Territory Police Force.
For three years, Fernandez-Brown and her family have grappled with the pain of losing a family member and felt the burden of a community torn apart by grief.
Over the last two months, those wounds have been ripped open all over again as new evidence of racism and prior use of force by Rolfe have come to light in the inquiry.
“I can’t really say it’s healing. You’d expect it to be with all this information coming to light but in reality, it’s quite devastating,” Fernandez-Brown said.
“We’re so glad it’s readily available to the public and it’s been brought before the inquest.
“But there’s also this feeling of anger and disappointment and sadness, that this wasn’t involved in the murder trial.”
A coronial inquest isn’t bound by the same rules of evidence as a criminal trial, meaning the scope of what can be brought before the court is significantly wider.
This has allowed a raft of new evidence to be aired, including a series of text messages downloaded from Rolfe’s phone following his arrest in 2019.
Thousands of texts were obtained by police and a select few have been the subject of significant scrutiny.
In several exchanges, Rolfe and other officers – including a high-ranking member of the NT Police Force – used slurs like “c–ns”, “n—–” and “Neanderthals” to describe Aboriginal people.
Several body-worn videos showing confronting footage of arrests involving Rolfe have also been the subject of significant interest throughout the inquest.
“This inquest has opened up the conversation and the lens even wider with the very real and very clear systemic issues that exist within the NT Police Force,” Fernandez-Brown said.
Since the inquest began, the family has been waiting for Rolfe to take the stand.
When asked what she’d hoped would come of his evidence, it’s clear Fernandez-Brown isn’t interested in apologies – she’s interested in honesty.
“I’m hoping for truth-telling, for genuine honesty around his actions, owning his language,” she said.
On Wednesday, Rolfe appeared before the inquest.
The officer and former soldier refused to answer questions that may result in self-incrimination.
His lawyers requested Coroner Elisabeth Armitage grant their client a certificate ensuring any evidence he gives can’t be used as a basis for further disciplinary action.
His legal team has also launched further action in the NT Supreme Court on the basis that even if a certificate is granted, it may not go far enough in protecting Rolfe from internal police investigations.
If successful, the action could limit the ability of the coroner to compel him to answer questions.
Rolfe was given leave until both matters are resolved – a disappointing outcome for the family and community of Yuendumu who say they’re tired of waiting.
Some of the officers involved in the texts have already appeared as witnesses and were questioned about their use of racist language.
One officer and close friend of Rolfe’s, Constable Mitchell Hansen, told the court he was “embarrassed” and “ashamed” by his involvement in the messages.
Fernandez-Brown said she finds their response difficult to accept.
“Being racist is not a new concept,” she said.
“They know what racism is and they should have known what racism is and they should have known what is right and what is wrong, particularly working with a high Indigenous population in the NT.”
But it’s not just Rolfe who Fernandez-Brown says needs to take responsibility.
“It’s my opinion that the police force have the same amount as Rolfe, if not more, to answer for,” she said.
“To get to the root of the issue and to stop anything happening again, action needs to happen on a systemic level.”
While the inquest has been a painful and exhausting experience for the Yuendumu community, Fernandez-Brown said she still has hope something positive can be achieved.
“You’re hopeful, really, really hopeful that there’s going to be a level of change that comes out of this inquest and hopeful that the amount of time, energy, grief, mourning this whole process has taken, we all hope there is light at the end of the tunnel,” she said.
“But it’s only hope until there’s action.”
Fernandez-Brown said she wants to see harsher disciplinary action for those involved in the racist texts and for the NT Police Force to implement more transparent systems for reviewing police conduct.
The community is also urging the coroner to make recommendations about the use of firearms in remote communities and changes to cultural training for police.
“For me, this is a really, really important process but it’s going to be for nothing if real change doesn’t come out of it.”
The inquest is ongoing with Rolfe expected to take the stand again at a later date.