The death of Azaria Chamberlain and the subsequent legal and media storm.
Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.
DON'T CONFUSE ME WITH THE FACTS
THE DEATH OF AZARIA CHAMBERLAIN AND ITS OUTCOMES
This essay covers in only the briefest form, the events of August 1980, the subsequent legal activities, and the widespread community speculation about responsibility. These culminated in a final inquest in 2012 which formally exonerated Lindy and Michael Chamberlain of any responsibility for the death of their daughter, Azaria.
This case attracted wholesale media attention, both in Australia and subsequently internationally. This was long before the advent of social media forums such as Facebook and Twitter. It is not possible to speculate on the extent of the social media activity had these forums been available. As it was, news media outlets ran the story over many years, including biased and factually inaccurate material. This spread across Australia, with some estimates suggesting opinion was split approximately 50/50 as to those who believed Lindy Chamberlain killed her daughter and those who did not.
The belief in Lindy’s guilt spread rapidly from two main sources. Firstly, her demeanour at the first inquest and at subsequent hearings. She held herself aloof, showing little emotion or apparent grief over the loss of her child. This was interpreted by shallow and uneducated opinion as evidence of guilt. Lindy later commented she did not want to create a public display of emotion, but in her restraint, she effectively displayed a different form of emotion. By not doing, she did.
The second focus was on her and her husband’s Seventh Day Adventist beliefs. While the Seventh Day Adventists are not really part of mainstream religious beliefs, there is nothing weird or paranormal about them. Seventh Day Adventists believe Saturday is the Sabbath (Seventh Day) and Christ’s return to earth is imminent (Adventists). This hardly constitutes a rational basis for ideas about Azaria having been the subject of ritual sacrifice.
A further rumour spread from the suggestion of marks on the jumpsuit having been the imprint of a child’s hand. This led to claims of Azaria’s brother, Aidan, then aged only six, having been responsible for her death. Subsequent evidence of the marks not being a handprint removed any basis for the suggestion, apart from paranoid minds operating on the principle, “My mind is made up, don’t confuse me with the facts.”
A retrospective view of media involvement in this case was provided by the Sydney Morning Herald in June 2012. The full article appears here:
This paragraph sums up well the prevailing media ethos in 1980 and thereafter, and which still appears today in some forums:
“The case was news for years, and, as with such stories, some parts of the media could never get enough. Some journalists were feral, and many had no decency. It sometimes seemed as if everyone in Australia had a vehement view about it, and even many who were agnostic found themselves drawn into the speculation, the cruel jokes, the amateur ethology and psychology focused on how mothers behave after the sudden death of children, the natural behaviour of dingoes, and the strange supposed habits of Seventh Day Adventists.”
This had led to a spate of unpleasant “jokes” surrounding dingoes and missing babies, many of which are unfit to repeat here. Footnote 1
The idea spread internationally. In “The Stranded” episode of Seinfeld (Season 3, Episode 10), in 1991, Elaine uses a mock Australian accent, exclaiming "Maybe the dingo ate your baby!" Without, I suspect, having any idea of the pain or dismay which this incident caused. It’s a black mark against anyone who would use such a saying just to get a laugh.
Lindy Chamberlain, now Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton was born Alice Lynne Murchinson on 4 March 1948 in Whakatane, New Zealand. In 1950, her family moved to Australia. Her father was a pastor in the Seventh Day Adventist church, and was appointed to new churches quite frequently.
On 18 November 1969, she married Michael Leigh Chamberlain, also a Seventh Day Adventist pastor. Their first child, Aidan Leigh Chamberlain was born on 2 October 1973.
The Chamberlains moved to northern Queensland and Reagan Michael Chamberlain was born on 16 April 1976. Azaria Chantel Loren Chamberlain was born at Mt. Isa, Queensland, on 11 June 1980.
In August 1980, the Chamberlain family was on a camping trip at Uluru (also known as Ayers Rock), 208 miles south-west of Alice Springs. On 17 August, nine-week-old Azaria Chamberlain disappeared from a tent at the campsite.
The Chamberlains claimed she had been taken by a dingo; Lindy claimed she had heard Azaria cry at around 2.00 am, and called out, “A dingo took my baby”. This is significant as those words subsequently became a catchphrase, used in many inappropriate circumstances. Azaria's body was never found.
Later that month, a tourist found Azaria's torn jumpsuit, booties, singlet and nappy near Uluru.
On 15 December 1980, an initial coronial inquest opened in Alice Springs. Coroner Denis Barritt supported the Chamberlain’s claim that a dingo had taken their child, although he did suggest an unknown person had later interfered with the child’s clothes. This finding was supported by evidence from Les Harris, an expert on dingo behaviour, as to the likelihood of dingoes attacking humans. He concluded:
“In considering the questions:
1. Could a dingo have taken the baby?
2. Could a dingo or dingoes have removed its clothing?
3. Could a dingo or dingoes have totally consumed the baby?
my answers, based on many years of observation of dingoes in their natural
habitat and in captivity, would be:
1. Yes, with ease.
2. Probably yes.
3. Yes, without any doubt.”
However, rumours started to become widespread, and suspicion focused on Lindy Chamberlain. These rumours centred on Ms Chamberlain’s demeanour at the inquest as it was suggested she did not show the grief expected of a mother whose child has been taken by a wild animal. She appeared calm and under control and showed no distress in answering questions put to her.
This issue was exacerbated by a general lack of understanding of the Seventh Day Adventist faith, and there were suggestions that Azaria had been sacrificed in some form of pagan ritual. Rumours spread as to the name Azaria meaning "desert sacrifice" (Uluru being in the desert). In fact, it is a Hebrew name meaning “rose”, “helped by God" or “God helps”.
Investigations continued however,and on 18 November 1981 the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory quashed the findings of the first inquest, and directed another inquest to be held. A second inquest held by the Coroner Mr G. P. Galvin began on 14 December 1981. The full details of this inquest are to be found at:
Suffice it to say, based primarily on the evidence of blood-stains in the Chamberlains’ car, the condition of the recovered clothing and a lack of any concrete evidence as to the presence of dingoes, the coroner committed Mrs Chamberlain on a charge of having murdered her daughter, Azaria. He also committed her husband, Michael Chamberlain to be tried on a charge of accessory after the fact.
Lindy Chamberlain was tried in the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory and was found guilty of the murder of her daughter, Azaria. She was sentenced to life imprisonment and subsequent appeals, eventually to the High Court (equivalent of the US Supreme Court) failed to have her conviction overturned. Her husband was convicted as an accessory after the fact but was given a suspended sentence.
Full details of the trial can be found at
Ms Chamberlain served three years in gaol until, late in 1986, two pieces of exculpatory evidence were found. The first was the discovery of a missing matinee jacket in a dingo lair close to the foot of Uluru. Lindy had insisted that Azaria had been wearing such an item, but it wasn!t found for six years. The discovery was entirely fortuitous; a climber had fallen to his death and in the search for his body, the matinee jacket was found. Secondly, a report stated that the stains found inside the Chamberlain’s vehicle were not blood at all. The manufacturers of the paint compound used to protect the bodywork confirmed a sample provided was their product and not blood. This had taken longer than necessary because of language difficulties with the manufacturer in the Netherlands..
These discoveries led to Lindy’s immediate release from gaol, and a Royal Commission was set up in late 1987 under Justice Trevor Morling to inquire into the circumstances surrounding the trial. Full details of the Royal Commission are shown here:
There was a huge amount of evidence and material to be considered, and the full report runs to over 400 pages. However, the following points are significant in Justice Morling’s conclusions:
“However, with the benefit of hindsight it can be seen that some experts who gave evidence at the trial were over-confident of their ability to form reliable opinions on matters that lay on the outer margins of their fields of expertise. Some of their opinions were based on unreliable or inadequate data. It was not until more research work had been done after the trial that some of these opinions were found to be of doubtful validity or wrong. Other evidence was given at the trial by experts who did not have the experience, facilities or resources necessary to enable them to express reliable opinions on some of the novel and complex scientific issues which arose for consideration. “
“It follows from what I have written that there are serious doubts and questions as to the Chamberlains' guilt and as to the evidence in the trial leading to their conviction. In my opinion, if the evidence before the Commission had been given at the trial, the trial judge would have been obliged to direct the jury to acquit the Chamberlains on the ground that the evidence could not justify their conviction.”
A new law relevant to this case was passed by the Northern Territory Parliament and in September 1988, Lindy Chamberlain returned to court and this time the criminal convictions were finally quashed by the Northern Territory Court of Criminal Appeal.
In 1988, a movie was made of the circumstances surrounding Azaria’s death, starring Meryl Streep as Lindy Chamberlain. Vincent Canby reviewed this in the New York Times under the title, “A Cry in the Dark”, although the film was released outside Australia and New Zealand as “Evil Angels’, a more dramatic title. The full review can be read at:
However, a significant part of the review is as follows:
“Mr. Schepisi (Director, Fred Schepisis) has chosen to present the terrible events in the outback in such a way that there's never any doubt in the audience's mind about what happened. The audience doesn't worry about the fate of the Chamberlains as much as it worries about the unconvincing ease with which justice is miscarried.
Mr. Schepisi may have followed the facts of the case, but he has not made them comprehensible in terms of the film. The manner by which justice miscarries is the real subject of the movie. In this screenplay, however, it serves only as a pretext for a personal drama that remains chilly and distant.
While watching the film, suspense wars with impatience. As a result, the courtroom confrontations are so weakened that ''A Cry in the Dark'' becomes virtually a one-character movie. It's Mr. Schepisi's great good fortune that that one character is portrayed by the incomparable Meryl Streep. “
There is never any doubt in the film that one or more dingoes were responsible.
Lindy and Michael Chamberlain were divorced in June 1991. In February 1992 she met Rick Creighton while on a speaking tour in the USA; they were married later that year.
A third inquest was held in 1995 with a view to finally settling the issue of Azaria’s death. However, the coroner recorded an open verdict, listing the cause of Azaria's death as 'unknown'.
Putative evidence then came from a man who reported seeing a dingo with a baby’s head in its mouth. He claimed to have shot and killed the dingo, and further suggested his friend had buried the corpse. These claims were found to be without substance.
Further pressure arose for another inquest, but the Northern Territory government initially refused to do so. But demands for a final resolution continued to grow, and finally in 2012, 32 years after Azaria’s death, a fourth and final inquest was held. Full details of the inquest can be found at http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-06-12/azaria-chamberlain-inquest-findings/406546..., but the Coroner’s significant finding is:
“In considering now all of the evidence, I am satisfied that the evidence is sufficiently adequate, clear, cogent and exact - and that the evidence excludes all other reasonable possibilities - to find that what occurred on the 17th of August 1980 was that shortly after Mrs Chamberlain placed Azaria in the tent - a dingo or dingoes entered the tent, took Azaria, and carried and dragged her from the immediate area. Mrs Chamberlain, upon being alerted to Azaria's cry, returned to the tent area to see a dingo near the tent. Raising a cry which alerted others, Mrs Chamberlain then ran for a short distance after the dingo, back to the tent, confirming that Azaria was missing. Azaria was not seen again.”
In the first inquest, the Alice Springs coroner came to an unequivocal conclusion that a wild dingo had killed Azaria Chamberlain.
Fresh paw prints had been tracked from the tent. Eyewitnesses at the campsite confirmed Lindy’s account of the night’s events. And local park rangers reported six recent attacks by “tame park dingoes” on humans, mostly children.
The coroner’s report criticised police procedure, and was not well received by the Northern Territory government. As a result, Darwin-based detectives launched a second investigation.
It should be remembered that the Northern Territory was granted independent governance in 1978, and had to set up its own governance systems. As such, it was highly sensitive to criticisms from outside. Local newspapers complained the Northern Territory was being treated as second class by the states and the Australian Commonwealth wouldn’t let it manage its own affairs.
During the first inquest, the Chamberlains received abusive phone calls, death threats and a bomb threat. The second inquest and a sensational murder trial were headline news, which generated all kinds of spurious and lurid theories.
Nevertheless, there was a growing tide of doubt about Lindy’s conviction and in particular, the validity of scientific evidence presented by the prosecution. However, when Azaria’s missing matinee jacket was discovered, together with the confirmation that the stains found within the cabin of the Chamberlain’s car were not blood, the Northern Territory government was forced to respond. Lindy was released from gaol and the Territory Attorney-General announced an inquiry into the case which became the 1986/7 Royal Commission.
The Commissioner was critical of serious scientific mistakes, of flawed opinions presented against Lindy, and the resultant risk of injustice to the Chamberlains. The Commissioner found the evidence was insufficient to maintain a guilty verdict. When the report was tabled in parliament, the Chamberlains were formally pardoned.
As a result, the Chamberlains were paid $19,000 for the cost of their car, and in 1992, Lindy was paid $900,000 and Michael $400,000 as ex gratia payments for their wrongful convictions. The Chamberlains subsequently tried to have Azaria’s death certificate amended, reflecting her death to have been caused by a dingo attack. However, the coroner was not satisfied, despite the findings of the Royal Commission, that the evidence supported this view. He returned an “open finding” about Azaria’s death and ruled the “cause and manner of death as unknown”.
Further pressure for this matter to be finally resolved resulted in the 2012 inquest referred to above following which Azaria’s death certificate was amended to reflect death from a dingo attack.
The Chamberlains continued to seek a formal apology from the Northern Territory government, which they have never received.
Australia’s media industries profited enormously from this story. The case has been recreated in television documentaries, a mini-series, an opera, and a Hollywood film, as well as a plethora of books and articles. There is something about this story which resists closure, which will not allow our attempts to turn it into “history” and relegate it safely to the past.
We are condemned by our judgement of a woman by her failure to conform to our expectations of “normal” feminine behaviour. We also readily accepted flawed forensic evidence over eyewitness testimony and the testimony of indigenous trackers.
We allowed suspicions about the Chamberlains’ religion to taint our beliefs about their innocence. We returned repeatedly to this story because we could not explain away our deeply irrational reactions to Lindy Chamberlain.
We can but hope the Chamberlains have finally found the justice they have sought for so long in their daughter’s memory, notwithstanding the Northern Territory government’s unwavering refusal to issue an apology. We may now be able to close this painful part of our national history.