Imagine that your nine-week-old, longed-for daughter is taken by a wild animal in the night. Imagine you are suspected of killing her, and then convicted of this crime and imprisoned. Imagine that long after you are declared innocent of the crime, people still crack dingo jokes in your presence and speculate about your guilt. Imagine being Lindy Chamberlain.
It may well seem unimaginable to most of us that, despite her being victim of one of our nation’s most significant miscarriages of justice, Australians can continue to joke and gossip about Lindy.
It is as if we have collectively forgotten that this case, at its core, was about the death of a child. Azaria, who would be 32 years old this year, has become a marginal character in the larger story about her mother, Alice Lynne “Lindy” Chamberlain, whose wrongful conviction left a scar upon our national memory.
Today’s coronial findings, which confirm Azaria Chamberlain was killed by a dingo, finally close a traumatic chapter in Australia’s legal and cultural history, and properly returns Azaria’s memory to her family.
Azaria’s parents requested this fourth coronial inquest, seeking a formal finding that their daughters’ death was the result of a dingo attack. Counsel assisting the coroner, Rex Wild QC, conceded that even at the time of Lindy’s trial for murder, the evidence supported the dingo attack explanation, and he asked the coroner to now accept this. Azaria’s parents were represented by Stuart Tipple, the same lawyer who has represented them from the beginning, who provided additional evidence of multiple dingo attacks, including fatal attacks, in support of the dingo explanation.
The history of the case
Most Australians know the details of the case. On a holiday visit to Uluru, the Chamberlains pitched tent at a camping ground with a magnificent view of the rock. During their evening BBQ, their infant daughter was snatched from the tent by a dingo, and carried away across the dunes, leaving blood-spattered bedding and a heartbroken family behind. The baby’s torn and bloodied jumpsuit was found near a dingo lair some weeks later.
The indigenous Australians who tracked the fresh paw prints from the tent had no doubt that dingoes were responsible for the baby’s disappearance. Campsite eyewitnesses confirmed Lindy’s account of the night’s events. The first coronial inquest heard from the local park rangers about six recent attacks by “tame park dingoes” on humans, mostly children.
The Alice Springs coroner had no difficulty reaching the conclusion that a wild dingo had killed Azaria Chamberlain.
But the story did not end there. The coroner’s report, which criticised police procedure, was not well received by the Northern Territory government, and Darwin-based detectives launched a second investigation. The NT took on independent governance only two years before Azaria’s disappearance. Territory newspapers complained that the NT was being infantilised by the states, that the 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, was headline news.
In 1982, Lindy was convicted of murder by a jury in the Northern Territory Supreme Court, and sentenced to life in prison. 19 days later, she gave birth to her second daughter Kahlia, who was taken from her four hours after her birth, into her father’s care.
The Federal Court later released Lindy on bail while her appeal could be heard and, when her appeal failed, she was returned to prison. She appealed to the High Court, which refused her bail application, and which later also refused her appeal. Having exhausted all avenues of appeal, Azaria’s death certificate was formally amended to read “extensive wounding to the neck”, consistent with the murder theory advanced by prosecutors.
A growing tide of doubt began to rise against Lindy’s conviction and the scientific evidence presented by the prosecution. However, it was the chance discovery of Azaria’s missing matinee jacket that forced the NT government to respond. Lindy had always maintained that Azaria had been wearing the jacket when she disappeared, and it would have explained the lack of dingo saliva on her jumpsuit. Days after it was found, the NT Attorney-General announced an inquiry into the case, and following day the Governor-General of Australia advised that the inquiry would be joined with a Royal Commission.
The Royal Commission commenced in 1986 and heard 92 days of evidence, at which 145 witnesses testified. The Commissioner reported on the serious mistakes made by scientists, on the erroneous opinions tendered against Lindy, and the serious risk of injustice that had manifested as a result of the poor scientific evidence adduced against the Chamberlains.
The Commissioner found that the evidence could no longer support a guilty verdict. On 2 June 1987, when the report was tabled in parliament, the Chamberlains were formally pardoned. The following year, the NT Court of Criminal Appeal stated: “The convictions having been wiped away, the law of the land holds the Chamberlains to be innocent.”
In 1991, the NT government paid the Seventh Day Adventist church for legal costs involved in the Chamberlains’ defence, and the Chamberlains were paid $19,000 for the cost of their car, which had never been returned to them. In 1992, Lindy was paid $900,000 and Michael received $400,000 as ex gratia payments for their wrongful convictions. The Chamberlains continued to seek a formal apology from the Northern Territory government, which they have never received.
The Chamberlains also sought to have Azaria’s death certificate corrected, and the matter was referred back to the Coroner, who ordered a third inquest. The Chamberlains asked for Azaria’s death to be recorded as having 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”.
Why does it matter?
Australia’s interest in Lindy Chamberlain has not abated. Our media industries have profited enormously from this story. The case has been recreated in television documentaries, a mini-series, an opera, and a Hollywood film. There is something about this story that resists closure, that refuses our attempts to turn it into “history” and relegate it safely to the past.
The Chamberlain case has long been Australia’s unfinished business. The significant anniversaries of Azaria’s disappearance reminded so many of us how we got it wrong.
How we judged a woman by her failure to conform to our expectations of “normal” feminine behaviour. How we accepted flawed forensic evidence over the eyewitness testimony and that of the Indigenous trackers.
How we allowed suspicions about the Chamberlains’ religion to taint our perceptions of their innocence. We returned repeatedly to this story because we could not forget our shame or explain away our deeply irrational reactions to Lindy Chamberlain.
On the 25th anniversary of Azaria’s death, Lindy issued a plea: “Please do not lose sight of the fact that this is a real case, with a real child, and real family behind all the court cases and media attention.”
Let’s hope that today’s finding can provide the Chamberlains with the justice they have sought for so long in their daughter’s memory, and finally close this traumatic chapter of our national past.
Deborah Staines, Michelle Arrow and Katherine Biber are co-editors of The Chamberlain Case: Nation, Law, Memory, published by Australian Scholarly Publishing.