This week in 1982, an unforgettable trial was underway in Australia, gripping the nation and much of the world.
Lindy Chamberlain was accused of slitting her nine-week-old baby daughter’s throat at a campsite at Ayers Rock, now Uluru. She claimed that the baby was snatched and killed by a dingo. At the coroner’s inquest, this claim was accepted and the police were chastised for their handling of the case. Further pathologist investigations, however, prompted a second inquest, doubting that the wounds, indicated by bloodstains on the baby’s clothing, could have been caused by a dingo, whose jaws were not considered strong enough to be able to carry a baby.
The second inquest was very different to the first. The pathologist maintained that the bleeding pattern on the baby’s clothing indicated death caused by a circumferential wound to the neck. Baby Azaria’s body was never found, but because “significant” traces of foetal blood had been found in the family’s car, coupled with the fact that there was little blood at the crime scene and the supposition that a dingo would have caused greater disturbance inside the tent from which the baby was allegedly snatched, and because the fragments of clothing recovered did not show dingo saliva or hairs and appeared to have been cut with scissors to make it look like a dingo attack, there would be a sensational murder trial to come.
Following the seven-week trial and six-and-a-half hours of deliberation by the jury, Lindy was found guilty of murder in Melbourne in October 1982 and sentenced to life in prison with hard labour; her husband found guilty of being an accessory to murder, for which he received a three-year suspended sentence.
The verdict was met with applause when announced across Australia – a nationally popular decision by a vengeful public, it seemed. Appeals against Lindy’s sentence were rejected.
The death of a tourist at Ayers Rock in 1986 uncovered more of the baby’s bloodstained clothing near a dingo’s lair, partially buried. Upon this chance discovery, Lindy was immediately released from prison and a Royal Commission in 1987, Australia’s first, which allows for thorough investigation of all evidence ruled that she would not have been convicted had this new evidence been available at her trial.
The Chamberlains were pardoned in 1988 and their criminal convictions quashed at appeal. Four years later, they were compensated for unlawful imprisonment.
A third inquest into the baby’s death, in 1995, ruled that the cause of death could not be determined.
You might care to watch this 60 Minutes interview with Lindy and her husband upon her release from prison.
The case inspired the 1988 film, A Cry in the Dark, starring Meryl Streep and Sam Neill, which was based on the book Evil Angels by John Bryson, a former lawyer, published in 1985.
This was a case of trial by media, prejudice and grave judicial and police failings. The furore generated by press coverage dictated the outcome of the trial. There was selective leaking of information to journalists throughout. Forensic evidence was kept secret from the Chamberlain’s defence and first heard from the witness box. As author John Bryson, writing 25 years on, put it, journalists “reported news for the side which fed it to them because the other side knew nothing” and all the while, the public lapped it up, deciding Lindy Chamberlain guilty or not guilty, but mostly guilty, before a court of law had even scrutinised all the evidence.
The police denied the probability that a dingo could have been capable of snatching a tiny baby from its cot from the outset. Yet a nine-year-old boy was mauled to death by two dingoes on Fraser Island in 2001. In April this year, a three-year-old girl was attacked by dingoes. Azaria’s father, Michael Chamberlain, has been calling for a fourth and final inquest into his daughter’s death citing these tragic statistics as evidence, his ex-wife demanding that there be a change on their daughter’s death certificate and another chance at closure.
Newspapers claimed at the time that there had been lots of blood in the family’s car, but the stains turned out to be milkshake and paint emulsion. Lindy insisted that photographs of her were manipulated “to make them look more sinister.” She was also judged on the basis of her religious beliefs. A Seventh Day Adventist, it was claimed that the little-known church believed in ritual child sacrifice. The name Azaria, it was even put forth, meant ‘Sacrifice in the Wilderness’. And because Lindy did not behave in a manner you would perhaps assume typical of a grieving mother (i.e. hysterical), her guilt was assumed and accusations of evil stuck. Once an idea has been planted, so difficult can it be to purge it from the public’s opinion.
The lack of tears in public and the suspicion that their absence aroused brought Kate McCann to mind, another seemingly cold and detached mother accused by the public of behaving irresponsibly and thus guilty of her child’s fate.
Such bigotry shamed Australia in the 1980s, as it ought to shame us all to this day.
Although exonerated by law, gossip persists. On the thirtieth anniversary of Azaria’s disappearance last year, an open letter written by Lindy was published on her website. In part, it read:
Come on Australia. Surely you cannot be proud of the fact that you can let yourself be duped again and again and come back for more of the same. We used to be a proud nation who saw through corruption and were willing to give a fair go. How many times do you have to be hoodwinked and led along by the nose before you demand something better from our courts, police force, politicians and media? There are good, honest, truthful people in all these fields. We need to support them in their struggle to clean up their profession and stand for truth and justice. Hitler got as far as he did because good people didn’t wake up to the importance of the small details that did not look threatening on their own, until the avalanche engulfed all and it was too late to fix.
Painful as it may be at times we need to stand up and be counted. Change starts with the individual, the family, the local community, the town, the state, the country. It is not easy to decide not to let the small things slip, or give in to the bully because of the pain or embarrassment it may cause us, but if you don’t do it you may as well die now. Grow a backbone before the world turns on you. Give up the desire for gossip and sensationalism. Use your brains for something useful. You may surprise yourself what you can achieve.
It could be addressed to every nation and every one of us, could it not?
I don’t know about you, but I personally find Lindy Chamberlain’s website to be in bad taste (as I did the news that Azaria’s brother used the family car that had played a key role in his mother’s trial to deliver his wife-to-be to their wedding). That is to say that it is not something I would imagine myself doing – building a website – were I in her unenviable position, having spent a lifetime under scrutiny, wrongfully imprisoned, vilified by many and in spite of being exonerated, still not quite entirely innocent in everybody’s eyes. Her desperation to conclusively prove her innocence must be unimaginable and all-encompassing. Who am I, who is anyone, to tell this woman how she ought to portray herself to an at first unforgiving, now embarrassed yet still in certain quarters doubting public?
It goes without saying that how we imagine ourselves to behave is not guaranteed to be anything like how we might actually find ourselves behaving when under extreme pressure in exceptional circumstances.
Fallacious gossip fascinated the public during Lindy Chamberlain’s ordeal and it always will fascinate us. Two examples from the UK: one, the eccentric landlord whom the press declared the prime suspect in a murder investigation and subsequently splashed over every front page. How we all raised an eyebrow at the photographs of the wild haired, oddball loner as fresh revelations about his eccentricity and sexuality became common knowledge. It turned out that the poor sod had nothing whatsoever to do with the crime and somebody else will stand trial for murder next month. The once prime suspect has since received “substantial” damages for defamation from eight newspapers and, not surprisingly, has felt the need to start afresh somewhere new.
Secondly and more recently, the nurse who spent more than six weeks in custody after several hospital patients died from suspected contamination of saline drips. She also considers suing. Photos found on Facebook showing her larking around and clubbing fuelled our mistrust of young healthcare professionals. Is this really the kind of wild, irresponsible thing we want treating the sick and elderly? How I cringe at the lazy journalism demonstrated by the daily, it would appear, scouring of Facebook and Twitter in search of tit-for-tat that can fill column inches with minimum effort. Publishing photographs and personal details of innocent people, and peddling innuendo, is something else. Lives ruined, whispers never far from ear shot, the abuse they and their families must have been subjected to. Yet we buy these newspapers, we fund the hounding of innocent people in search of speculation. It’s not always truth we seek, it’s salacious scandal.
Innocent until proven guilty, they say. The presumption of innocence until guilt is proved beyond all reasonable doubt is the accused’s fundamental legal right in a democracy. I feel so sorry for the eccentric landlord and bubbly nurse, and desperately sorry for poor Lindy Chamberlain. How quickly and callously a vengeful public can condemn an innocent person with no thought for the consequences.
Another, final thing. How thoughtlessly parodied the dingo case has become in modern culture. Along with the thoroughly insensitive ‘Don’t drink the Kool-Aid’ metaphor (well, only 900 or so died at Jonestown), how very amusing to joke about dingoes taking babies. It really makes my sides ache, I don’t think.