A Trial Rooted in Hysteria.
Australia’s Dingo Trial made headlines around the world in 1980; it captured the attention of people everywhere; mom- of-three Lindy Chamberlain was in the dock for the murder of her then nine week old infant while camping with her family at Ayers Rock, a popular tourist site located in the outback.
The trial resembled a kangaroo court; it ignored evidence that should have exonerated the accused to pursue a trial and conviction based on what she could have done given the scope of possibilities.
The prosecution argued the accused must have known the area was home to dingoes, an Aussie euphemism for a wild dogs, then waded into could have territory by saying; it was possible the accused planned to murder the infant and use the dingo narrative as her alibi.
Ditto for the baby’s jumpsuit retrieved a week after the killing; she could have arranged to have it planted for the same reason.
But the state failed to establish a motive for the killing.
However, governing authorities were aware of the dingo problem, they had been notified two years before the trial by the chief ranger of the area that the dog population was increasing and becoming bolder; sometimes biting people.
Dingoes were losing their fear of humans and it was only a matter of time before something tragic happened.
What should have been an open and shut case that closed the door on a family tragedy somehow lead to a life sentence for a mother for murdering her own child with her husband charged as her co-accused? Why?
Two appeals to the federal court of Australia after the sentence was handed down were dismissed.
After serving two years in prison, Chamberlain was released on remission when the matinee jacket was discovered partially buried near a dingo lair in a remote part of Ayers Rock.
She and her husband were officially pardoned in 1987, their convictions quashed in 1988; and compensation paid in 1992.
At the fourth and final inquest in 2012 the coroner ruled that Azaria Chamberlain was attacked and killed by a dingo; closing the last page in a long and fraught tale.
By rights Chamberlain should never have been charged with murder to begin with; but what unfolded was a strange twist of affairs.
The initial enquiry into Azaria’s disappearance backed Lindy Chamberlain’s account of events, but then the Supreme Court overturned the ruling; ordering a second inquest.
The Northern Territory then presented its indictment to the Supreme Court; and Chamberlain was charged with Azaria’s murder.
Her husband was charged with being an accessory after the fact.
So what changed with the second inquest?
The coroner stated that although the evidence was largely circumstantial, a jury if they were properly instructed could arrive at a verdict based on the clothing evidence.
He was the one who surmised Lindy Chamberlain knew about the dingoes in the area and simulated a dingo attack to use as her defense.
This combined with the blood evidence of unknown origin found in the Chamberlains’ car; was the reason the pair were prosecuted and convicted for the murder of their 2-month-old baby.
But wait, there’s a problem, the blood evidence was inconclusive; it was later determined to be red paint and mention was made of a car repair job.
In a nutshell the prosecution’s theory was that Chamberlain cut the throat of her infant in the car with a scissors, cleaned up, then left splashes of blood in the tent to tie up with witness testimonies that blood was spotted in the tent.
All experts agreed there was no evidence of arterial bleeding on the jumpsuit bloodstains; in any event it would take Azaria about 20 minutes to die this way; making the state’s claim that Chamberlain’s absence from the camp fire gave her the five to ten minutes needed ‘to do the job’ impossible.
The prosecution’s expert testimony included that of James Cameron, a scientist who had also given crucial evidence in a case in England which was later overturned when his expert evidence was proved wrong.
Police Detective Sergeant John Lincoln testified he took photographs of large paw prints a few centimeters from Azaria’s cot inside the tent; he also collected probable blood samples outside the tent; although they were never tested.
Canine hairs were located in the tent and on Azaria’s jumpsuit; the Chamberlains didn’t have a dog.
Campers’ testimonies of hearing a baby’s cry from the Chamberlain tent and hearing the low, throaty growl of a dog were dismissed as ‘lies to favor the accused’
Les Harris, then President of the Dingo Foundation, gave evidence that based on years of studying dingoes; they could envelope the head of a baby in its mouth and carry the weight of a baby over long distances; then he produced photographs to prove it.
James Cameron disagreed.
Marks on nappy fragments were similar to marks resulting from a dingo on another nappy that was used for testing purposes.
Azaria’s jumpsuit was found only 30 meters (98 feet) from a dingo’s lair, although no one including the chief ranger and his deputy was aware of the den at the time.
Although expert opinion was divided over whether the damage to the baby’s clothing was caused by a dingo; some thought it could be.
A commission set up to review the convictions ruled; there was a reasonable doubt as to the Chamberlains’ guilt, the Morling Commission concluded that the hypothesis that Chamberlain had murdered Azaria; had not been proven beyond reasonable doubt.
Trevor Morling said the commission was of the opinion that the evidence afforded considerable support for the death by dingo hypothesis but it was not their mandate to examine the evidence that Azaria had been snatched by a dingo.
To do so would involve a fatal error of reversing the onus of proof; requiring Ms. Chamberlain to prove her innocence instead of requiring the state to prove her guilt.
Summing Up Looking Back
“The scientist shouldn’t become too adventurous, too competitive. The trouble is we’re all so human. I’ve never seen a case more governed by human frailties.”
— Dr. Tony Jones, government pathologist in the Chamberlain trial
What went wrong? Lindy Chamberlain was convicted by flawed forensic evidence and investigators slash prosecutors unwilling to reconsider their assumptions; even in the face of contradictory evidence.
And Australians had to face the reality their justice system had failed them.
What if the dingo trial wasn’t just a monumental legal failure; but connected to something bigger that went a lot higher up.
Were the Chamberlains scapegoats for government ineptitude to get to grips with the dingo problem in the Northern territory?
Was the trial a massive distraction to take the heat off them for a long time; by keeping the case tied up in knots for over thirty years.
They knew eventually people would tire and turn their attention else where.
We can only wonder.