A trial which would grab headlines around the world and later be revealed as a serious miscarriage of justice began in Australia 35 years ago today.
Mother-of-three Lindy Chamberlain was accused of murdering her nine-week-old daughter Azaria by cutting her throat with a pair of scissors while sitting in the family car at a campsite near Uluru, then known as Ayer’s Rock. The prosecution claimed she had then disposed of the baby’s body, which had never been found.
But the 34-year-old, who was seven months pregnant with her fourth child when the trial began, strenuously denied the charge. Instead she insisted her baby had been snatched from the family’s tent by a dingo – a wild dog native to Australia – something which chief prosecutor Ian Barker described as “a fanciful lie to conceal the truth”.
Without the child’s body, the prosecution case was built almost entirely on circumstantial and supposedly expert forensic evidence, mostly centred on a jumpsuit Azaria had been wearing at the time of her disappearance. It was found a week later partially buried close to a dingo’s lair, the prosecution claiming it had been planted there by her parents. Her father, Michael Chamberlain, was also on trial, accused of helping to cover up the alleged murder and dispose of the body.
The Chamberlains, both committed Christians, had been staying on a campsite near Uluru in mid-August 1980 with their two young sons and baby daughter. On the evening of August 17th, they were at the campsite’s barbecue while their children were asleep in the family tent a short distance away. When other people reported hearing a baby cry, Lindy returned to the tent to check on the children but returned in a panicked state, calling for her husband and saying she had seen a dingo taking her baby from the tent.
An extensive search followed and eventually found the baby’s jumpsuit, nappy and singlet, although a maternity jacket was not found. An initial inquest, using evidence from the clothing and the campsite, supported the Chamberlains’ story that a dingo took their baby, but a higher court was not satisfied and ordered a second inquest. It suggested Lindy Chamberlain could have killed her baby and the couple then attempted to cover it up by simulating a dingo attack.
It was on that basis that they were charged and the case came to trial, opening on September 13th, 1982. Despite gaping holes in the prosecution case, Lindy Chamberlain was convicted of murdering her baby and sentenced to life in prison with hard labour, while her husband was given an 18-month sentence suspended for three years.
The convictions were based on flimsy forensic evidence and ‘expert’ testimony from forensic scientists which was later shown to be deeply flawed. They also ignored strong evidence supporting the Chamberlain’s version, including large paw prints and canine hairs found inside their tent. There was nothing in Lindy Chamberlain’s personality or past history to suggest she was capable of murder. In fact, she was widely considered an exemplary mother who doted on her children.
The Chief Ranger for the area had also written repeatedly urging the government to carry out a cull of the growing local dingo population, warning that they were becoming much less wary of people, sometimes approaching and biting them, and that a human tragedy was imminent.
A small ‘bloodstain’ found in the Chamberlains’ car and key to the prosecution case was later found not to be blood at all, but probably an overspray of sound-deadening compound. More than anything, it would have been physically impossible for Lindy to carry out all that the prosecution alleged she had done in the short time gap of just five to 10 minutes that she was away from other people.
It wasn’t until 1986 that new evidence emerged when baby Azaria’s matinee jacket – which police had said did not exist – was found partially buried next to a dingo lair in an isolated spot near Uluru. When analysis of the garment supported the defence case, Lindy Chamberlain was released from prison five days later and a new investigation reviewing all the evidence was begun.
Both Lindy and Michael Chamberlain were officially pardoned in 1987 and the following year their convictions were quashed by the Supreme Court of the Northern Territory. In 1992 the Australian government paid Lindy Chamberlain $1.3 million in compensation for her wrongful conviction and imprisonment and in 2012 – a full 32 years after Azaria’s disappearance – a fourth and final inquest ruled that she died “as a result of being attacked and taken by a dingo”.