The case that split Australia

MALCOLM BROWN
Last updated 09:09 25/02/2012

The 32-year-old case of whether a dingo killed baby Azaria Chamberlain may finally be closed as an inquest in Australia hears new evidence. Sunita Rappai reports.

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The coroner's inquest held in Darwin yesterday marks the end of a saga which began with an innocent family holiday to the Northern Territory in August 1980 - destroyed by the intrusion of a dingo, which ripped the family apart, affected the lives of everyone associated with it and revealed the ugly side of the Australian psyche.

There always was evidence that the dingo had taken the baby. There had been a number of dingo "incidents" with children at Ayers Rock, including an attack on Amanda Cranwell, 3, in June 1980, six weeks before the Chamberlain family arrived there. These incidents were enough to prompt Derek Roff, head ranger, to write to his superiors a month later asking for permission to shoot some dingoes.

John Bryson, who wrote the book, Evil Angels, recounts that Roff said dingoes were "well able to take advantage of any laxity on the part of a prey species and, of course, children and babies can be considered possible prey". Dingoes were not shot, but signs were put up in the amenities block at the camp site warning people against feeding dingoes.

When Lindy Chamberlain cried out that "a dingo's got my baby", it reverberated round Australia, bringing reactions of incredulity and scepticism, fuelled by the seemingly calm appearance of Michael and Lindy Chamberlain. Stories, speculation, jokes and malice spread in profusion. It seemed an unlikely story, and the Chamberlains, along with their religion, were sufficiently "different" to be suspect.

But there always was direct evidence that the dingo had taken the baby. Two campers, Bill and Judith West, heard a dingo growl near the tent. There were dingo paw prints at the entrance. There were drag marks in the sand and an indentation consistent with a baby's jumpsuit and people actually followed dingo tracks for a time away from the campsite.

All that was set aside when the Northern Territory Police and Crown received advice from a British forensic expert, Professor James Cameron, who had examined stains on the baby's jumpsuit and concluded the baby had had its throat cut. Forensic biologist Joy Kuhl identified blood in the Chamberlain's car and some of their possessions, including a camera bag, and on further analysis found it contained foetal haemoglobin.

The police formed a theory that Lindy Chamberlain had slipped away from the family, taken the baby into the car, slit her throat and then stuffed the body into a hiding place, perhaps her husband's camera bag. A spray pattern under the dashboard of the Chamberlains' Holden Torana Hatchback car was said to consist of baby's blood. The question of why Lindy would ever have done such a thing never troubled the Crown.

With what appeared to be damning new evidence, a forensic tidal wave brought in experts from all over Australia and the other side of the world. Even though, in this case, the alleged offence was infanticide, for which some women do not even face court.

The Chamberlains went on trial, Lindy convicted of murder in October 1982 and sentenced to life imprisonment - a mandatory sentence for murder in the Territory - and Michael given a suspended sentence for being an accessory after the fact.

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Yet virtually all the scientific evidence that comprised the Crown case was torn apart in the royal commission conducted by Justice Trevor Morling in 1986-87. It turned out there was no blood in the car, or so little as to be inconsequential. What had been found was remnants of sticky fluid such as caramel milkshake which had attracted particles of copper dust, prevalent in Mt Isa where the Chamberlains lived, and it was the copper oxide that had given a positive result to a test for the presumptive presence of blood.

The battleground at the core of the trial in Darwin in September and October 1982 was over the Crown assertion that Joy Kuhl had identified foetal haemoglobin in the samples, proving it was baby's blood. Her samples could not be independently checked. She had discarded them. The defence expert, Professor Barry Boettcher, did his best to say she could not identify foetal haemoglobin in the tests she used. But the unspoken assumption on both sides was that there was blood.

A clue that everyone was way off track came late in the trial when the underside of the dashboard of another Holden Torana was produced that had a similar spray pattern. It came late in proceedings and was effectively discounted, but it was a clue. It turned out that workers assembling Torana hatchbacks had neglected to plug a small aperture in the floor of the vehicle while they sprayed on bituminous-based sound-deadener. Some of it got through the hole.

When all this came out in the royal commission, there was virtually no Crown case left. The only evidence that remained intact was evidence about the dingo, which had always been there. In March 1987, Morling exonerated the Chamberlains and they were pardoned.

The NT Crown and police were reluctant to let go. The Crown opposed the Chamberlains' application that their convictions be quashed, on the grounds that they had been properly tried on the evidence available and the royal commission finding was just the opinion of "one tribunal".

Coroner John Lowndes conducting a third inquest in 1995 delivered an open verdict, which satisfied nobody. Lowndes did not have evidence in front of him that is available now, of dingo attacks on children on Queensland's Fraser Island.

Throughout the case, there was too much ego involved. Nobody wanted to be proved wrong. Even a lawyer, asked towards the end of the royal commission what his thoughts were then about Lindy's guilt or innocence, would not give up. He said: "I couldn't care if Azaria walked into the courtroom alive and well now, I'd still say the bitch was guilty."

- Sydney Morning Herald

- Sydney Morning Herald

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