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Azaria Chamberlain's Disappearance Revisited: Once Again, Australian Court Asks, 'Did A Dingo Kill The Baby?'

Azaria Chamberlain's Disappearance Revisited: Once Again, Australian Court Asks, 'Did A Dingo Kill The Baby?'

SYDNEY -- The growl came first, low and throaty, piercing the darkness that had fallen across the remote Australian desert. A baby's cry followed, then abruptly went silent. Inside the tent, the infant girl had vanished. Outside, her mother was screaming: "The dingo's got my baby!"

With those panicked words, the mystery of Azaria Chamberlain's disappearance in the Australian Outback in 1980 became the most notorious, divisive and baffling legal drama in the country's history. Had a wild dog really taken the baby? Or had Azaria's mother, Lindy, slit her daughter's throat and buried her in the desert?

Thirty-two years later, Australian officials hope to finally, definitively, determine how Azaria died when the Northern Territory coroner opens a fourth inquest on Friday. Lindy Chamberlain, who was convicted of murdering her daughter and later cleared, is still waiting for authorities to close the case that made her the most hated person in Australia.

To the rest of the world, the case is largely known for its place in pop culture: countless books, an opera, the Meryl Streep movie "A Cry in the Dark," and the sitcom Seinfeld's spoof of Lindy's cry, "Maybe the dingo ate your baby!"

But to Australians, the case is about much more than the guilt or innocence of one woman. It is about the guilt or innocence of a nation – a nation that prides itself on the concept of a "fair go," an equal chance, for all. Did Lindy Chamberlain get a fair go? Or had Australians misjudged this woman? With doubts growing about just how fair and tolerant they truly were, many wondered if they had misjudged themselves.

And so Australia will once again try to get to the bottom of one of the most painful chapters in its history.

"It's a bit like a really bad war," says Tony Raymond, chief forensic scientist in an investigation that debunked much of the evidence used to convict Lindy. "You've got to learn from it and make sure it doesn't happen again."

The nightmare began on Aug. 17, 1980, during a family vacation to Ayers Rock, the sacred Outback monolith now known by its Aboriginal name Uluru.

Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, their two sons and their 9-week-old daughter, Azaria, were settling in for the night at a campsite near the rock. Azaria was sleeping in a tent and Lindy and Michael making dinner nearby when a baby's cry rang out. Lindy went to check on her daughter and says she saw a dingo slink out of the tent and disappear into the darkness. Azaria's bassinet was empty, the blankets still warm.

There was an intense search, but Azaria was never found.

The Chamberlains insisted the dingo snatched their daughter. Outside the tent were dingo tracks; inside were spots of blood. Fellow campers told officials they had heard a low growl, then a baby's cry. Azaria's torn, bloodied jumpsuit was found in the surrounding desert. There was no motive for a crime, no eyewitness, no body.

But police and the public doubted a dingo was big or strong enough to drag away a 10-pound (4.5-kilogram) baby. Nobody could find documentation of a dingo killing a child before. While Australia is notorious for its deadly creatures – snakes, spiders, crocodiles – the humble dingo was considered a shy animal that posed little threat to people.

And without the DNA testing available now, the forensic evidence looked damning. The dashboard in the Chamberlains' car was drenched in baby's blood, and a bloody hand print was found on Azaria's jumpsuit. Years later, more sophisticated tests determined the "blood" was a combination of spilled milk and a chemical sprayed during manufacture. The "hand print" was not a hand print at all – and was made mostly of red desert dust.

The prosecution said there was no dingo saliva on Azaria's jumpsuit, which Lindy put down to the jacket she had been wearing over it. But the jacket was missing, and police said she was lying.

The daily details of the trial were picked over in pubs and debated around dinner tables, breeding a generation of armchair cops who analyzed every piece of evidence described in the morning papers and on the nightly news.

Australians didn't like the Chamberlains. Their religious affiliation – Seventh-day Adventist – was too weird, and Lindy was too calm.

Her clothes, her nasally voice, her cool demeanor – it was all wrong for a grieving mother. Australians didn't understand her stoicism and recoiled when she spoke of graphic evidence clinically and without tears. "They'll just peel it like an orange," she told one reporter, describing how a dingo slashes the skin of its prey.

She began receiving death threats. People spat at her, howled like a dingo outside her house, called her a bitch, a witch and worse.

Lindy – heavily pregnant with her fourth child – was convicted of murder, accused of slashing her daughter's throat with nail scissors and making it look like a dingo attack. She was sentenced to life in prison with hard labor. Michael was convicted of being an accessory.

Three years into Lindy's prison sentence, Azaria's jacket was found by chance – near a dingo den. Days later, Lindy was released from prison. A Royal Commission, the highest form of investigation in Australia, debunked much of the forensic evidence used at trial and her conviction was overturned.

The turnaround stunned Australians. It was a wrecking ball to the notion that the justice system protected good people. That an innocent woman – an innocent pregnant woman – could never be thrown in prison. That the courts were immune to prejudice.

"The general public didn't want to believe it," says Anthea Gunn, curator at Australia's National Museum, home to a popular collection of Chamberlain memorabilia. "Because why would you? You want to believe those places are above reproach."

Australia is a nation that was, in many ways, born out of judgment, when Britain began sending its unwanted convicts to the continent in the 1700s. These social outcasts fought against what they considered the elitism of the British class system, cheered for the underdog and honed a sharp sense of injustice. Australia proudly dubbed itself "the land of the fair go."

Today, the "fair go" is a key part of Australian identity, a phrase that shows up in politics, popular culture and everyday life.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard once declared, "We will hang on to our Aussie mateship and our Aussie fair go in the worst times and in the best." Virgin Mobile ran a "Fair Go For All" ad campaign featuring a character named "Robin da Hood." A perceived injustice, such as a parking ticket, is often greeted with a frustrated grumble of "Fair go!"

But the fair go mentality didn't seem to apply to the Chamberlains, with their little-known religion.

Michael Chamberlain was a pastor with the Seventh-day Adventist church, a Protestant denomination that few Australians understood. In the absence of fact came rumors that spread with frightening ferocity, of child sacrifice, witchcraft, even Satanism. Had Lindy killed Azaria as part of a twisted religious ritual? Did the name Azaria really mean "sacrifice in the wilderness?" (It is a Hebrew name that means "helped by God.")

The hysteria was reminiscent of the Salem witch trials in the U.S. Even a black dress once worn by Azaria was seen as proof that Lindy was an evil murderess – because what kind of mother dresses her baby in black?

Michael Chamberlain, who was divorced from Lindy in 1991, is now an author in a small town north of Sydney. When asked about the case, he is both weary and wary, carefully limiting what he says ahead of the inquest as he waits to see whether the system will give him a chance.

"The church got so smashed up, erroneously, and all through, really, a nasty dose of prejudice," Chamberlain says. "I can say that I think our religion definitely impacted quite strongly on the attitude that many Australians developed."

The growing evidence that they had unfairly judged the Chamberlains was a bitter pill for Australians to swallow, says John Bryson, author of "Evil Angels," the definitive book on Azaria's disappearance.

"Australians always thought of themselves, and this country, as being the country of fair play," Bryson says. "That certainly wasn't the case."

As the evidence shifted in favor of Lindy's innocence, public guilt grew. Three decades later, it remains.

"We can't let it go," says Michelle Arrow, a cultural historian who helped edit the book "The Chamberlain Case: Nation, Law, Memory." "I feel a bit embarrassed that I did think she was guilty when I was a 9-year-old, just reading the tabloids and watching TV. And I think a lot of people are still in the same boat."

Faith in the system was shattered. The National Institute of Forensic Science was later established to ensure better scrutiny of evidence. Still, many Australians now cast a more skeptical eye on judicial proceedings.

"People became a little more cynical," says Raymond, the Royal Commission's chief scientist. "People test the evidence a lot better now. Up till then, it was, 'Believe me, I'm a scientist.'"

Not all Australians believe a dingo killed Azaria. Even recent polls show a deep divide in opinions.

Graeme Charlwood, the former Northern Territory cop who led the investigation and eventually arrested Lindy, is 60 now and has left the police force. When asked what he now believes happened the night Azaria vanished, he sighs.

"I've probably given up analyzing it," he says. "I, as a policeman, always accepted the rule of law. If a court or jury made a finding, then I accepted it whether or not it aligned with my private view. Sometimes juries got it wrong, sometimes they didn't. It's not a perfect system."

It's a careful response, and when asked to clarify exactly what he believes happened, he demurs.

"I'm not going to share it publicly," he says with a tired chuckle. "I'll get into a heap of trouble."

Ten years ago, there was a series of dingo attacks on Australia's Fraser Island, including the fatal mauling of a 9-year-old boy. That was a turning point for some Australians who had, until then, maintained Lindy killed Azaria.

Around that time, staff at the National Museum set up a video camera near the Chamberlain exhibit and invited the public to record messages. The video became something of a confessional, curator Sophie Jensen says, with several visitors apologizing for doubting Lindy.

In 2007, Lindy agreed to be interviewed by Jensen at the museum. All 180 audience seats were filled. Many in the crowd wept.

"I'm one of the many mothers who had kids at the same time," one woman told Lindy, and began to cry. "I identified with you. I felt the injustices with you, and the powerlessness and the joys when you were released. ... I'm so ashamed to be Australian at that period of time. I think if anyone deserves an apology from the government, it's you."

Thunderous applause filled the room.

Despite the increased public support, Azaria's death certificate remains incomplete. Three coroner's inquests held to determine a cause of death have returned conflicting results. On Friday, Northern Territory Coroner Elizabeth Morris will examine fresh evidence of dingo attacks before issuing a finding on how Azaria died.

Lindy declined an interview request, but in an open letter on the 30th anniversary of Azaria's disappearance, she wrote that she was fighting for her daughter.

"Our family will always remember today as the day truth was dragged in the dirt and trampled upon, but more than that it is the day our family was torn apart forever because we lost our beautiful little Azaria," Lindy wrote.

"She deserves justice."

Perhaps no one exemplifies the shifting opinions, uncertainty and nagging guilt of Australians more than Yvonne Cain, one of the jurors who voted to convict Lindy.

At first, she empathized with the woman on trial: Cain's own son was bitten by a dingo when he was just a baby. But the prosecution's forensics looked strong, and the defense looked weak. When the verdict was announced, Cain couldn't look at Lindy, and wept as she was sentenced.

"I'll never forget the judge saying that Lindy would be put into jail for life with hard labor," says Cain, now 63 and living in the southern city of Adelaide. "I imagined her smashing rocks, like in the old days."

After the trial, Cain was shattered. Had she gotten it wrong?

Her sleep was riddled with nightmares. She daydreamed about smuggling Lindy out of jail. She grew convinced she had made a horrible mistake.

Soon after Lindy's release, the two women met, in a moment captured on video. Cain couldn't stop crying as she hugged Lindy. "Are you all right, now that it's all finished?" she asked.

"It's not finished yet," Lindy replied. "We've got a fight to go."

The two are now friends. But Cain still struggles with her conscience. The guilt will probably always plague her, she says. She believes it should plague all Australians who condemned Lindy.

Because if the dingo is guilty, then so is Australia.

"I never, ever got over it," Cain says, her voice shaking. "I'm guilty for calling her guilty. ... I keep thinking back to the time when we were deliberating. If only – if only – I'd have said no, I don't think she's guilty."

"That woman was as innocent as you and me."

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