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That Dingo didn’t eat no baby!

In any prosecution it is generally permissible for a defendant to introduce evidence that someone other than the accused committed the offense. The evidence is admissible if it establishes a direct connection between a third party and the crime charged. In the early 1980’s Lindy Chamberlain was charged with murder in connection with the death of her nine week old daughter. Her husband, Michael, was also charged as an accessory after the fact for the same offense. The Chamberlains’ defense was that a third party was responsible for the death of their infant daughter, Azaria. The alleged perpetrator in her case, however, was not another human being, but rather a dog-more specifically canis lupus dingo, or dingo, a wild dog native to Australia. The case first drew national attention in Australia and later international fame when Lindy’s ordeal was the subject of a movie A Cry in the Dark starring Merly Streep.

The case has significant parallels to the matter of the West Memphis Three. The parallels are remarkable not because of the similarities, but rather, the dis-similarities as the facts of each case are as diametrically opposed as the respective hemispheres where the incidents occurred. The defendants in the West Memphis Three were three youths; the Chamberlains’ were the parents of three young children. The prosecutor in the West Memphis case argued that the victims were killed as part of a satanic ritual. In the Chamberlain case, an unstated subtext of the police investigation and the prosecution’s case was that the crime was a sacrificial rite committed by religious fanatics-the Chamberlains were both members the Seventh Day Adventists Church. While science was to play a pivotal role in correcting each miscarriage of justice, the Australians acted with relative swiftness, releasing Lindy three years into her prison term and quashing the convictions of each parents two years later (her husband received a suspended sentence). On the northern side of the equator, the West Memphis Three waited over seventeen years before they were begrudgingly released and only after pleading guilty under the Alford doctrine. While Lindy was financially compensated for her wrongful conviction, the West Memphis Three were rewarded with probationary terms following their release. Since Lindy’s conviction, two separate inquiries have been held in an attempt to determine the actual cause of Azaria’s death. To date, the West Memphis prosecutors have done little more than pay lip service to the evidence of third party culpability that exists in those cases. The common theme of each conviction, however, is that ignorance and prejudice were substantial factors that contributed to the verdicts of each trial.

Azaria Chamberlain went missing on August 17, 1980 in the Australian Outback. Her parents, and two brothers, Aiden and Reagan, ages 6 and 4 were on a camping vacation in Uluru the aborigine name for Ayers Rock, a giant red monolith located in the Northern Territory of Australia. On the second night of their stay, several campers heard a low growl followed by a baby’s cry. When Lindy returned to her tent she saw a dingo running off. The tent where her daughter was sleeping was empty; there were dingo paw prints in the area and blood on the bedding inside the tent. Despite an intensive search of the surrounding area, the body of Azaria was never found; a week later, bloody clothing worn by the infant was found near a boulder at the base of Ayers Rock. Although the authorities had received reports of dingo attacks on children only weeks before Azaria’s disappearance, they doubted that a dingo had the strength to carry off the child in the manner described and suspected that the child was murdered by her mother.

At the first inquest, concluded on February, 20, 1981, the coroner, Denis Barritt, found that the child was probably killed by a dingo. However, the authorities, media, and general public were not satisfied and continued to suspect the couple. Bigotry concerning the Chamberlains’ adherence to the Seventh Day Adventists faith-believed by many Australians to be nothing more than a devil worshiping cult- produced a stream of bizarre rumors including the claim that the name Azaria meant “sacrifice in the wilderness”. Later that year, the police searched the Chamberlain’s home and auto in Cooranbong, New South Wales, some 1700 miles from Uluru. During the search, they found what was believed to be blood spatter on the front seat of the family car. Further investigation of the child’s clothing claimed that the tears were caused by scissors rather than an animal. Aided by inept investigation techniques, dubious scientific evidence and harsh public opinion, the Supreme Court for the Northwest Territories quashed the findings of the first inquest and ordered a second. At that hearing, Coroner Gerry Galvin committed Lindy Chamberlain for trial for the murder of Azaria and her husband, Michael, on the charge of being an accessory after the fact.

The prosecution theorized that Lindy, in the space of five to ten minutes, had slashed her daughter’s throat in the front seat of the car, stuffed it into a camera bag and returned to the barbeque area until an opportunity presented itself to blame a dingo for the baby’s disappearance. They further claimed that Chamberlains later buried the body and planted the clothing in the area it was eventually found. The most damning evidence was a contentious forensic report claiming to have found fetal haemoglobin, typically present in infants six months or younger, in the Chamberlains’ car. Years later, further analysis showed the substance to be a combination of baby’s milk and a chemical sprayed during the manufacture of the automobile. Evidence of Lindy’s innocence fell on the jurors’ deaf ears. The un-contradicted evidence of witnesses who observed Lindy to be a devoted and affectionate mother to the baby and her sons was overshadowed by the media created impression left by her apparent coldness in her pre-trial interviews with the press. Evidence that there were dingos sighted in the vicinity of the campground, dingo paw prints leading from the tent, as well as their prior attacks on children was, likewise, ignored. On October 29, 1982, the jury convicted both parents of the offenses.

Ironically, it was the unrelated death of a hiker that led to the exoneration of the Chamberlains. In February, 1986, after the Federal Court and Austrian High Court had rejected their appeals, the police were investigating the disappearance of missing man last seen climbing Ayers Rock. During the course of their search, they found the matinee jacket worn by Azaria near a dingo den and were confronted with the reality that the criminal justice system had failed. A week later, the government of the Northern Territory released Lindy from prison and announced that there would be a new inquiry into Azaria’s death. In the lengthy report issued by Justice Trevor Morling, he discredited much of the original evidence and concluded that the case against the Chamberlains was insubstantial and the verdicts were “unsafe”. Several months later, the government of the Northern Territory enacted special legislation that allowed the Chamberlains to apply to the Criminal Appeals to have their convictions quashed. Finally, on September 15, 1988, the appellate court unanimously quashed the convictions.

A third inquest held in 1995, Coroner John Lowndes returned an open finding, meaning the baby’s death was registered as “cause unknown” – a finding that will likely be overturned by a fourth inquest now underway before Coroner Elizabeth Morris. In that hearing, an investigator testified that between 1990 and 2011 there have been over two hundred documented attacks by dingos on humans including three fatal attacks on children and fourteen other significant attacks. The lawyer assisting the coroner, Rex Wild, a former director of public prosecutions in the Northern Territory, has asked the court to “accept on the balance of probabilities that the dingo theory is the correct one.”

Despite the evidence, there are still those who will continue to believe that Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton (now divorced and remarried) murdered her daughter. It is a sad commentary that the ignorance and prejudices of some allows them to afford a “presumption of innocence” to a wild dog but not to the devoted and loving mother of a newborn. UPDATE June 12, 2012. The coroner has ruled that the cause of Azaria Chamberlain’s death was “the result of being attacked and taken by a dingo.” The death certificate will be changed to reflect this new finding.

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