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True Crime: The Conviction of Lindy Chamberlain. An Innocent Woman?

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Exoneration may not always be enough to convince people that a convicted person is indeed innocent. Despite overwhelming evidence, doubters can still hold onto the notion the accused must have done it because it’s disconcerting to think our modern justice systems can condemn the innocent and protect the guilty. Lindy Chamberlain knows all about that. Even when the case against her fell apart, half of Australians still believed she murdered her newborn daughter. Even to this day, some people hold onto the notion that she's guilty.

“We assumed an innocent woman was guilty. We threw rocks at a grieving mother. And a nation founded by convicts somehow forgot the presumption of innocence.”
--The New York Times, She’s Innocent. We’re Guilty.

Background of the Case

In 1980, Lindy Chamberlain’s 9-week-old daughter Azaria was taken by a dingo, an Australian wild dog. Lindy was sentenced to life in prison while her husband Michael, considered an accessory after the fact, received a suspended sentence. Even though a coroner initially ruled that baby Azaria was indeed the victim of a dingo, police and prosecutors were dissatisfied with the ruling. Lindy’s cry of “a dingo has got my baby” was called a "a calculated, fanciful lie" by a prosecutor.

The Chamberlain family was visiting Uluru (formerly Ayers Rock) when the tragedy occurred. Lindy said she was cooking dinner in the barbecue area of the campsite when she heard Azaria crying in the tent. She rushed over and saw a dingo running from the tent. She cried out, “My god. My god. A dingo has got my baby.” There was evidence to support Lindy’s claim that a dingo did take the baby. According to the book Forensic Science Reform: Protecting the Innocent:

  • There were paw prints at the door and along the side of the tent
  • A path in the sand that showed evidence of the baby being dragged
  • Azaria’s blood was found in the tent (the police claimed Lindy cut the baby’s throat in the family car)
  • The bloodstains were consistent with a dingo attack
  • Witnesses heard the baby cry
  • Dingoes are known to attack small children
  • Dingoes were seen near the campsite that evening

When police searched for the baby in dingo lairs in the area, they found Azaria’s jumpsuit and diaper. With all this evidence, how did the Chamberlains become suspects? These were the main culprits:

  • The parent’s reactions
  • Questionable forensics
  • Media bias
  • Religious bias
At the time of Azaria Chamberlain's death, many Australians didn't believe dingoes posed a serious threat to humans

At the time of Azaria Chamberlain's death, many Australians didn't believe dingoes posed a serious threat to humans

The Parent's Reactions

We often have ideas about how someone who has experienced a terrible tragedy should behave. Police and the media can become biased against someone who doesn’t act in ways we think are consistent with grief or shock. The reaction of Amanda Knox to the murder of her roommate was a big factor in her arrest. Marie (not her real name), the subject of the book A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America, was charged with false reporting after people around her concluded she didn’t behave like someone who had been raped in her home at knife point. She was forced to retract her allegation when she was threatened by the police. A few years later she was vindicated when her rapist Marc Patrick O'Leary was arrested and pictures of her were found on his computer.

Because the Chamberlains didn’t seem sad enough, people began to suspect there had to be more to the story. A witness said Michael Chamberlain came to her tent and said, "If you are Christian people, can you be praying? A dingo has taken our baby, and she is probably dead by now." When this witness approached Lindy, she said, “Whatever happens, it is God’s will.” The Chamberlains also seemed detached in media interviews.

Questionable Forensics

“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

The lack of dingo saliva on the baby’s jumpsuit led to early doubts surrounding Lindy’s version of events even though the Chamberlains said the baby was wearing a jacket. Investigators thought tears on the jumpsuit looked like cuts and they believed the clothing had been interfered with. Months later, police took possession of the Chamberlain’s car and tests purportedly found evidence of blood. The tests determined there was a spray of blood in the front passenger seat. The evidence was considered damning, leading to the theory Lindy had slit the baby’s throat.

According to the prosecutor:

“The discovery of foetal blood in the car is a critical part of the Crown case. it would be preposterous to suggest that the dingo took the child from the tent and into the car, and we will submit that the discovery of Azaria’s blood in the car destroys the dingo attack explanation...”

He went on to make more claims that turned out to be completely untrue.

“...her bloodstained clothing is discovered some found kilometers away. It had been buried, with her body in it, dug up, and cut by human hands, using scissors. In the car is found the blood of a baby under the age of six months, and the clearest evidence that an attempt has been to clean the blood up... foetal blood is found in a number places in the car, on a towel, on a pair of scissors, on the black camera bag and in the camera bag the tufts of thread, each of which were cut and must have come from the jumpsuit or a similar garment.”

The police and prosecution theory conflicted with other evidence. Even though there were other people at the campsite, police claimed Lindy was able to kill the baby, conceal the body, change her bloody clothes and wash the blood off her skin in an ice cream container in a six to ten-minute time span without anyone seeing a thing. She then calmly prepared dinner for her seven-year-old son. Witness Sally Lowe who was called by the prosecution said she heard Azaria cry before Lindy rushed to the tent (“I heard the baby cry--quite a serious cry”). This was after Lindy had supposedly committed the murder. How could an already dead baby have cried? This along with evidence of dingo activity in the area and around the tent should have given the police and prosecutors pause. This exchange with Lowe during the trial should have also given the jury pause.

Q: 'As to the duration of the baby's cry, that cry, as you listened to it, appeared to be cut off?'

A: 'That's right. Going from experience with other babies. Yes.'

Q: 'It seemed to you to stop suddenly?'

A: 'Yes.'

Q: 'And that was something you noted?'

A: 'Right.'

The baby’s cry being cut off was also consistent with a dingo attack according to an expert witness on dingoes. "...a dingo would...make seizure, which would be of the entire head, and it would close its jaws sufficiently to render the mammal immobile."

The police and prosecution case didn’t seem particularly believable but even unbelievable theories can be enough for juries. Despite all the problems with the case against her, Lindy was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Judges were also unconcerned about obvious problems with the case. Lindy’s first appeal was rejected. And later, the high court upheld the conviction. It’s scary to consider how many people believed this questionable theory despite all the evidence that showed signs of dingo activity around the tent.

The tide began to turn at least in terms of public opinion when an Australian barrister named John Bryson wrote a book called “Evil Angels” that argued the Chamberlains were wrongfully convicted. The book was effective in increasing public support for Lindy but it didn’t change the minds of the courts.

When they decided to convict her, the jury did not know the blood testing used in the car was unreliable. What was thought to be blood in the Chamberlain’s car was spilled milk and a chemical that came with the car. Imagine being sentenced to prison for life because the presence of a harmless substance in your car was mistaken for blood. Jurors often put so much stock in physical evidence it can be easy for them to overlook other signs pointing toward innocence.

Despite all the evidence a dingo had indeed killed Azaria, the belief dingoes were not a threat to humans seems to have determined the outcome of the case. All the evidence pointing to an animal attack and the baby crying after her mother supposedly murdered her didn’t count. One juror told the press, "It came down to whether you believed it was a dingo or not." Rather than weighing the facts of the case, jurors pronounced Lindy guilty based on their personal opinions that a dingo was incapable of carrying away a ten-pound baby.

Lindy served three years in prison before the case against her fell apart when Azaria’s jacket was discovered in a dingo lair. The jacket was found when English hiker David Brett fell off Ayers Rock. The police found the jacket when they went to retrieve his body. It took a tragic death for Lindy to be vindicated. She received $1.3 million in compensation for wrongful conviction. Despite this, many Australians still believed in her guilt. She wasn’t completely vindicated until 2012 when the baby’s death certificate was updated with a dingo attack listed as the cause of death.

Other cases of dingoes attempting to carry away babies and toddlers have begun to sway public opinion. Australians are now more likely to see dingoes as a threat to humans.

Media Bias

An article in the Sydney Morning Herald started out with this sentence, “One of the things which crucified Lindy Chamberlain, everyone agrees, was trial by media.”

How the media reports on a crime can prejudice the public from which potential jurors come. Cases like this often lead to salacious headlines that turn a tragedy into entertainment. The New York Times Retro Report detailed the effects of media coverage on the Chamberlain case.

‘Dingo’s Got My Baby’: Trial by Media | Retro Report | The New York Times

Religious Bias

The Chamberlain’s Seventh Day Adventist beliefs also played into prejudices against them. Many people believed Lindy murdered Azaria as part of a religious ritual.

“Bigotry was emerging because the Chamberlains were Seventh Day Adventists with Michael being a professional pastor. “They’re a cult!” “They believe in child sacrifice!” “They were at Ayers Rock for a ritual!” “They always dressed the baby in black!” “The name ‘Azaria’ means ‘Sacrifice in the Wilderness’!””
-- https://www.huffpost.com/entry/did-a-dingo-really-get-her-baby_b_9452450

Comments

Greg Lowe on January 25, 2020:

The emotional impact of being very near to this human tragedy, and with it's later consequences, have yet to be fully assessed. Sometimes it needs an independent bod to comprehend the damage done.

Linda Lewark on April 22, 2019:

Interested.