It is now official: Azaria Chamberlain not quite 10 weeks old, was snatched from a bassinet at Ayers Rock, Australia, on August 17, 1980; killed, and probably devoured by a dingo. Her body was never found.
The Northern Territory Deputy Coroner, Elizabeth Morris, said, “…after Mrs. Chamberlain placed Azaria in the tent, a dingo or dingoes entered the tent, attacked Azaria, and dragged or carried her from the area.”
She also took into account three deaths of children, in Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria following attacks by dingoes or dingo-cross dogs.
More from The Sydney Morning Herald…
Anatomy of an Injustice
Azaria Chamberlain disappeared on the night of 17 August 1980 on a family camping trip at Ayers Rock in the Northern Territory. Her parents, Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, reported that she had been taken from their tent by a dingo. An initial inquest held in Alice Springs supported this assertion and was highly critical of the police investigation.
The findings of the inquest were broadcast live on television—a first in Australia. Subsequently, after a further investigation and a second inquest held in Darwin, Lindy Chamberlain was tried for murder. She was convicted 29 October 1982 and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Michael Chamberlain was convicted as an accessory after the fact and given a suspended sentence.
Lindy Chamberlain served three years in prison and though her appeals to the Federal and High courts failed, new evidence and the finding of Azaria’s matinee jacket at the base of Ayres Rock in 1986 prompted the Northern Territory government to release Lindy and order a Royal Commission.
Michael and Lindy Chamberlain were exonerated, had their convictions quashed and were compensated.
Government Obstinance, Public Witch Hunt
The initial coronial inquest into the disappearance was opened in Alice Springs on 15 December 1980 before magistrate Denis Barritt. On 20 February 1981, in the first live telecast of Australian court proceedings, Barritt ruled that the likely cause was a dingo attack. In addition to this finding, Barritt also concluded that subsequent to the attack, “the body of Azaria was taken from the possession of the dingo, and disposed of by an unknown method, by a person or persons, name unknown.”
Northern Territory Police and prosecutors were dissatisfied with this finding. Investigations continued, leading to a second inquest in Darwin in September 1981. Based on ultraviolet photographs of Azaria’s jumpsuit, James Cameron of the London Hospital Medical College alleged that “there was an incised wound around the neck of the jumpsuit–in other words, a cut throat” and that there was an imprint of the hand of a small adult on the jumpsuit, visible in the photographs. Following this and other findings, the Chamberlains were charged with Azaria’s murder.
The Crown alleged that Lindy Chamberlain had cut Azaria’s throat in the front seat of the family car, hiding the baby’s body in a large camera case. She then, according to the proposed reconstruction of the crime, rejoined the group of campers around a campfire and fed one of her sons a can of baked beans, before going to the tent and raising the cry that a dingo had taken the baby. It was alleged that later, while other people from the campsite were searching, she disposed of the body.
The key evidence supporting this allegation was the jumpsuit, as well as a highly contentious forensic report claiming to have found evidence of fetal hemoglobin in stains on the front seat of the Chamberlains’ 1977 Torana hatchback. Fetal hemoglobin is present in infants six months and younger and Azaria was nine weeks old at the time of her disappearance.
Lindy Chamberlain was questioned about the garments that Azaria was wearing. She claimed that Azaria was wearing a jacket over the jumpsuit, but the jacket was not present when the garments were found. She was questioned about the fact that Azaria’s singlet, which was inside the jumpsuit, was inside out. She insisted that she never put a singlet on her babies inside out and that she was most particular about this. The statement conflicted with the state of the garments when they were collected as evidence. The garments had been arranged by the investigating officer for a photograph.
In her defense, eyewitness evidence was presented of dingoes having been seen in the area on the evening of 17 August 1980. All witnesses claimed to believe the Chamberlains’ story. One witness, a nurse, also reported having heard a baby’s cry after the time when the prosecution alleged Azaria had been murdered. Evidence was also presented that adult blood also passed the test used for fetal hemoglobin, and that other organic compounds can produce similar results on that particular test, including mucus from the nose, and chocolate milkshakes, both of which had been present in the vehicle where Azaria was allegedly murdered.
Engineer Les Harris, who had conducted dingo research for over a decade, said that, contrary to Cameron’s findings, a dingo’s carnassial teeth can shear through material as tough as motor vehicle seat belts. He also cited an example of a captive female dingo removing a bundle of meat from its wrapping paper and leaving the paper intact. His evidence was rejected.
Evidence to the effect that a dingo was strong enough to carry a kangaroo was also ignored. Also ignored was the removal of a three-year-old girl by a dingo from the back seat of a tourist’s motor vehicle at the camping area just weeks before, an event witnessed by the parents.
An Aboriginal man gave evidence that his wife had tracked the dingo and found places where it had put the baby down, leaving the imprint of the baby’s clothing in the soil. This evidence was discounted, because the man spoke on behalf of his wife, but in the first person, according to Aboriginal custom.
Media Involvement and Bias
The Chamberlain trial was the most publicized in Australian history.
Given that most of the evidence presented in the case against Lindy Chamberlain was later rejected, the case is now used as an example of how media and bias can adversely affect a trial.
Public and media opinion during the trial was polarized, with “fanciful rumors and sickening jokes” and many cartoons. In particular, antagonism was directed toward Lindy Chamberlain for reportedly not behaving as a “stereotypical” grieving mother. Much was made of the facts that the Chamberlains were Seventh-day Adventists (including false allegations that the church was in fact a cult that killed babies as part of bizarre religious ceremonies), that the family took a newborn baby to a remote desert location, and that Lindy Chamberlain showed little emotion during the proceedings.
The press appeared to seize upon any point that could be sensationalized. For example, it was reported that Lindy Chamberlain dressed her baby in black dress. This provoked negative opinion, despite the fact that in the early 1980s, black and navy cotton girls’ dresses were in fashion, often trimmed with brightly colored ribbon, or printed with brightly colored sprigs of flowers.
Government and Public Ignorance
The Chamberlains’ claim that a dingo had taken Azaria was originally greeted with skepticism by many. Several factors led to this, including a lack of knowledge about dingoes and their behavior and the fact that these animals generally live in remote areas and are therefore rarely seen by most Australians. Possibly because of the historical human partiality for domesticated dogs, dingoes were not regarded as a dangerous species.
Since the Chamberlain case, proven cases of attacks on humans by dingoes have brought about a dramatic change in public opinion. It is now widely accepted that, as the first inquest concluded, Azaria probably was killed by a dingo, and that her body could easily have been removed and eaten by a dingo, leaving little or no trace.
Crucial to the change in public opinion was a string of dingo attacks during the late 1990s on Fraser Island off the Queensland coast, the last refuge in Australia for isolated pure-breed wild dingoes. In the wake of these attacks, it emerged that there had been at least 400 documented dingo attacks on Fraser Island. Most were against children, but at least two were on adults.
In April 1998, in a scenario strikingly similar to the story told by Lindy Chamberlain, a 13-month old girl was grabbed by a dingo and dragged from a picnic blanket at the Waddy Point camping area. In this case, the child was dropped when her father intervened.