Conflict & Justice

New Inquest into Australian Dingo Death Case

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Lindy Chamberlain with daughter Azaria. (Photo: Wiki Commons)

In August of 1980, in the shadow of the giant rock Uluru, an 8-week-old baby named Azaria Chamberlain disappeared.

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Her parents, Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, had taken her to a popular campsite in the Australian outback, along with their two young sons. They'd left Azaria to sleep in a tent while they talked close by with friends.

But then, suddenly, she was gone.

The moment was dramatized in the 1988 movie, A Cry in the Dark. It starred Meryl Streep as Lindy Chamberlain, screaming "the dingo's got my baby!"

The Chamberlain story polarized Australia.

It turned on this question: was Azaria Chamberlain really taken by a dingo, a wild dog? Or had she been killed and buried in the outback by her mother, Lindy?

Now, thirty-two years later, a fourth inquest into the death of Azaria Chamberlain is about to open.

This new inquest is expected to do one thing above all: put the case to rest.

Michelle Arrow, a Sydney-based historian, says it feels like 'unfinished business' in Australia.

Arrow edited a book called 'The Chamberlain Case'. She says plenty of Australians still believe that Lindy Chamberlain did indeed kill her own daughter.

"When I was doing another interview and I was talking to the sound engineer before we started," says Arrow, "she was like, 'I don't know, I'm pretty sure she didn't', but there were still sort of these lingering doubts."

Those doubts have lingered for more than 30 years,

In 1980, after she cried out that a dingo had stolen Azaria, and after the baby's bloody jumpsuit was found in the desert, suspicion quickly fell on Lindy Chamberlain.

An initial inquest took her at her word.

But few believed that a dingo would be able to drag off a 10-pound baby: it hadn't happened before, not as far as anyone knew.

It didn't help that Lindy Chamberlain didn't cry much on camera; people thought she didn't behave like a grieving mother ought to behave.

And then, damningly, Azaria's 'blood' was found in the Chamberlains' car.

In 1982, while pregnant with another child, Lindy was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.

The Australian court was satisfied that the case against Lindy Chamberlain had been proved.

It wasn't, not beyond reasonable doubt.

In 1986, four years after Lindy Chamberlain's conviction, another piece of Azaria's clothing was found in the Australian outback, not far from a dingo lair.

It was a jacket that Chamberlain had repeatedly told police was out there somewhere.

And so she was released, if not believed.

Not long after she left prison, Australia's 60 Minutes asked her a pointed question:

Ray Martin of 60 Minutes: "Let me ask you face to face what every Australian would ask you. Did you kill Azaria?"

Lindy Chamberlain: "No way. I loved that little girl."

At this stage, mind, Lindy Chamberlain had only been released. Her conviction still stood.

It was only after an Australian Royal Commission—a top level investigation—reported its findings in 1988 that that was overturned.

It found serious flaws in the forensic evidence used in the trial.

For instance, the 'blood' in the car wasn't blood at all, but a mixture of milk and a chemical used as a sound deadener in the vehicle's manufacture. (Australian police didn't have access to DNA tests at the time of Azaria's disappearance.)

The country was shocked. Historian Michelle Arrow says many people felt 'terribly guilty'.

But the Chamberlains did not receive any kind of official apology.

And as the years went by, the case became an international punchline, with versions of 'a dingo stole my baby' turning up on Seinfeld and other shows.

"When you actually think about what that means, it's horrific."

As far as Australians go, Michelle Arrow thinks the nervous jokes might have had something to do with a sense of unease about the outback.

"This is an Aboriginal landscape, it's not a white European landscape and somehow we don't belong there. And I think that that bubbles to surface in some of this stuff: 'why would they take a baby out into this place?' There's something there that's being suppressed."

But this was always about one family.

A further inquest in 1995 didn't settle things either. It recorded Azaria's cause of death as 'unknown', an open verdict.

The new inquest, to begin on Friday, was called for by her parents themselves.

They've pointed to a series of dingo attacks on people over the past decade, including one that killed a 9-year-old boy.

Lindy's former husband, Michael, spoke to Australia's ABC late last year.

"I just hope that, well, I'm sure that this time it'll be the ultimate verdict."

The 'ultimate verdict', as in the final, public exoneration of Lindy Chamberlain, now Chamberlain-Creighton.

And the final blaming of a wild dingo for the death of her baby.

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