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The Azaria Chamberlain Case

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  • Pages: 10
  • Word count: 2276
  • Category: Police

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On the 1st of October, 1980, Azaria Chamberlain disappeared from her campsite at Ayers Rock. Her parents, Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, claimed that a dingo had taken her. In the months and years that ensued, the Chamberlains faced innuendo fuelled by the media, undeserved public shame and an unfair verdict handed down by a jury who had been confused and persuaded by the police, forensic experts and media outlets. Reliance on circumstantial evidence, conflicting interpretations of forensic evidence, questionable evidence by so-called experts, finding an unbiased jury after a trial by media, over zealous policing, and not all available evidence presented at the trail resulted in the guilty judgment.

To begin, much of the prosecution’s arguments in the Chamberlain trial relied heavily on circumstantial evidence. The Crown had been unable to produce a motive, a murder weapon, a confession or a body. Therefore their argument consisted mainly of speculation and assumptions. It was difficult for the defence to retort these assumptions, given its limited resources. Instead of saying that Lindy Chamberlain did go to the car, and did kill Azaria, the prosecution was forced to suggest that she would have gone to the car, and would have used a sharp object to behead her child.

Another important aspect in the Chamberlain trial was the evidence presented by many forensic “experts”, which was later proved to be false or questionable. A first example was the evidence of Dr Ken Brown, a forensic odontologist (dentist). Dr Brown claimed that the holes found in Azaria’s jumpsuit were made not by the teeth of a dingo, but by scissors. Dr Brown later called upon the highly regarded London Hospital Medical College forensic team of Professor James Cameron, of forensic medicine, and Dr Bernard Sims, another forensic odontologist.

Dr Cameron stated in court that he believed the baby’s throat was cut and had been held by a small adult hand while she bled. He then followed by stating that the incisions on the jumpsuit had been made by scissors after the child had stopped bleeding. He also gave evidence that Azaria could not have been taken by a dingo because no canine could open its jaws wide enough to engulf the child’s skull. A representative from The Australian Dingo Federation later presented photographic evidence to prove that an adult dingo could easily pick up a child by the head. It was later revealed that Professor Cameron had previously given forensic evidence in a case in England, and was found to have gone into the case with false beliefs, therefore providing false conclusions and the defendant was falsely imprisoned. Furthermore, both Dr Brown and Professor Cameron admitted that they studied human teeth, had no experience in the behaviour of dingo teeth and had only used models.

In addition, claims were made by Crown witness Joy Kuhl that foetal blood was present in 22 areas of the Chamberlain’s car, which was where Lindy was assumed to have killed her baby. The most important area of blood was found under the glove box – what Kuhl assumed was an arterial spray, and coincided with the Crown’s case that Lindy severed her child’s throat in the front seat of their car. Kuhl destroyed all tests and photos regarding this evidence before she presented it in court. Later, this spray of “foetal blood” was found to be rust spray, common to the make of car at the time. She also did not explain to the court that the slides she used to demonstrate the detection of foetal blood were not slides of the actual blood samples tested, but were a set of demonstration ones showing what theory said would be found, and not necessarily what was found.

Moreover, much of the evidence that had been inspected by such “experts” had only been examined in part, i.e. parts of the baby’s jumpsuit, or had been tested with unreliable equipment, i.e. plaster casts assumed to represent dingo and baby. Malcolm Chaikin had examined the jumpsuit, and also came to the conclusion that it had been cut by scissors. However, on cross-examination, he admitted that he had examined very few threads to see if they had been cut by scissors. These experts had also made assumptions and presented them to the jury as fact. One such example was the finding of six baby hairs on the Chamberlain’s camera bag.

The prosecution linked this with their argument, but were later told that a baby loses up to 50 hairs per day. Other forensic scientists such as Professor Cameron and Anthony Jones stated that if Azaria had indeed been grasped by the head in the mouth of the dingo, she would have been bleeding profusely, and more blood would be found in and around the tent. However, this idea was challenged by Vernon Plueckhahn, an associate of Cameron’s. He claimed that the wounds in the head or neck would have been plugged by the teeth of the dingo.

However, the most influential aspect on the jury’s verdict was the media. Indeed, the Chamberlain case was commonly referred to as “trial by media” – newspapers and magazines often printed rumours about the case and believed that the Chamberlains were guilty of murdering their child. Therefore it was difficult to find an impartial jury, as the case was so widely covered and mass marketed. The media began to present false ideas, such as Azaria was abnormal or deformed and the name “Azaria” means sacrifice in the wilderness. They also turned around facts to make them seem negative – Azaria was dressed in a black sacrificial robe (she was often dressed in black, because Mrs Chamberlain liked the colour), a child’s coffin was found in the house (used by Mr Chamberlain in his stop smoking campaign), a family bible was underlined in red at a passage about a “ritual slaying” by a tent peg (red dye from the opposite page had run into the text). Because of fears that an unbiased jury would be unavailable, the case was shifted to Darwin from Alice Springs.

Lindy Chamberlain had been stereotyped into a “modern day witch” by the media, as a result of her curious religion and reaction to Azaria’s disappearance. Her family’s membership of the Seventh Day Adventist Church had been strongly emphasised by the media – most of the public considered the religion an obscure and bizarre sect who do not eat meat but pray on Sunday – the day usually reserved by ordinary Australians for watching football. The Chamberlains were shown, through innuendo, direct comment and visual picture, to be unquestionably talkative, overtly confident and almost inappropriately composed after the death of their child.

Another factor contributing to the conviction of the Chamberlains was over-zealous policing. In the first coroner’s inquest, Dennis Barritt criticised the police for their conduct during the investigation. Such a condemning spurred the police force to make sure they found someone to blame for the murder, regardless of their guilt. A camper at the Rock, Max Whittacker, who claimed that the detectives questioning him said that they had been instructed when they left Darwin that they were to dismiss from their minds anything to do with a dingo having taken the child, that it was a murder investigation that they were on and all their questions were to be directed along that line. The detective told him that he expected the Chamberlains to confess to the killing.

Mr Whittacker also petitioned to the Governor General, saying that an experience he had while at the Rock had been overlooked in the investigation. On the night of the disappearance, Mr Whittacker was involved in the search to find some clue of the whereabouts of the baby. He and his daughter were among a group called by a ranger to help both him and an Aboriginal tacker follow dingo paw prints and scrape marks in the sand. Both he and his daughter were lead to believe they were following the trail of a dingo which appeared to be carrying a heavy object, leaving scrape marks. He said “I now know that the Aboriginal’s account of following these tracks that night has been denied by rangers and the Aboriginal’s account of this incident has not been accepted.

If the Aboriginal tracker’s account of this incident, which I can verify, had been believed, I am sure that it would have proved strong link in a chain of evidence leading to a logical conclusion; that a dingo had taken Azaria that night. I am compelled because of the obvious injustice to recount the events described above. It is inexplicable to me how anyone involved in this incident could forget or deny that this took place.”

Also, in the case it was found that not all available evidence had been gathered, benefiting the case for the prosecution. Lindy’s mother, Mrs Avis Murchison, found what she claimed were two dingo prints on a blanket form inside the tent, and gave the blanket to the police. Later she said “I understand that when the detective gave evidence he said that there was nothing significant on the blanket when he received it. And I also understand that the young policeman who picked it up said there were marks on the blanket, but you could not say that they were dingo footprints. Now I know that young man was convinced by the way he spoke and I would really like to know what happened to those footprints.”

Yet another example of police interference was presented by Senior Constable Graham and a Tennant Creek local. Constable Graham, who hadn’t been called on at the trial, stated that he had searched the Chamberlain’s car at the time for over two hours looking for blood stains or evidence of the removal of blood, however found none. The man of Tennant Creek explained to police how a pet dingo rushed into the community, ripped the throat of a nine month old Aboriginal child and started carrying it off. He reported the incident to police during the inquest, but was told he was liable to be charged for not having reported it at the time. At the inquest, nothing of the incident was mentioned, and the impression was given that dingos never attack Aboriginal children.

It was a combination of all of these factors that caused the jury to return a guilty verdict. A jury consists of 12 members of the community with no legal training or connection to a case, to determine the verdict of a trial. The main advantage of the jury system is that one is judged by their peers, rather than a system. The jury should not be pressured by the government and remain objective.

Being judged by a group of your peers is the most important factor of the jury system. For a criminal offence, it is considered that the offence has been committed against the whole of society. For example, if a man is convicted of abducting a woman from a train at night, it would have an affect on the lives of the women of the community. They would feel less safe about travelling alone, on public transport, and at night. Therefore, the community has a responsibility to determine what punishment such an offender should be given.

It is also believed that the jury is the best judge of the credibility of a witness, and are can determine what behaviour is characterised as being reasonable or unreasonable. The reasoning behind this is that they bring a multitude of backgrounds and experiences to the task of determining a verdict that is far broader than one judge alone could possess. They can discuss such experiences and backgrounds that form an opinion with their fellow jurors, and can compromise to come up with the fairest action possible. As it is a group, it also has the benefit of collective recall.

A judge is bound to precedent and statute; however the jury will take into account the “human” factors of a case, in which they establish the broader community conscience. The jury can adjust the law to the merits of each case, whereas precedent and statute will set down the law in a general sense. Bound by precedent, a judge must stick to one path, without room for sympathy or these “human” elements of a case, whereas the jury will enterprise to serve justice based on the specific facts of the case.

The jury provides the link between the criminal justice system and the community. An important function of the jury is that it should make sure the court does not alienate itself from the community – it keeps the system in step with the standards of the people. They represent current ethical conventions and “are a constraint on legalism, arbitrariness and bureaucracy”. To accept the decisions of the court as legitimate, a society must agree with the way justice is carried out.

It is because of the above reasons that the jury system is a positive aspect of the criminal law courts, and should be retained. It keeps the system in touch with the people and their standards of ethics. The people of the community aren’t pressured by a system to hand down a specific judgement and aren’t bound by statute or precedent, so can examine and determine the more emotional aspects of a case, which results in a fairer and more just decision.

Sources: Media articles collected and housed at the Legal Resource Centre, New South Wales State Reference Library, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. No bibliography was requested for this essay.

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