AZARIA Chamberlain’s disappearance from a campsite at Uluru in the Northern Territory on August 17, 1980, opened one of the strangest and most controversial episodes in Australian legal history.
Public imagination was captured by the tragedy from the very first, with baby Azaria’s parents subjected to the minutest scrutiny in every area of their lives by those who disbelieved their assertion that a dingo had taken the nine-week-old child.
The religious beliefs of Azaria’s parents, their dress and their demeanour appeared to become substitutes for evidence in a criminal case notable for its lack of a body and its lack of a motive.
To many, it seemed incredible that murder charges could have been laid in such circumstances. To others, however, the circumstantial and the inferred took on sinister overtones and – to widespread surprise in many legal circles – Lindy Chamberlain was found guilty of murder in 1982. She served three years in jail.
Her husband, Michael Chamberlain, was convicted of being an accessory after the fact, receiving a suspended sentence.
It didn’t take long after the convictions for the reaction to set in. A wave of communal regret gripped the nation as cooler heads reviewed the case and picked dispassionately through the forensic evidence that had been marshalled by the Northern Territory police.
That evidence unravelled quickly. What had seemed firm and unquestionable became shaky and uncertain.
Many of those who had revelled in the gossip and speculation surrounding the Chamberlains during their trial suffered a collective spasm of guilt.
By 1987 a royal commission had exonerated the couple and in 1992 they received financial compensation.
In ruling this week that the dingo explanation was plausible, and accepting it formally as the cause of Azaria’s death, coroner Elizabeth Morris capped off a 32-year saga full of twists and turns.
Central to the coroner’s decision was evidence placed before her about the known propensity of dingoes to attack humans in some circumstances.
This case, now so much a part of the Australian psyche, contains many lessons. Some of those lessons concern prejudice, in its true sense, and the manner in which that human flaw can so readily produce injustice, even inside a legal system purportedly designed to discard the subjective and weigh only facts in its balance.
Upper Hunter needs
WHO should benefit from government funding for Upper Hunter infrastructure?
With such small sums so far made available, the question is highly pertinent.
The government announced this week that it will spend almost $10million on a hospital upgrade and roadworks.
But the Minerals Council says the government should fund mining-related infrastructure such as roads and rail. Hospital upgrades, it says, should come from the state’s regular health budget.
From a community perspective, however, it wouldn’t be surprising if many were glad to take the hospital upgrade and let the miners lobby for their own extra subsidies.