Sunday, February 26, 2012

Third Party Culpability: The Dingo Really Did Take the Baby-Well Maybe

Lindy and Azaria
In any prosecution it is generally permissible for a defendant to introduce evidence that someone other than the accused committed the offense. The evidence is admissible if it establishes a direct connection between a third party and the crime charged. In the early 1980's Lindy Chamberlain was charged with murder in connection with the death of her nine week old daughter. Her husband, Michael, was also charged as an accessory after the fact for the same offense. The Chamberlains' defense was that a third party was responsible for the death of their infant daughter, Azaria. The alleged perpetrator in her case, however, was not another human being, but rather a dog-more specifically canis lupus dingo, or dingo, a wild dog native to Australia. The case first drew national attention in Australia and later international fame when Lindy's ordeal was the subject of a movie A Cry in the Dark starring Merly Streep.

The case has significant parallels to the matter of the West Memphis Three. The parallels are remarkable not because of the similarities, but rather, the dis-similarities as the facts of each case are as diametrically opposed as the respective hemispheres where the incidents occurred. The defendants in the West Memphis Three were three youths; the Chamberlains' were the parents of three young children. The prosecutor in the West Memphis case argued that the victims were killed as part of a satanic ritual. In the Chamberlain case, an unstated subtext of the police investigation and the prosecution's case was that the crime was a sacrificial rite committed by religious fanatics-the Chamberlains were both members the Seventh Day Adventists Church. While science was to play a pivotal role in correcting each miscarriage of justice, the Australians acted with relative swiftness, releasing Lindy three years into her prison term and quashing the convictions of each parents two years later (her husband received a suspended sentence). On the northern side of the equator, the West Memphis Three waited over seventeen years before they were begrudgingly released and only after pleading guilty under the Alford doctrine. While Lindy was financially compensated for her wrongful conviction, the West Memphis Three were rewarded with probationary terms following their release. Since Lindy's conviction, two separate inquiries have been held in an attempt to determine the actual cause of Azaria's death. To date, the West Memphis prosecutors have done little more than pay lip service to the evidence of third party culpability that exists in those cases. The common theme of each conviction, however, is that ignorance and prejudice were substantial factors that contributed to the verdicts of each trial.

Azaria Chamberlain went missing on August 17, 1980 in the Australian Outback. Her parents, and two brothers, Aiden and Reagan, ages 6 and 4 were on a camping vacation in Uluru the aborigine name for Ayers Rock, a giant red monolith located in the Northern Territory of Australia. On the second night of their stay, several campers heard a low growl followed by a baby's cry. When Lindy returned to her tent she saw a dingo running off. The tent where her daughter was sleeping was empty; there were dingo paw prints in the area and blood on the bedding inside the tent. Despite an intensive search of the surrounding area, the body of Azaria was never found; a week later, bloody clothing worn by the infant was found near a boulder at the base of Ayers Rock. Although the authorities had received reports of dingo attacks on children only weeks before Azaria's disappearance, they doubted that a dingo had the strength to carry off the child in the manner described and suspected that the child was murdered by her mother.

At the first inquest, concluded on February, 20, 1981, the coroner, Denis Barritt, found that the child was probably killed by a dingo. However, the authorities, media, and general public were not satisfied and continued to suspect the couple. Bigotry concerning the Chamberlains' adherence to the Seventh Day Adventists faith-believed by many Australians to be nothing more than a devil worshiping cult- produced a stream of bizarre rumors including the claim that the name Azaria meant "sacrifice in the wilderness". Later that year, the police searched the Chamberlain's home and auto in Cooranbong, New South Wales, some 1700 miles from Uluru. During the search, they found what was believed to be blood spatter on the front seat of the family car. Further investigation of the child's clothing claimed that the tears were caused by scissors rather than an animal. Aided by inept investigation techniques, dubious scientific evidence and harsh public opinion, the Supreme Court for the Northwest Territories quashed the findings of the first inquest and ordered a second. At that hearing, Coroner Gerry Galvin committed Lindy Chamberlain for trial for the murder of Azaria and her husband, Michael, on the charge of being an accessory after the fact.

The prosecution theorized that Lindy, in the space of five to ten minutes, had slashed her daughter's throat in the front seat of the car, stuffed it into a camera bag and returned to the barbeque area until an opportunity presented itself to blame a dingo for the baby's disappearance. They further claimed that Chamberlains later buried the body and planted the clothing in the area it was eventually found. The most damning evidence was a contentious forensic report claiming to have found fetal haemoglobin, typically present in infants six months or younger, in the Chamberlains' car. Years later, further analysis showed the substance to be a combination of baby's milk and a chemical sprayed during the manufacture of the automobile. Evidence of Lindy's innocence fell on the jurors' deaf ears. The un-contradicted evidence of witnesses who observed Lindy to be a devoted and affectionate mother to the baby and her sons was overshadowed by the media created impression left by her apparent coldness in her pre-trial interviews with the press. Evidence that there were dingos sighted in the vicinity of the campground, dingo paw prints leading from the tent, as well as their prior attacks on children was, likewise, ignored. On October 29, 1982, the jury convicted both parents of the offenses.

Ironically, it was the unrelated death of a hiker that led to the exoneration of the Chamberlains. In February, 1986, after the Federal Court and Austrian High Court had rejected their appeals, the police were investigating the disappearance of missing man last seen climbing Ayers Rock. During the course of their search, they found the matinee jacket worn by Azaria near a dingo den and were confronted with the reality that the criminal justice system had failed. A week later, the government of the Northern Territory released Lindy from prison and announced that there would be a new inquiry into Azaria's death. In the lengthy report issued by Justice Trevor Morling, he discredited much of the original evidence and concluded that the case against the Chamberlains was insubstantial and the verdicts were "unsafe". Several months later, the government of the Northern Territory enacted special legislation that allowed the Chamberlains to apply to the Criminal Appeals to have their convictions quashed. Finally, on September 15, 1988, the appellate court unanimously quashed the convictions.

A third inquest held in 1995, Coroner John Lowndes returned an open finding, meaning the baby’s death was registered as “cause unknown” - a finding that will likely be overturned by a fourth inquest now underway before Coroner Elizabeth Morris. In that hearing, an investigator testified that between 1990 and 2011 there have been over two hundred documented attacks by dingos on humans including three fatal attacks on children and fourteen other significant attacks. The lawyer assisting the coroner, Rex Wild, a former director of public prosecutions in the Northern Territory, has asked the court to "accept on the balance of probabilities that the dingo theory is the correct one."

Despite the evidence, there are still those who will continue to believe that Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton (now divorced and remarried) murdered her daughter. It is a sad commentary that the ignorance and prejudices of some allows them to afford a "presumption of innocence" to a wild dog but not to the devoted and loving mother of a newborn. UPDATE June 12, 2012. The coroner has ruled that the cause of Azaria Chamberlain's death was "the result of being attacked and taken by a dingo." The death certificate will be changed to reflect this new finding.


  1. I reside in australia and remember this sad case well in apite of it having been 30 years ago. Presently there is a 4th inquest having taken place with findings to be hopefully handed down this week. Lindy and Michael seek closure by way of baby Azaria's death certificate to say she was the victim of a dingo attack. The similarities are striking but the most remarkable difference being that even after their appeals had been upheld that week after finding baby Azaria's matinee jacket Lindy was released and an inquiry completed. I cannot understand why Ellington after saying the WM3 would have been granted new trials due to the new evidence and that he believed they would be exonerated, why a full inquiry into the evidence used against the WM3 (now debunked by various forensic experts and new witnesses), has not taken place? And like the poor Chamberlains, despite the evidence and witnesses to the contrary of said convictions, there are still those who continue to argue their original convictions. A step father of one of the victims seems to have far more evidence stacked up against him as well as his alibi has fallen apart. It sure seems to link a third party to the crime charged... Perhaps you or your readers may be interested in our WM3 web site

    1. A person's beliefs carry far more weight than evidence. If a person believes that the victims in the WM3 case were sacrificed in a satanic ritual, they will believe the testimony of "experts" like Dale Griffis and ignore far more credible evidence of witnesses such as Doctor Baden and John Douglas.

      A stupid idea is still stupid no matter how many people believe it.

    2. Reminds me of how bullying and gossip causes our teens to commit suicide! Pack mentality all wound up into a frenzy believing the worst because of it's shock value. Get the media involved dieminating incorrect information and viola! The perfect storm in a tea cup....

  2. As far as I am aware the Australian legal system is more closely aligned to that in the UK and, as such, the primary focus of Prosecutors, Judges etc is on Justice rather than anticipating 'popularity' contests for future career moves and crossing over into politics.
    Because of the Alford Pleas, the state of Arkansas is able to consider the case closed and thus can ignore the task of re-investigating for another 'suspect'.
    If the state considers the three men who spent so long in prison to be the real perpetrators then surely there is no way whatsoever that they would have been released, one of them off Death Row?
    America relishes her position as being perceived as the greatest world power to the rest of the planet whilst hoping that travesties of justice like the West Memphis Three case will 'go away'. It won't. Whichever way you look at it Arkansas has allowed a killer or killers to walk free.

    I am glad for the parents of the baby that the Coronor's Court is yet again considering it's verdict which will really enable all to draw a line under the case.
    Meanwhile those who are not happy with the state of affairs of the WM3 case, including some of the families of the murdered boys, have to continue to fight for justice and resolution.
    The three released men need to be exonerated and the case needs to be re-opened.

    At Ayers Rock the dingoes were the guilty ones, in West Memphis a killer is still at large -- and has been for nearly 18 years now.
    Poor investigation, sloppy science, basic ignorance and fear among the local populations were at the roots of both travesties.
    Australians shlould be proud that their Judiciary did the right thing and was able to admit their mistakes so quickly and honourably.
    The ball is firmly in the court of Arkansas. How long is the wait going to be?

    1. I completely agree. The speed at which the government agencies in Australia acted to correct this miscarriage of justice is remarkable and extraordinary. Every time a United States citizen is convicted in a foreign country, there are those that would condemn the system rather than seriously question the guilt of the accused. In many ways, our system of justice is far inferior to that of other civilized countries. Amanda Knox, convicted in Italy under the Napoleonic Code, would still be in prison if her case had been tried in an American Court. I have little doubt that if this case were tried in the states, Lindy Chamberlain would have spent at least ten years in prison before anyone seriously considered the inconvenient fact that she was innocent.

    2. Totaly agree Vincent! I watched on with utter disgust with what had happenend in Amanda Nox's case yet was satisfied with what the Italian judidial system decided. Yes, Australia did work quickly and admitted their serious errors once that lil matinee jacket had been found and so on it went....and it is as it should be. One week after it being found and Lindy was freed! The inconvenience of having to pay for such judicial errors of wrongfully convicting the innocent seems to have played on the mind of Ellington tis for sure. I cannot believe before that Alford Plea Agreement was finalised Ellington made them all sign an agreement not to sue for damamges. Now how does that sit with those hell bent on the guilt of the WM3?

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