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Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Dingo Ate the Baby

     According to Lindy Chamberlain, on August 17, 1980, while she, her husband Michael, and their three children were camping near Ayer's Rock in Australia's outback, she saw a dingo (a wild dog) come out of the family's tent with her 9-week-old baby in it's mouth. "The dingo's got my baby!" she screamed. The infant, named Azaria, was never found. The incident grabbed headlines around the world. In Australia, the media portrayed Lindy Chamberlain as a remorseless killer.

     In Darwin, at the Magistrates Court, a coroner's inquest jury found no cause to charge the parents with criminal homicide. This was not a popular verdict, and in 1981, a second coroner's jury heard evidence in the case. This time, Lindy and Michael Chamberlain were ordered to stand trial for the murder of Azaria.

     Although the prosecutor lacked evidence of a crime--he didn't even have a body--the trial jury found Lindy guilty of first degree murder. The media applauded the verdict, and the judge, bending to public opinion, sentenced her to life in prison. Michael Chamberlain, found guilty of accessory after the fact, received a suspended sentence.

     In 1985, a hiker found a piece of the baby's clothing in a dingo's den near Ayer's Rock. Presented with this new, exonerating evidence, an appellate court, in 1987, overturned the convictions. Many Australians were not happy with this decision. The following year, a movie came out about the case called "A Cry in the Dark" starring Meryl Streep as Lindy Chamberlain.

     Because many people in Australia believed that Lindy Chamberlain had murdered her baby, the authorities, in anticipation of a retrial, convened a third coroner's inquest in Darwin's Magistrates Court. The jury in the 1995 inquiry returned an open verdict, declaring the cause and manner of the baby's death unknown.

     On February 24, 2012, the Magistrates Court in Darwin was, for the fourth time, the site of a coroner's inquest into the death of the Chamberlain baby. Lindy Chamberlain had asked for the hearing to clear her name. Specifically, she wanted the coroner's jurors to change Azaria's manner of death from "unknown" to "accidental death by animal attack." Both parents, now divorced, were in the courtroom to hear testimony bearing on the case.

     According to an expert on such matters, from 1990 to 2011, there have been 239 dingo attacks in Queensland, Australia. Since 1982, at least three children have been killed by these wild dogs. These statistics were presented to make Lindy Chamberlain's account of her baby's death seem less farfetched. While public opinion had already shifted in her favor, she wanted to make it official.

     The coroner's verdict has not been published, but is expected to exonerate the Chamberlains. While there has never been any evidence of foul play in this case, there will always be, notwithstanding the coroner's verdict, doubters. And a lot of this doubt can be traced back to the irresponsible journalism in this case.

     

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