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Paul Toohey
Paul Toohey

Life in the Top End

Witch hunt

By Paul Toohey
July 15, 2000

There is always a woman, in the shape of a battered sideshow tin duck, crossing the national horizon, says Les Murray in his 1997 poem A Deployment of Fashion. "In Australia," he writes, "a lone woman is being crucified by the Press at any given moment."

It is for a defect in weeping, he says, for not weeping on cue. "She is rogue property, she must be taught her weeping. It is done for the millions. Sometimes the millions join in with jokes: How do you get a baby in the Northern Territory? Just stick your finger down a dingo's throat."

It's almost 20 years since Azaria Chamberlain's disappearance propelled her mother to a seat of infamy, a lonely and no doubt horrible place. Lindy Chamberlain's baby was taken by a dingo. She didn't ask for what she got - that is, if you have come around to believing she didn't do it.

According to Bob Collins, former opposition leader in the Northern Territory and a former Labor senator, who was more than any other person responsible for bringing political pressure to the Free Lindy campaign, the greatest obstacle in changing public perception about Lindy was the women of Australia.

"It didn't matter to me whether she was guilty or innocent," Collins says. "I knew the verdict stunk on ice. I knew it was totally unsound because of the amount of prejudice around at the time.

"Women in particular astonished me. They had a much, much harder view on Lindy Chamberlain than men did. They really went for her in a big way. Out of any group, five out of ten men might say she did it. Nine out of ten women were convinced she was horrible and she was guilty." Collins believes perception has shifted little in two decades.

That is why, it is said, prosecutors try to stack the murder trial of a woman with women jurors. They're more likely to convict. Who knows why? Perhaps they take the process of life and death a little more personally.

It was the knowledge men store about women - that if they are seen to be less than perfect, they can be eminently cut down to size - that made the decision to proceed against Lindy as a murderer such a sure bet. Her husband Michael, who the Crown claimed was in on his daughter's death, was only an accessory after Lindy's fact. This was women's business.

Lindy Chamberlain's trial, conviction and jailing were more an event than a legal process. The events were managed by men, but it was the testimony of a woman - NSW forensic biologist Joy Kuhl - that did the real damage. Her evidence was a picture of a Holden Torana awash with the blood of the baby. Anyone who claims he or she didn't venture an opinion at the time on how it got there is either a saint or a liar.

The so-called conspiracy against Lindy Chamberlain - which saw her describe herself as a "political prisoner" - only gathered real legs at the dying end of Lindy's almost three-year stint in jail.

In 1985, the Northern Territory Government responded to pressure by appointing its own solicitor-general, Brian Martin, to conduct an inquiry into whether there should be a full judicial inquiry into the Chamberlain conviction. Martin, now Chief Justice of the Northern Territory Supreme Court, was instrumental in bringing the original murder charges against Lindy. It was easy to create an argument that he was a less than impartial person for the job.

Martin had taken Dr Simon Baxter, another key prosecution witness, to Germany to visit the manufacturer of the reagent, Behringwerke. This was the suspect blood test reagent that Joy Kuhl had used to such devastating effect against Lindy in the trial. Martin concluded there was no reason for a judicial inquiry: there was no new evidence that dingoes were predatory animals, and there was nothing wrong with the reagent. After the release of his report, Behring scientists wrote Martin a long letter in stilted English: "It appears you have misunderstood some of our points."

For those who saw a NT Government conspiracy, they formed and divided it along three further strands. The first was that the Territory had only been granted self-government in 1978 and, being new to the world, wanted to be seen as able to prosecute its own matters in a professional way, without federal interference. The first chief minister, Paul Everingham, was got at by coppers and lawyers who convinced him that Lindy had made a fool of Dennis Barritt, the coroner who had treated her like his own lost daughter and lamely blamed a dingo.

The second strand was that the Yulara hotel complex was being built near the Rock at the time, and overseas tourists wouldn't come to a place where dingoes ate babies. It was weak. People will go 5000km to smell the breath of a lion.

The third was based on undisputed fact: that for the two years before Azaria went missing, Ayers Rock chief ranger Derek Roff had been writing to the government urging a dingo cull and warning of imminent human tragedy. Dingoes were becoming increasingly cheeky, approaching and sometimes biting people. The government had ignored his letters. Conspirators said they wanted to avoid a costly legal suit from the Chamberlains, and others.

In 1987, the NT Administrator pardoned Alice Lynne Chamberlain and Michael Leigh Chamberlain, but that wasn't good enough for them. A pardon still carried the inference that they had been forgiven for murder. They went to the NT Court of Criminal Appeal, which in 1988 quashed their convictions and acquitted them. Twelve years after Azaria had disappeared, the NT Government paid the Chamberlains $1.3 million, plus $396,000 for legal costs. And $19,000 for a totally dismembered Torana.

It was Paul Everingham who had authorised another police investigation after Barritt cleared the Chamberlains. Everingham says he spent the 2000 New Year's Eve celebrations at Uluru: "You know, the Chamberlain case didn't cross my mind once."

Lindy and Michael Chamberlain became totally fictitious human beings, characters unrecognisable even to themselves. Exposure nailed each of them to the wall, but on opposite sides of the room. The trauma of trial revealed traits in each other that left their small-town life way behind. From Lindy, unfamiliar opinions, unexpected resolve, unscheduled survival instincts. It was as if Michael had looked at her naked for the first time. Their life together was no longer a long, little moment. It was all big. Lindy kept up; Michael broke down.

Lindy discovered what she had never known about herself, and what had certainly never occurred to Michael: she was smart. Michael was a low-paid, small-town Seventh Day Adventist pastor who had rejoiced in faith. Michael began a sad, holy retreat into himself. His faith stubbornly reasoned that his own and his wife's pain was part of God's grander plan, a pain Lindy accepted to a point.

But faith was not getting her out of prison. She would have preferred science to lend a hand. And Lindy, who with such startling candour would tell anyone who saw her in the days after Azaria's death how a dingo could peel apart a baby like an orange, was paradoxically a terribly practical, religious woman.

A former chief minister who didn't want to be named suggests, "just as a thought", that if Lindy had pleaded to infanticide she "probably would've done less than 12 months and most people would have understood why she did it". There were strong rumours about that the government would release her if she asked for a pardon. Those who went in kindness to suggest it might be a good idea to take the pardon were hounded out the jail's gates.

It was not God, science, inquests, politics, pardons or public opinion that eventually saved Lindy Chamberlain, but an "out-of-his-head lunatic" from England. Then again, maybe God did play a part.

David Brett had crossed the world to visit the desert, and brought his mental illness with him. "God told him to go to Australia and climb Ayers Rock, where he was to be transported to Heaven," says Bob Collins. Brett was last seen climbing an area away from the marked path to the summit, on January 26, 1986. "He falls off to his death into the desert," says Collins. "The police go to recover his body. A foot away from his body, the copper sees a little bit of cloth sticking out of the dirt."

The discovery of Azaria's matinee jacket, right next to a dingo's den, threw the thrust of the original Crown case on its head. Lindy's lawyers had always said the reason there was no dingo saliva on the baby's jumpsuit was because she was wearing a matinee jacket. The Crown said the jacket was a fiction - there was no saliva found because sharp scissors don't salivate.

Lindy Chamberlain, convicted without the Crown ever producing a motive, was released a few days after Brett's dingo-mauled corpse was discovered. "She's still a convicted murderess out on remission," said Northern Territory Attorney-General and later euthanasia enthusiast, Marshall Perron, at the time.

Two years after Lindy was released, royal commissioner Trevor Morling wrote a savage indictment not only on the state of Australia's fledgling forensic practices, but on those who claimed international expertise in the field. In those days, DNA wasn't even an acronym in circulation. Lindy was jailed for being a (probably) depressed mother who sat in the front passenger seat of the family Torana, pushed her baby's head back and chopped at her throat with scissors.

Why Lindy decided to bloody up the car when there was all of Central Australia to bleed upon was anybody's guess. Morling said the baby's warm arterial spray, found arcing across the car's internal firewall, was standard Holden sound deadener.

English forensic expert Professor James Cameron - whose testimony had in one notable case sent the wrong people to jail back in his homeland - had given evidence during the trial of a small, bloodied, adult handprint on the baby's jumpsuit - Lindy's. This claim was "totally destroyed", said Morling, by new evidence that "what he thought was blood on the back of the jumpsuit was, in fact, red sand".

Morling claimed the Crown's blood evidence was "in considerable disarray". And he went on, and on, tearing the original Crown case to shreds. The quantity and distribution of blood in the Chamberlains' tent "has been shown to be at least as consistent with the dingo hypothesis as it is with murder". Morling wrote: "I must now answer the question whether, in the light of all the evidence, there are doubts as to the Chamberlains' guilt. In my opinion this question must be answered in the affirmative."

Morling said Lindy's inability to explain how the blood came to be under the dashboard of the car was "probably disastrous" for her, as far as the jury was concerned. It seemed inconceivable to Morling that when Lindy famously "disappeared" with Azaria for a few minutes to slaughter the baby, she took her son Aidan with her as witness to his sister's death. And calmly returned, minutes later, in the presence of other campers who were sharing the barbecue hotplate, without any blood on her.

Joy Kuhl, now head of police forensic biology in Darwin, prefers not to think about the time she gave evidence as to the presence of foetal blood in the car, but not necessarily because she has changed her mind. "I suppose the most impact was the first attendance at Alice Springs for the second inquest. At that stage I was an anonymous biologist, never exposed to media. I found it frightening.

"I had no idea I could be pursued and chased down a street. At the royal commission, I'd never seen so many media and legal people all together. It was a feeding frenzy. To face over 12 legal people at one time is a fairly daunting prospect. So was being chased down Martin Place [Sydney] by photographers. I didn't like that."

Kuhl will not reflect on the way her lab practices eventually saw her painted, by Lindy supporters, as the real criminal. "It was a different laboratory culture we were in then," she says. "It's all very well to say in hindsight we would have done things differently." Kuhl agrees forensic techniques have improved since the trial, but says that wasn't because of the Chamberlain case - they would have improved anyway. She adds: "Who knows what we would have found today?"

"Witch hunt" was a term used by Lindy defenders, but without proper consideration of its implication. They thought it meant putting an innocent woman to the stake. Apparently, most of us - in 1984, a Morgan Gallup Poll claimed 53 per cent of Australians said she was guilty - wanted the witch.

In the 1988 film of John Bryson's book, Evil Angels, there are scenes depicting dinner parties, pub conversations and press banter wherein the public verdict is almost unanimous: guilty.

Lindy failed to take into account the nation's sensibilities by imprudently turning up to trial pregnant with a "deliberate" second daughter, Kahlia. This, along with the famous orange peel monologue, was her worst PR moment. But as proof she could do nothing right, her very best moment also worked badly against her: that is, Lindy never said she actually saw the baby in the jaws of the dingo. If she was a clever, premeditating liar, that should have been her first and primary deceit.

Morling, like the rest of Australia, found the Chamberlains' behaviour at Ayers Rock strange. He didn't extrapolate, but it was presumably the way Michael took photos for the southern press on the day after his daughter's disappearance. And how they stopped at a souvenir shop on the way home, to buy Ayers Rock picture-cups for their nephews. They were, without question, odd. Michael, especially so. At the time, it seemed as if he were waiting for God to drop in and explain the angle. By all accounts, he is still waiting.

No doubt Morling was referring to Joy Kuhl and Professor Cameron when he said, "Some of the experts who gave evidence at the trial were over-confident of their ability to form opinions that lay on the outer margins of their fields of expertise."

Why believe Trevor Morling when the second of the coronial inquests, the trial and two failed freedom appeals, including one to the High Court, agreed that Lindy belonged in jail? Only because he came up with a better story, one that went closest to what the first coroner, Dennis Barritt, had decided back in 1980. Except Barritt, who is now dead, went out on a wild limb while simultaneously exonerating the parents.

Out of all the judicial officers to handle the Chamberlains, Barritt was closest, time-wise, to the evidence. He found death by dingo. Yet he closed the inquest into the nine-week-old baby's death with these frustratingly unexplored remarks, which are no doubt to this day responsible for sending the nation on its ceaseless search for an answer, or an opinion: "I find that, after her death, the body of Azaria was taken from possession of the dingo and disposed of by an unknown method, by a person or persons, name unknown."

Barritt heard no evidence on who this person or persons might have been. He might have been basing his assumption on a policeman's evidence that the jumpsuit was "folded" when it was found. But the camper who actually found the jumpsuit a few days after Azaria's disappearance, Wally Goodwin, said the local police officer had dumbly picked up the jumpsuit, in amazement, then folded it neatly back in place while waiting for the serious cops to arrive.

Barritt's ambiguity also gave rise to one of the rare pro-Lindy rumours: that a ranger had befriended a dingo at Ayers Rock. Ding, the dingo, ripped the baby from the tent and dragged her home, the way a cat brings in a mouse. Except that the dingo had eaten most of the baby on the way.

The ranger found the remains and, feeling the dread of detached responsibility, took what was left of the child and tossed it at the base of the rock. It is said that Lindy Chamberlain had empathy for the story but refused to allow her lawyers to follow it through. She didn't want anyone else strung up for what were essentially the deeds of a dog.

Barritt didn't infer that Lindy or her weirdly pious and blank husband were the "unknowns". But he must have been looking at them through a furrowed brow. After his baby had been taken, Michael broke off in the direction of God and bolted into the desert night, yelling in useless frustration, "I am a minister of the gospel!"

Barritt's remarks were based on evidence that Azaria's body was tracked, carried by a dingo, going one way from the Ayers Rock campsite, while her clothes were found in the other. What he said about human intervention has frustrated the campsite witnesses, all of whom - like the Aborigines who live near the Rock - have stuck by the Chamberlains through the years.

Judy West and her husband, Bill, who is now sick, were camped next to the Chamberlains on August 17, 1980. They were and still are from Esperance, in the south of Western Australia. "I'd always thought justice was a foregone conclusion, that it was straight, absolutely set in stone," says Judy West. "That justice was justice.

"It changed my mind [but] my confidence has been regained a bit, I now think justice can be realised. But people are still polarised as to whether Lindy is guilty or innocent. People who were convinced of her guilt then have found it very hard to change."

West says she was never scared by the press or overwhelmed by prosecution questioning. Those who were at Ayers Rock never doubted that Lindy was a loving mother. And the prosecution never accused the campsite witnesses - those who heard the dingo growl, those who met the Chamberlains and joined the search - of being liars.

"The closest [Crown prosecutor] Ian Barker came to it was to dismiss the claims of snowdropping dingoes. I think he made fun of my evidence," she says without rancour towards Barker. West, now in her seventies, said at the trial that she had seen a dingo tugging at a line of drying clothes around the time of the disappearance.

"I was totally at a loss to understand how the trial could be going so totally wrong. I was caught completely off guard. Nothing [in evidence] was ever coming up to say that here was a young mother who loved a child that was taken under circumstances that were completely understandable. There were notices all over the place - `don't feed the dingoes'. They were feral and hungry. Everyone who was there knew a dingo had taken a baby. Bill once said if they'd been Church of England or Catholic, it would never have happened."

Aboriginal tracker Nipper Winmarti was the man who, unwittingly, had been deeply shamed by Dennis Barritt at the original coroner's inquest. Barritt wanted to know whether dingoes had ever taken their children from camps around the Rock. He asked if Aborigines had a "dreaming" for dingoes and children.

Winmarti publicly breached men's business by telling how it was taboo for women to have twins that both die. To avoid the chance of this happening, the weaker is taken and left out in the bush. "For the dingoes," said Winmarti. In 1985, he made a simple statement, hoping it would clear a few things up, given that the evidence he gave of tracking a dingo carrying a heavy bundle - which he said was the baby - had been ignored: "That lady didn't kill her baby, a dingo did. Talk and the dingo are guilty."

Well-meaning assistance proved futile to the woman inside. A male juror went to a journalist to confess how the jury had arrived at their verdict - they had disregarded almost all the evidence, he said, concentrating only on whether Lindy was capable of murder. A few years later, when Lindy was free, a TV station arranged a meeting between her and one of the female jurors, Yvonne Cain. Cain said she planned to say something profound when she first met Lindy. All that came out was, "Sorry", as she fell into a heap of tears. Lindy told her: "It's not your fault."

Graeme Charlwood was the man who arrested Lindy Chamberlain. He now heads investigations at WA's Anti-Corruption Commission. Police have been attacked tirelessly over the Chamberlains. Justice Morling later tried to hose down the antipathy by saying they had done nothing wrong - they only took action after being fed bad forensic science. But Charlwood says police did not pursue Lindy solely on the basis of scientific evidence - their investigation produced a composite picture of guilt.

Charlwood was 28 and already detective-sergeant, fast-tracked for success because of his meticulous and unemotional approach to crime solving. In the end, as in the beginning, it came down to her and him.

"An investigation," he says, "in the hackneyed definition, is a search for truth in accordance with the law. There are certain operational and procedural parameters you work within. That applied then as now. Police aren't judge, jury and executioner. We had one role in the process. The role is to gather evidence for the coroner. We did. And out of that flowed criminal charges and our role was to gather evidence in relation to those charges. We did that."

Charlwood says he never really liked the dingo story. "Not to the extent that others would. That's a personal view. And, I've got to say, neither did the jury. Neither did two appeal courts. I'm not unique in having that view."

In lawyer John Bryson's Evil Angels, said by some to be the definitive pro-Lindy book, he touches on how she could not help but approve of this neat young officer, four years her junior and possibly the only person in the soon-to-gather circus made of tougher steel than her.

"She never showed it," Charlwood says. "I must admit, she's never sent me a Christmas card, and nor I her. From my perspective, I didn't dislike her.

I didn't have any view of her personally. As a professional investigator, you can't - it wasn't my role. I had to look at things objectively and dispassionately. And I did that.

"The incident itself didn't touch me personally. I wasn't investigating the disappearance of one of my own children. You've got to take an arm's-length view of these things. I don't believe as a detective you can deal with it any other way. Over the course of my career I did see detectives become too close to matters and at the end of the day it had the potential to cloud their judgement. You've got to avoid getting into that situation."

Charlwood looks back on the case as one that took up too much of his time. "I don't know that the truth has been found and I don't know that it will ever be found," he says. "There were unknowns and things that will never be definitely known. You're relying on people's truthfulness to give you accounts of what they've observed or were party to. You don't always get that. I can't sit here today and say all of the truth came out. I don't think it did."

Not much good came out of the Chamberlain trial, says John Bryson. "The rush to judgement is still strong. There was nothing positive that came out that was comparable to the hurt. But what did come out of it eventually was a different response from the journalism profession - it was the journalists who later were saying to the public: we maybe should look at this again.

"If that hadn't happened, maybe the fight to clear them would've been beyond those support groups that arose around them at the time. They began as sympathetic religious groups but broadened after the failure of the appeals."