The Dingo That Changed Australia
Photo credit: Dr Michael Chamberlain (Azaria’s father) Lindy and Azaria Chamberlain at Uluru on the 17th of August 1980.
An Australian landmark case is the death of Azaria Chamberlain, in 1980. The Chamberlain family was camping at Uluru when Lindy Chamberlain (mother of Azaria) saw that Azaria was not in her cot in the family tent. Lindy claims to have seen dingoes outside of the tent and then she yelled the famous lines “The dingo ate my baby.” Dingoes are an ancient breed of domestic dog from South East Asia and were introduced to Australia 4000 years ago, with fur the colour of golden yellow or darker tan to black. Dingoes are the largest carnivorous mammals in Australia, with long canine teeth and are common to the Northern Territory and South Australia. Scientific experts said that there was foetal blood in the Chamberlain’s Torana (car). Lindy was convicted as the murderer and her husband Michael as an accessory to the crime, by the Supreme Court in Darwin. On Azaria’s jumpsuit and nappies, dog or dingo hairs were found and the Chamberlains had not owned a dog for many years. The pattern of blood staining on the jumpsuit did not establish that Azaria’s throat was cut by a blade. Lindy claimed that Azaria was wearing a jacket over her jumpsuit, when the police accidentally found the jacket whilst searching for the remains of a fallen climber at Uluru, the condition of the jacket matched the jumpsuit. Azaria’s matinee jacket saved the Chamberlains and supported all of their claims, but the Australian Government was still not on her side. One poll conducted a few years after the event (mentioned by source 7) suggested that 52% of the community believed she had murdered her 67-day-old daughter, Azaria. Lindy Chamberlain, the defendant, called her case a trial by media.
Photo Credit: Parks Australia
A dingo in their natural habitat at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.
The Chamberlain case made an effective but very slow change to the law. After Azaria’s death, there were three other dingo related deaths, but neither of them succeeded in creating precedent. In 2012, Lindy Chamberlain was found innocent by the Coroner’s court. There was no law that was coherent with this case, so the Coroner’s Court under the judgement of Ms Elizabeth Morris concluded that misadventure or accident on Azaria’s death certificate does not reflect the circumstances of her death. After 32 years with 3 inquests (court hearings conducted by the coroner to gather information about the cause and circumstances of a death), a trial, 2 appeals and a royal commission, a precedent was made to recognise a reason for death as having been taken or attacked by an animal. This of course is a common occurrence in Australia, as there have been several shark and crocodile attacks but no one has ever heard about a dingo attacking and killing someone, this made the case so peculiar.
The National Coroners Information System report on animal related deaths identifies 254 deaths between 2000 and 2010. Whilst some of these deaths could be classified as misadventure or accident (a fall from a horse) others such as bee, snake, shark, crocodile, dog and jellyfish are the result of the actions of the animal’s own intention/instinct and inherent dangerousness. Following English coronial law and practice, a finite range of verdicts or findings were available to a coroner when describing the manner of death: unlawful homicide, lawful homicide, suicide, misadventure, accident, natural causes, and an open finding. However, in the Australian context there are different circumstances of death and attack, compared to England.
In April, 2019, a 14 month old baby was dragged out of a family campervan by a dingo on Fraser Island. The toddler had luckily survived, with a fractured skull and severe cuts to his head and neck. This recent case proves that dingoes are capable of taking babies and attacking them, supporting Azaria Chamberlain’s circumstances. This identical case also shows how important and necessary this precedent was to create as the circumstances are very much a reality in outback Australia.
This recent case, supports the need for this precedent and how effective it will be to cases in the future. The precedent took 32 years to make but it was worth the struggle of Lindy Chamberlain and has saved many Australian families for their right to justice.
If you would like to explore this topic further, I suggest watching ‘A Cry in The Dark (Evil Angels)’, a 1988 Australian film starring Meryl Streep and Sam Neill. The film is useful in understanding the legal aspect of the case but also the emotional impact that the injustice had on the Chamberlains. Lindy Chamberlain wrote an autobiographical book called ‘Through My Own Eyes’ that was then developed into an Australian mini-series with the same title. Finally I suggest exploring Lindy’s own website to get an insight into her perspective, concerning the timeline and discoveries of the event (see source 9).
By Sophia Marosszeky