Why did this happen?

Millions of words have been written to try to come to grips with what has been called Australia’s biggest scandal. Depending on the survey, some 70% of Australia’s public believe Lindy is innocent of murder, and that a dingo was responsible. The remaining 30% most commonly respond that they know she is guilty, on the basis of discredited interpretation of the evidence – perhaps they have still not got the message. Their strongest belief is that she got away with it because she ‘had good lawyers.’ But during the trial, it was 70% who believed she was guilty, and 30% not guilty.

Why? How could such a scandal occur in Australia, a country that prides itself on its concept of the ‘fair go’? There were really three aspects worthy of question in this case: Why did a nation became so caught up in the drama?; How did the evidence get so misinterpreted?; Why did the justice system, which worked well in the first inquest, take so long achieve justice again?

The first question is dealt with further under the ‘Media’ section. The second will be dealt with under the ‘Forensic’ section, and the last? Perhaps that was because someone, or something, used our assumptions against us. Perhaps it was, as John Bryson mentions, someone like The Tactician. (pdf, 55kb)

There are current or former officers of the law who to this day insist that Lindy is a weird woman (surely not proof of being a murderess!) who murdered her baby. Interviewed in 2004, one agreed that all of the so-called evidence against Lindy had been discredited and proved wrong. It was put to them that she could not be guilty then, whereupon they responded that ‘of course’ she was. ‘On what basis?’ came the question. The response was that if one had been in police work as long as they had been, then ‘you just know’, and it was only a matter that they had not been able to find the evidence.

Many members of the public have said that Lindy has killer eyes, though fortunately, concepts like that, or ideas that the shape of one’s head determines criminality, have largely gone away. Sometimes, we will get letters from the public saying that they ‘knew’ Lindy was not a murderess, because ‘you could tell just by looking in her eyes’, or because ‘mothers do not do things like that.’ It is a sad fact that some mothers do do things like that.

A young officer from the NT, visiting family in NSW during the trial, told the neighbours that it appeared Lindy was not guilty. When asked why he thought she was being taken to trial, he responded, ‘Because she has embarrassed the Territory’, as if no further explanation were necessary.

In 2003 I spoke with a businessman in Newcastle, who said that during the early 1980s he worked as an Internal Affairs detective in Sydney. He told me that he had been sure at the time that the Chamberlains were not guilty. I asked him why, since so many had been convinced of their guilt, and he surely had not done any forensic work himself. His answer was that he felt that the police and forensic work followed the way that they were trained, in other words, they were finding what they expected. There is no question that considerable honour was at stake, after first inquest coroner Denis Barritt had criticised the work of the police force.

One juror told neighbours, when the jury selection was made and before any evidence had been heard, that he was glad to be on the jury, so he could ‘get the bitch’. Perhaps that was just conditioning, because a member of the media told us that at the Sunday night media barbecue – before the trial verdict the following Friday – a press secretary for one of the Northern Territory government ministers was listening to a group of media people saying there was no way there could be a conviction. He calmly replied “I can tell you the verdict now. They’ll be found guilty”. “No way,” the press contingent all said, “how do you work that out?”. “Because these people are Territorians and they know that’s the verdict [name deleted] wants”, he said.

I assume that [name] only wanted justice, not some particular verdict, but perhaps some people may have somehow gotten the idea he wanted them to make a certain choice, such was the national attention during the trial. Prior to the trial, a lawyer who was not part of the Chamberlain case, but later involved with the Federal appeal, got a ride in a car with some detectives in Darwin. They were discussing looking for evidence against the Chamberlains. The lawyer asked them if they were sure she was guilty, to which they replied that they did not know. He was stunned, as the duty of the police is to collect all evidence, not just for or against. The lawyer asked why they were only looking at one side, to which they replied, “Because, [name] says she’s got to go.”

Was it because someone lied? Sure, some did; the transcripts show that to be the case. Was it because Lindy was never seen to be crying on television? That does not mean she didn’t cry, it only means that the controllers of what you saw on television did not choose to show that. Was it because she didn’t behave like people thought they would in such circumstances? Sure, that was part of it, but how does anyone know how they would react under horrific circumstances they will most likely never have to face? There are no guidebooks written to help one through such circumstances, and Lindy was doing her best to keep it all together. She is proud of her independence, and only shows her emotions to those very close to her. A lesser woman would probably still be in prison today.

Some of the reasons for the dark side of this whole saga appear to be that we wanted to protect the supposed infallibility of our police and justice system; belief that science is infallible and the scientists never make mistakes; protection of jobs; just didn’t like her attitude; political aspirations; financial gain; just plain ‘bloody mindedness.’ Simply because you don’t find someone’s personality or manner appealing to you does not make them guilty of murder, or anything else sinister for that matter. But that distinction seemed to elude many during the near hysteria that gripped the nation throughout Lindy’s case.

The eyewitnesses that knew for sure what had happened at Ayers Rock that night were so concerned that the methods of the trial prosecution was not allowing them to tell their whole truth in court that they approached the defence to ask for help. After the guilty verdict, with the help of Chamberlain support groups, they took holidays and travelled around the country telling town meetings, reporters, and any who would listen, that the verdict was wrong and was not supportable by what they had seen with their own eyes.

It is possible that only future historians will really know what forces were arrayed against Lindy to cause the first inquest finding to be overturned, and for her to eventually be found guilty of murder. It would be simplistic to say it was only for the reasons listed above, but clearly those reasons reveal some unchallenged human assumptions. Then again, perhaps too great a number of us love a good mystery, with a whiff of conspiracy thrown in. We have gotten a great many letters over the last fifteen years from people apologising for being gullible, and thinking Lindy guilty. But, they trusted the system, and happily rushed to judgement, only to repent of that trust and judgement later.

The above is only one part of the story though. It was public disquiet with the sentence – and the fact that many, though they thought Lindy guilty, felt the Crown had not proved it so – that caused them to examine the case further. Through the efforts of a handful of determined people it grew to a mighty swell, and ultimately meant the establishment of a Royal Commission, which once again confirmed the truth stated by the first coroner – the Chamberlains were not guilty for the death of their beloved daughter.

There appears to be no single reason that created the spark that started the inferno. But, once it was started, there were many who were happy to see the flames of bigotry and intolerance fanned. Surely there must be a useful lesson in there somewhere.

Further information:

‘Why, Australia, Why?’ from the book Innocence Regained: the fight to free Lindy Chamberlain by Norman Young (pdf, 56kb)

Further Reading :

  • The Story

    Millions of words have been written to try to come to grips with what has been called Australia’s biggest scandal. Depending on the survey, some 70% of Australia’s public believe Lindy is innocent of murder, and that a dingo was responsible. The remaining 30% most commonly respond that they know she is guilty, on the […]

  • Timeline of Events

    June 11, 1980 Azaria Chantel Loren Chamberlain born. August 17, 1980 9 weeks, 4 days, approx. 10lb. (4.5kg) Azaria was taken from the tent at Ayers Rock by a dingo August 24, 1980 Wally Goodwin finds jumpsuit, booties, nappy & singlet, matinee jacket still missing. October 1&2, 1980 Police statements (ROI’s) given by all four […]

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