Saturday, June 16, 2012

Full closure on a travesty of justice in remote Australia

I've been captivated this week by coverage of the inquest report out of Darwin, Australia declaring that 9-week-old Azaria Chamberlain died of a dingo attack in August 1980.  The infant died while camping with her family at Uluru, formerly known as Ayer's Rock, in Australia's Northern Territory.   (Here's a link to the New York Times initial story about the inquest report this week).  In 1982, Lindy Chamberlain, the child's mother, was convicted of murdering Azaria and sentenced to life in prison at hard labor.  At the time of the trial in Alice Springs, Ms. Chamberlain was "heavily pregnant" with her fourth child, but conventional wisdom holds that the lack of emotion she showed then and in the wake of Azaria's disappearance generated and later confirmed rumors that she had not responded with adequate emotion in the wake of Azaria's death.  Many of my generation saw the film made about the prosecution and conviction of Lindy Chamberlain for Azaria's death.  That film, "A Cry in the Dark," was one of Meryl Streep's early films.  It was released shortly after Ms. Chamberlain was freed from prison in 1987, following the discovery of Azaria's jacket near a dingo den.

This piece by Mark McDonald in the International Herald Tribune, "The Dingo Took Her Baby," offers a more atmospheric report of recent (and earlier) events.  McDonald also quotes the coroner's Tuesday comments:
[A]n inquest by the Northern Territory coroner Elizabeth Morris fully exonerated the Chamberlains, saying that Azaria "died at Uluru on 17th August 1980 as a result of being attacked and taken by a dingo." 
Ms. Morris's voice wavered as she held back tears, extending her sympathies to the Chamberlains over the loss of their daughter," the newspaper The Australian reported.  "'Please accept my sincere sympathy on the loss and death of your special and loved daughter and sister, Azaria,' she said.  'I'm so sorry for your loss.  Time does not remove the pain and sadness of the death of a child.'" 
Ms. Morris said that new evidence about dingo attacks "excludes all other reasonable possibilities."
In recent years, a dingo attacked and killed at least one victim, a young boy.  An expert had told this most recent inquest of 239 reports of dingos attacking humans in Queensland between 1990 and 2011.  The warning sign above, now in the airport at Uluru, reflects the current thinking about dangers associated with dingos.

As I read the coverage of these events, I kept wondering about the impact that the location of Chamberlain's trial--remote Alice Springs--might have had on the proceedings.  Then I came across this quote form Azaria's father (and Lindy Chamberlain's former husband), who was convicted of being an accessory after the fact and given an 18-month suspended sentence in 1982.  This Michael Chamberlain quote is from Rebecca Puddy's story in The Australian:
"You can get justice even when you think that all is lost but you must have truth on your side. 
"This has been a terrifying battle ... but now some healing a chance to put our daughter's spirit to rest.
He thanked the "courageous and independent" coroner, saying he was told he would never get justice in the Northern Territory."  
"We have fought a justice system that left one senior justice officer telling me 'you will never get justice in a Northern Territory jurisdiction'," he said.   
"Well, now the truth is out."  
I wish the story provided more detail about what made (or makes) the Northern Territory's justice system problematic.  I note that the Chamberlains were were from a regional center in Northern Queensland, Mt. Isa, where Mr. Chamberlain was the Seventh-day Adventist minister.  So, the Chamberlains were essentially rural people who were tried by other rural people, albeit in a different state.

Linda Wolfe offers one spin in her review of John Bryson's book, Evil Angels, which was the basis for "A Cry in the Dark."  Wolfe opines on the forces and personalities that led to the Chamberlains' wrongful convictions:
The police are ambitious.  The press is cynical.  The public is intolerant.  A careerist police detective convinced that Lindy Chamberlain has murdered her child, pursues her overzealously and sneakily.  Reports and television crews trick the Chamberlains into ill-advised interviews.  Bigots asset that Seventh-day Adventists perform human sacrifices ....
Perhaps, then, a lack of checks and balances in this rural justice system, coupled with ignorance of Seventh-Day Adventists, played critical roles in the nightmare the Chamberlains have lived for decades.  So, perhaps did juror misconduct in the context of rural lack of anonymity.
In a startling fragment, [Bryson] takes us to the dining room of the small trial town's principal hotel and there serves up a shocking portrait of human fallibility.  The jurors are celebrating the conclusion of testimony in the case; one member of the party throws up on the dress of another, while an inebriated male juror, only hours after the panel has been warned not to discuss the case with anyone, corners the prosecutor and announces, "I want to talk to you about the case." 
Finally, differing rural and urban attitudes about animals seemed to play a role, at least according to Bryson and Wolfe, who described "an atmosphere of hatred and hullabaloo, some of it stirred up by big-city animal lovers who view the dingo as a cute canine rather than--as Australia's leading expert on the animal advises--a predator."  Park rangers were among the few who believed in the 1980s that a dingo would attack a baby.  It's interesting that even in the rural context of Alice Springs, the urban view of the dingo held sway, a fact further illustrated by young women at the Alice Springs courthouse at the Chamberlain trial, wearing T-shirts "printed ... with slogans of home-town support.  The words said: 'The Dingo is Innocent.'"  But bias against indigenous knowledge may also have been a culprit, as one commentator noted that "evidence indigenous trackers gave about drag marks near the tent was brushed aside."

Recent related items include Australian journalist Julia Baird's op-ed, "She's Innocent.  We're Guilty," in the Sunday New York Times opinion page.  Illustrating the hype around the case in the 1980s, Baird recalls a 1984 poll showing that 76.8% of Australians thought Lindy Chamberlain was guilty.   In a country where the vast majority of the population are urban, that statistic necessarily reflects principally urban attitudes.  "Australia's Changing View of the Dingo" is from the NYT Science pages earlier this year.  

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