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Witch Hunt


Witch Hunt

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Other papers       Witch hunt
Paul Toohey
                   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

                   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

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

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

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

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

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."


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