It’s a phrase that has entered into popular culture and one that people might use to demonstrate the Australian (“Austrayan”) accent but, just as Kirk Lazarus said in Tropic Thunder, “the dingo’s got my baby” (and variations on this quote) really does come from a true story, and a baby really did die. The cause of that baby’s death is still officially unsolved, although that may change as a result of a new inquest that was announced this week.
The events and legal proceedings that followed baby Azaria Chamberlain’s death are among the most talked about, and most scandalous, in Australia’s history. Azaria was just over nine weeks old when she disappeared on the night of August 17, 1980 while on a camping trip with her family in the shadow of Uluru (which was called Ayers Rock at the time). There was a lot of blood in the tent, a torn blanket, a search was conducted through the night, and Azaria’s mother claimed that a dingo had taken her baby. The body was never found, all that was recovered were some pieces of Azaria’s clothing. The media was whipped into a frenzy and eventually (following two coronial inquests – the first one actually finding that a dingo caused the death) Azaria’s mother, Lindy, was charged with killing her by cutting her throat. Lindy was convicted in 1982 and sentenced to life in prison with hard labor, while her husband was convicted of being an accessory to the murder.
The prosecution relied on forensic evidence involving the baby’s clothing and tests for blood that were conducted in the Chamberlains’ vehicle. The testimony about dingos, which had been seen in the area that night by other witnesses, being capable of taking a small child was rejected. The Chamberlains appealed their convictions, but lost.
The case was reopened following the discovery of new evidence in 1986 – a man fell to his death while climbing Uluru, and in the course of recovering his remains police found another item of clothing that Lindy had always claimed her daughter had been wearing on the night she disappeared. It was found further away from the campsite in an area with a number of dingo lairs. The Northern Territory Chief Minister ordered Lindy’s release, a Royal Commission of Inquiry was established, and finally a court quashed the convictions due to the questionable nature of the forensic evidence and the implausibility of some of the prosecutor’s claims. The Chamberlains received AU$1.3 million in compensation for wrongful imprisonment.
Yet still the cause of death was officially left undetermined – even after a third inquest in 1995, which returned an “open finding” and recorded the cause and manner of Azaria’s death as “unknown.”
The thirtieth anniversary of Azaria’s death passed this year, with the Chamberlains (now divorced) continuing to push for another inquest in order to make a final determination that a dingo really was responsible for Azaria’s death. Over the years there have been several cases involving dingos attacking people or trying to take young children, and there is now widespread acceptance that this is what happened to Azaria and that the Chamberlains were the victims of a gross miscarriage of justice and a vicious “trial by media.” The new inquest is to commence next year.
There are vast numbers of books and articles about the whole saga, as well as a movie (starring Meryl Streep), a mini-series (based on Lindy Chamberlain’s autobiography), and even an opera (entitled “Lindy”) and a concept album (released this year on what would have been Azaria’s thirtieth birthday). This is a case that is of major significance in Australia’s legal, social, and cultural history – it was the story of the century. It’s much, much more than a quote from Seinfeld.