Obituary: James Muirhead

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The Independent Culture
IT WAS James Muirhead's lot to preside over two of the most controversial inquiries in recent Australian history. The first was the 1982 trial of Lindy Chamberlain, the woman wrongly convicted by a jury of murdering her baby daughter, Azaria, in the famous "dingo baby" case. The second was a Royal Commission inquiry into Aboriginal deaths in custody, which brought far-reaching reforms to police treatment of Australia's indigenous people. Both cases called on Muirhead's compassion and sense of fairness that underlay his career as a judge and administrator of the Northern Territory.

The Chamberlain trial would never have happened had it not been for the mixture of flawed scientific evidence and public witch-hunting captured accurately in the 1988 film A Cry in the Dark, in which Meryl Streep played Lindy Chamberlain.

Azaria disappeared from her family's tent during a camping holiday at Ayers Rock, in central Australia, in August 1980. Her body has never been found. The child's parents always maintained that a dingo, or wild dog, snatched Azaria while they attended a barbecue nearby. A 1981 coronial inquiry supported their claims. The discovery of fresh evidence led to a second inquiry, which committed Mrs Chamberlain for trial for Azaria's murder and her husband, Michael, for being an accessory.

Mr Justice Muirhead presided over the trial when it reached the Northern Territory Supreme Court in Darwin in 1982. It was a media sensation. His conduct of the trial was scrupulous, although many who covered it believed Muirhead's summing-up to the jury indicated his belief that Mrs Chamberlain should never have been brought to court. "If ever there was a time when dingoes were becoming a problem, it was in August 1980," he told them. "Is it but coincidence, fortuitous from Mrs Chamberlain's point of view, that she put forward - as the Crown asserts - this false explanation for a murder just at that time, in August 1980?"

The jury found her guilty. Muirhead's private response was reported by John Bryson, a Melbourne barrister and author of the best-selling book of the trial, Evil Angels, on which the movie was based. "Well," Muirhead told two lawyers in his chambers, as he poured himself a whisky. "I didn't think I exactly summed up in favour of a conviction, did you?" Publicly, all he ever said was that "it was a very sad case". He was obliged to send Mrs Chamberlain to prison for life. It became one of Australia's worst miscarriages of justice. A Royal Commission inquiry later exonerated the Chamberlains and quashed their convictions.

Lindy Chamberlain was released from prison in 1986. A year later the Labor government in Canberra, led by Bob Hawke, appointed Muirhead to head the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. The inquiry was a response to a public outcry over an alarming number of deaths - some apparent suicides, others in mysterious circumstances - of young Aborigines in police cells and lock-ups, mainly in country towns. In Western Australia, for example, where Aborigines comprise 2.7 per cent of the population, they accounted for more than one-third of the prison population in 1986.

Muirhead was chosen for the task because he was highly regarded for his understanding of Aboriginal affairs. Initially, the government expected his inquiry to last six months. But such was his detailed and determined approach that it lasted more than two years, after three more judges were brought on board to deal with 99 deaths. In his interim report in December 1988, Muirhead wrote:

I am confident a significant number of deaths have their roots not only in health

issues, but in the very despair of individuals, in frustration, in anger, in legal practices and procedures in which many Aborigines have no confidence.

James Muirhead was born in Adelaide, South Australia, the son of a chief magistrate of that state. He served with the Australian armed forces in the Pacific during the Second World War, then read Law at the University of Adelaide. After practising law in his home city for 20 years, he was made a judge of the District Criminal Court of South Australia in 1970. Two years later he returned to Papua New Guinea, where he had fought during the war, as an acting judge of the Supreme Court. This had an impact on Muirhead. It exposed him to the difficulties faced by indigenous people, with their own traditional laws and cultures, when they were brought before a Western legal system.

Back in Australia in 1973, Muirhead became the founding director of the Australian Institute of Criminology in Canberra. He moved from there to the bench of the Northern Territory Supreme Court, from which he retired in 1985 after 11 years as a judge. Muirhead developed a particular liking and empathy for the Northern Territory. He returned there in 1989, after his term on the Aboriginal deaths inquiry, to become Administrator, a ceremonial position representing the federal government in Canberra.

It was the territory's open, frontier character that seemed to appeal to Muirhead, the great diversity of its people and landscapes. He told a brother judge how he enjoyed wandering through Darwin on Saturday mornings, observing all kinds of people from Aborigines to Asians and dinky-di Australians. He said, "I think to myself, this is how Australia is going to be, and it's very nice."

Robert Milliken

James Henry Muirhead, judge: born Adelaide, South Australia 24 April 1925: admitted to the Bar 1949; QC 1967; Justice, Supreme Court of the Northern Territory 1974-85; Judge, Federal Court of Australia 1977-87; Commissioner, Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody 1987- 89; AC 1991; married 1950 Margaret Frayne (three sons, one daughter); died Darwin, Northern Territory 20 July 1999.

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