It is not usual for a coroner to fight back tears when delivering a verdict, or to commiserate movingly with a family three decades on. But there was never anything usual about the case of Azaria Chamberlain, who was killed by a dingo in the Australian outback 32 years ago – as her amended death certificate now states, finally.
A tearful but smiling Lindy Chamberlain, Azaria’s mother, brandished the certificate outside Darwin Magistrates Court today after hearing the words she and her ex-husband, Michael, had waited so long for. “I find that a dingo [wild dog] took Azaria and dragged her from her tent,” said the coroner, Elizabeth Morris, drawing a line under Australia’s most protracted and sensational miscarriage of justice.
Mrs Chamberlain – or Chamberlain-Creighton, as she is now known – spent three years in prison after a jury rejected her account of seeing a dingo near the family’s tent at Ayers Rock following the disappearance of her nine-week-old baby. She and Michael were exonerated by a royal commission, but – to their immense frustration – an inquest in 1995 recorded an open verdict. It has taken them another 17 years to have the true cause of death officially recorded.
The case became a global cause celebre, spawning a Hollywood film starring Meryl Streep, a television mini-series and numerous books. But during the lengthy, drawn-out whodunit – and many Australians remain convinced even today of the Chamberlains’ guilt – some fundamental things were forgotten: the tragic death of a small baby and the terrible loss suffered by her parents, who barely had the chance to grieve before the finger was pointed at them.
Hence the heartfelt words addressed by Ms Morris to the couple in the front row of the packed courtroom, and to their eldest child, Aidan, who was six when his baby sister was killed. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” said the coroner, her voice cracking with emotion. “Time does not remove the pain and sadness of the death of a child.”
Although they divorced in 1991, Azaria’s parents remained united in their struggle for vindication. They sat beside each other in court, and embraced following the verdict. Mrs Chamberlain-Creighton said they were “relieved and delighted to come to the end of this saga”. Mr Chamberlain said: “I am here to tell you that you can get justice even when you think that all is lost.”
It would have been Azaria’s birthday yesterday, the eve of this fourth inquest – this last act of an agonisingly long-running drama that saw her parents convicted in the court of public opinion, then convicted by a jury on the basis of forensic evidence largely discredited by the royal commission. She would have been 32.
There were several reasons why the Chamberlains’ account of events at the campsite in the shadow of Uluru, as Ayers Rock is now known, was widely disbelieved in 1980. The couple were prominent in the Seventh Day Adventist Church, regarded as a fundamentalist sect. They did not grieve openly. And many people doubted a dingo was capable of such an attack.
Since then, events have proved otherwise. The new inquest was held after the couple’s lawyers compiled a file of evidence about dingo attacks on children – more than 200 have been recorded since 1990, three of them fatal, including the mauling of a nine-year-old boy, Clinton Gage, on an island off the Queensland coast in 2001. The front-page headline in The Australian after that incident stated simply: “These dogs do kill children.” Noting that evidence of a dingo attack on Azaria was “adequate, clear, cogent and exact”, Ms Morris ruled: “The cause of her death was as the result of being attacked and taken by a dingo”.
The first inquest in 1981 reached the same conclusion. However, new evidence led to a second inquest the following year, and to the criminal trial. A heavily pregnant Lindy was found guilty in 1982 of slashing Azaria’s throat with a pair of scissors and was jailed for life; Michael received an 18-month suspended sentence for helping her to conceal the murder.
Mrs Chamberlain appealed twice, without success. But in 1986 a chance sequence of events changed everything. An English tourist, David Brett, fell to his death from Uluru, and police searching for his body came across Azaria’s matinee jacket near a dingo lair. Her mother was released; the couple’s sentences were quashed; and they were awarded A$1.3m (£829,700 at today’s rates) in compensation.
After the couple got divorced, Mrs Chamberlain – who has three surviving children – married Rick Creighton, an American publisher, who was also in court yesterday. The couple live in the Hunter Valley, north of Sydney. Mr Chamberlain has also re-married, and lives in northern New South Wales. A retired teacher, he now writes books.
Mr Chamberlain said their long battle for justice had been a “terrifying” one that at times had seemed like “mission impossible”. The coroner’s verdict, he added, meant “some healing, and a chance to put our daughter’s spirit to rest”.