'Dingo baby' jury notes shed light on Australia's most famous trial

Lost Lindy Chamberlain papers prove the 1980 verdict was anything but unanimous
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The Independent Online

It was the case that gripped Australia, triggering a 15-year legal saga, spawning a Hollywood film, a television docu-drama, a mini-series and an opera.

Now fresh light has been cast on the Lindy Chamberlain affair, with the release of secret notes made by the jury that convicted her of killing her baby daughter in 1980.

The handwritten notes, unearthed from a decades-old police file, reveal jury members were as divided as other Australians, who fiercely debated Mrs Chamberlain's innocence or guilt. And, just as in wider society, the women were more convinced than the men that she murdered her nine-week-old baby, Azaria, during a camping trip to Uluru, or Ayers Rock as it was then known.

At least four of the nine male jurors had to be persuaded to return a guilty verdict, according to the notes, made by the foreman during their six-and-a-half hours of deliberations. The three female jurors – a teacher and two "housewives" – had no such doubts.

Of one, the foreman recorded: "Doesn't believe dingo", a reference to Mrs Chamberlain's claim that a native wild dog took Azaria from the tent.

Expert witnesses had told the trial in Darwin that dingoes did not attack humans. The jury's scepticism was further fanned by the Chamberlains' demeanour: neither Lindy nor her husband, Michael – a Seventh Day Adventist pastor – wept or showed much emotion, in public at least, following their daughter's disappearance. Also, the couple did not join the hunt for Azaria's body, a fact noted by the jury. "Hard to accept such loving parents did not search," the notes state. As far as the foreman was concerned, the defence evidence was "purely smokescreen".

Sentenced to life at the conclusion of the seven-week trial in 1982 – Michael received a suspended sentence for being an accessory to murder – Mrs Chamberlain appealed, without success, the following year.

Then, in 1986, a chance discovery transformed her case. An English tourist, David Brett, had fallen to his death from Uluru and while police were searching for his body – in an area full of dingo lairs – they found Azaria's matinée jacket. Mrs Chamberlain was released from jail and in 1988 the Northern Territory's Appeal Court overturned both her and her husband's convictions. Two years later the couple were awarded $1.3m (£750,000 today) in compensation for unlawful imprisonment and the case was investigated by a Royal Commission.

Finally, in 1995, a third inquest was held, returning an open verdict.

The affair attracted intense media scrutiny and still does. The jury notes came to light after Rupert Murdoch's News Limited, which owns tabloids around Australia, sought access to the police files.

In recent years, a series of dingo attacks on children has reinforced the account given by Mrs Chamberlain, whose story was reproduced in the 1988 film A Cry in the Dark, starring Meryl Streep. A nine-year-old boy, Clinton Gage, was mauled to death by two of the animals on Fraser Island, off Queensland, in 2001. The front-page headline in The Australian newspaper the following day stated: "These dogs do kill children."

Back then, though, such attacks were almost unheard of. And what clinched it for the jury, according to their notes, was a reconstruction of the Chamberlains' tent in the courthouse basement.

Azaria's mother had said that when she returned to the campsite at night, she could see the baby's bassinet was empty. She then saw a dingo emerging from the tent and screamed out: "A dingo's got my baby!" However, when the scene was reproduced in dim lighting, jurors could not discern, from the same distance, whether there was a doll in the bassinet.

Even so, some had doubts. One man, a civil servant, urged his fellow jurors, at the start of their deliberations, to acquit Mrs Chamberlain, saying he "could not believe Mrs C did it". Another male juror agreed, because of the "probability [a] dingo could do it".

The Chamberlains divorced in 1991; he works as a teacher, she as a motivational speaker, represented by one of Australia's leading celebrity agencies.

Mrs Chamberlain also counts among her friends Yvonne Cain, a juror who contacted her because she felt so tortured about sending an innocent woman to jail.

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