'Dingo baby' saga may be laid to rest

Cry for justice: Mother wrongly convicted of her daughter's murder returns to court to end 15-year ordeal

After 15 years, several false conclusions and enough media hype to rival the OJ Simpson case, Australia's most celebrated mystery, the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain, the "dingo baby", may be resolved today.

Azaria's parents, Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, have asked a coroner's court to clear them of any involvement in the disappearance of their nine week old daughter in 1980. Now divorced, the Chamberlains are expected to attend the court in Darwin today when the coroner delivers his verdict.

Azaria vanished from a tent at Ayers Rock camping ground in the Northern Territory during a family holiday. The Chamberlains insisted that a dingo, a wild Australian dog, had snatched the child, and Azaria's body has never been found.

In 1982, after a frenzy of speculation, two coroner's inquiries, and a trial at which forensic witnesses mounted a circumstantial case against the parents, Mrs Chamberlain was found guilty of murdering her daughter and received a life sentence. Her husband was convicted as an accessory and was released on a good-behaviour bond. The Crown had not put forward a motive for the crime.

When a British tourist fell to his death while climbing Ayers Rock in1986, rangers sent to retrieve his body found Azaria's matinee jacket lying near by. Mrs Chamberlain had always maintained that Azaria was wearing such a jacket when she disappeared. With the discovery of this vital clue, the Northern Territory Government released Mrs Chamberlain and set up a Royal Commission to determine if the Chamberlains had been victims of a miscarriage of justice.

The commission found that a jury would not have convicted them if this evidence had been available. In 1988, the Northern Territory Court of Appeal quashed their convictions.

The first inquest, in 1981, found that a dingo had taken the child. A second inquest, called in 1982 after criticism of the Northern Territory authorities, concluded that Azaria was murdered by a person or persons unknown. That second finding technically still stands, despite the Royal Commission's establishment of a miscarriage of justice. It is this finding that the Chamberlains have requested the coroner to set aside, and to conclude that Azaria died accidentally after a dingo took her.

Three years ago, the Northern Territory government paid the couple pounds 620,000 in compensation, but has never offered them a formal apology. They have also received pounds 120,000 from Kerry Packer, the media magnate, for exclusive magazine and television interviews, as well as undisclosed fees for A Cry in the Dark, the film version of their story starring Meryl Streep and Sam Neill.

But the Chamberlains claim that the money barely covered their legal bills.

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