CHARLES WATERSTREET June 17, 2012
Illustration: John Shakespeare
Blow me down, a dingo did take her baby. In what would have been Azaria Chamberlain's 33rd year, a coroner, Elizabeth Morris, found to the exclusion of all other theories that a ''dingo or dingoes entered the tent, took Azaria and carried and dragged her from the immediate area''.
God does work in mysterious ways because Lindy Chamberlain could well have been still in jail in Darwin if an Englishman hadn't fallen to his death from Uluru in 1986. After David Brett's ill-fated climb, dingoes attacked his dead body and when police were looking for the missing body parts, they happened upon Azaria's matinee jacket only 50 metres from where the jumpsuit had been found six years earlier. Spooky.
Brett was not the only one who jumped to a dreadful conclusion. After the stunning verdict of guilty by the Darwin jury in 1982, the history of the Chamberlains' appeals through the Australian legal system displayed that it was not only juries who could be fooled by false impressions but judges of the Federal and High courts. Hysteria is not confined to the public; it can infect judicial minds as well, because, after all, judges are human, all too human.
Very few of the appeal judges saw that the Emperor of Crown Evidence was wearing no clothes, especially if you consider the prime exhibit - Azaria's jumpsuit. Two aspects of that evidence were misunderstood and, in hindsight, grievous errors were made by the appeal judges of the Federal Court when examining it.
The jumpsuit was the subject of conflicting expert evidence at trial. If the tears in the jumpsuit were made by canine teeth or, on the other hand, a human instrument, it would point to innocence or guilt. Experts on this question from all over the world were called by both sides, but Sergeant Frank Cocks of the South Australian police gave devastating evidence that was probably totally inadmissible and objectionable. He said fibres in the left sleeve thread were the same length, so he thought it had been cut by scissors.
This Crown evidence was seemingly confirmed by Professor Malcolm Chaikin, an expert in textiles at the University of NSW, who identified the tears as cuts by sharp curved scissors. He was further supported by Kenneth Brown, an odontologist from Adelaide, and Professor James Cameron from the London Hospital Medical College. One expert, Hector Orams, senior lecturer in dental and oral pathology at Melbourne University, said the damage on the jumpsuit was consistent with canine dentition, but Bernard Sims from the University of London pooh-poohed Orams. The appeal judges Nigel Bowen and Michael Foster were convinced by the Crown experts.
What the judges did next shows the fragility of the whole justice system. Bowen and Foster looked at the jumpsuit themselves and found ''the damage certainly appears to us to resemble scissor cuts''. Can you imagine three senior judges holding up the jumpsuit in court or in chambers, nodding to themselves in agreement in a hypothetical game of scissors, paper or dingo, all bellowing at once ''Scissors'' and making scissor cuts with their fingers?
The third judge, Ken Jenkinson, noted the conflicting expert evidence but strode into the arena with an almighty statement: ''The jury would have been justified in finding … that cuts were made in the neck of Azaria's jumpsuit by a human being with a cutting instrument, almost certainly scissors.''
The jumpsuit reared its ugly head again in Cameron's evidence that he saw the impression of a small adult hand in transferred blood, with the impression of four fingers at the back of the jumpsuit and a thumb at the front, as if the child were being held with a hand under its armpit. The defence called Dr Vernon Plueckhahn, a pathologist at Geelong Hospital, who said he couldn't see anything resembling a human hand. The jury saw the jumpsuit and special fluorescent photographs of it, as did the appeal judges. Bowen and Foster sided with Cameron. They accused Plueckhahn of losing his proper scientific judgment, objectivity.
The stain under the dashboard, found by Crown experts to be foetal blood in a spray pattern, turned out to be a sound deadener. The lone voice in the wilderness for the defence at trial, Barry Boettcher from the University of Newcastle, strongly criticised the testing methods of Joy Kuhl, the Crown expert.
Judges Bowen and Foster said Boettcher exhibited ''a rather unbecoming arrogance''. The privilege of being absolutely correct about something that another expert has sworn is wrong does make you appear superior.
An unsung hero in this story is the High Court judge Lionel Murphy, who would have acquitted the Chamberlains on the sworn evidence of Sally Lowe, who heard the scream of a child five or 10 minutes after the Crown said Lindy had murdered Azaria. Murphy was right, but in a tragic irony set out by Jeremy Stoljar in The Australian Book of Great Trials, Murphy's dissenting judgment was delivered on February 22, 1984.
Earlier that month, The Age published telephone transcripts of the judge in a very unflattering light. In November 1984 Murphy was charged. He was convicted by a jury but eventually acquitted, represented ironically by that wizard Ian Barker, QC, who had acted as Crown prosecutor in the original trial.