A fourth inquest passes final judgment on the cause of Azaria Chamberlain’s death.
On 17 AUGUST 1980, nine-week-old Azaria Chamberlain was taken from a tent at Uluru (then Ayers Rock) in the Northern Territory, leading to one of Australia’s biggest legal and media events. It would be another 32 years before a certificate stating the true cause of her death was finally issued.
Michael and Lindy Chamberlain arrived at Ayers Rock on 16 August 1980 with their baby, Azaria, and sons, Aidan and Reagan. The following day the family explored the area and climbed the rock. In the evening they cooked dinner at the communal barbecue area and chatted with other families. Lindy settled Reagan and Azaria to sleep in the tent and returned to dinner.
At about 8pm, when a cry was heard from Azaria, Lindy went to check and saw a dingo leaving the tent. Her scream rang across the camping ground as she dived frantically into the tent to discover her baby gone. “A dingo’s got my baby!” Despite extensive searches no trace of Azaria was found, but items of her bloodstained clothing were located seven days later on boulders near Uluru’s base.
Azaria’s death transfixed the nation. At the first inquest, at Alice Springs on 20 February 1981, the coroner, Denis Barritt, found Azaria had met her death when attacked by a wild dingo. But some people were dissatisfied, including Kenneth Brown, the forensic dentist who’d given evidence at the inquest and felt his work had been called into question. He sent Azaria’s clothing for further examination to British forensics expert Professor James Cameron, whose findings, together with pressure from the NT government and police, led to the first inquest’s outcome being quashed.
Police raided the Chamberlains’ house, rumour mills went into overdrive, and on 2 February 1982 a second inquest found Lindy should be charged with murder and Michael as an accessory after the fact. The trial went from 13 September to 29 October 1982, during which souvenir stalls were set up outside the courthouse. The prosecution held that Lindy had murdered Azaria and concealed her body in the family’s car. A range of experts presented forensic evidence, much of which has since been proven to be flawed or incorrect.
Despite the support of other campers present that evening, validating evidence from Indigenous trackers, and senior park ranger testimonies of dingo attacks on children in the area in the months before Azaria’s death, the Chamberlains were found guilty. Lindy was sentenced to life in prison with hard labour. Michael received an 18-month suspended sentence.
In November 1982 Lindy gave birth to Kahlia, her second daughter with Michael, in the Darwin Correctional Centre, Berrimah. A Federal Court appeal in April 1983 was rejected and a second appeal was lost in the High Court of Australia in February 1984. The Chamberlain Innocence Committee was formed to build public support for a new inquiry, and after a crucial piece of evidence – Azaria’s matinee jacket, which police had insisted did not exist – supporting the Chamberlains’ testimony was found six years after Azaria had been taken, Lindy was released from prison in February 1986. That year the convictions were overturned by a royal commission headed by Trevor Morling. Yet despite Morling’s finding that the “evidence affords considerable support for the view that a dingo may have taken [Azaria]”, an open verdict on her death was returned.
The Chamberlains were exonerated in September 1988 and the Supreme Court of Darwin, quashing the convictions, declared them innocent. They divorced in 1991 and the following year were paid compensation for their ordeal following Azaria’s disappearance. At a third inquest, in 1995, Azaria’s cause of death remained “open”. But in 2012 a fourth inquest, 32 years after Azaria had disappeared, agreed with the first. Coroner Elizabeth Morris found “the cause of her death was as the result of being attacked and taken by a dingo”.
After the findings were handed down, Michael declared: “I am here to tell you that you can get justice, even when you think that all is lost.” Outside court, Lindy proclaimed: “No longer will Australia be able to say that dingoes are not dangerous and only attack if provoked.”