"My God, my God, the dingo's got my baby!"
On 17 August 1980 seven week old Azaria Chamberlain disappeared from her family's campsite near Ayer's Rock in the Australian desert.
The baby's mother, Lindy Chamberlain, claimed a dingo took the baby from its crib. But a police investigation concluded she had murdered the baby and two years later Lindy Chamberlain was sentenced to a life term of imprisonment for murdering her child.
The case of Lindy Chamberlain and her husband, Michael, proved to be one of the most watched trials of the Twentieth century in Australia -- and certainly its most cathartic. It spawned a movie A Cry in the Dark starring Meryl Streep, an opera, a television docudrama, books and countless newspaper and magazine articles. It also produced some great reporting about a miscarriage of justice where flawed forensic evidence and public hysteria (very much like the McMartin PreSchool trials) convicted an innocent women.
A jury found Lindy Chamberlain to be guilty beyond a reasonable doubt even though there was no body, no motive, and no eyewitness evidence. The judge summed up in favor of the defendant noting that the eyewitness evidence presented to the court (if believed) disproved the theory that Lindy Chamberlain stole away from the tent for about 8 to 10 minutes with her child and then murdered her in the desert.
Yet immediately there was scepticism and scorn [about the dingo claim]. It seemed an unlikely story and the Chamberlains displayed an outwardly calm demeanour. That set the atmosphere for the vicious rumours that began to circulate, including the false claim that the name Azaria meant "Sacrifice in the Wilderness". The Chamberlains' religion was poorly understood and ugly rumours started about the sort of things Seventh-day Adventists did.
This scorn crossed the Pacific to Hollywood, providing a memorable scene in an episode of Seinfield.
As an article by Roz Zurko in the Examiner noted:
Probably the most famous line referring to this case was when Elaine was at a party with some snobbish Long Islanders and the woman was going on and on about her fiancé, who she referred to as her baby. When the woman couldn’t find “her baby” at the party, Elaine, who had enough of her non-stop talk, leaned into her and said, “The Dingo ate your baby.” The train of thought back then was that the Chamberlains made this story up.
The website of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Australia 32 years after the death of Azaria Chamberlain maintains a page that responds to some of the wilder claims made by the media in the case.
A few of the misconceptions of Seventh-day Adventists that were published by the media included:
We do not give and accept blood – this resulted in baby Azaria dying because she was “spear-tackled” by Lindy in a Mount Isa supermarket and was refused a blood transfusion.
Adventists actually promote good health practices, including the use of blood transfusions. We run a network of more than 500 hospitals and clinics around the world – Sydney Adventist Hospital is one of these hospitals – where blood transfusions are given.
We practice ritual infanticide, and that the name Azaria meant “sacrifice in the wilderness.”
Adventists are mainstream Protestant Christians who reject any form of ritualistic killing or such practices. The name Azaria is derived from the male Biblical name “Azariah” and means “helped by God” or “blessed of God”.
We are obviously familiar with ritual killings since Lindy appeared unaffected by the death of her daughter during interviews and the trial.
Adventists have a strong and unwavering faith in the goodness of God. Lindy’s belief in God and on what happens when someone dies gave her the calm and ability to rest and rely on God. Lindy was able to speak openly about forensic and scientific evidence because of her practical personality and her belief in God that gave her strength and peace of mind.
One of the best recent stories I have seen on this case is an AP story by Kristen Gelineau entitled "Australia asks again: Did a dingo really kill Lindy Chamberlain's baby?"
The case, Ms. Gelineau argued in a February 2012 article, has forced Australians to question themselves.
Australia is a nation that was, in many ways, born out of judgment, when Britain began sending its unwanted convicts to the continent in the 1700s. These social outcasts fought against what they considered the elitism of the British class system, cheered for the underdog and honed a sharp sense of injustice. Australia proudly dubbed itself "the land of the fair go."
Today, the "fair go" is a key part of Australian identity, a phrase that shows up in politics, popular culture and everyday life. ... But the fair go mentality didn't seem to apply to the Chamberlains, with their little-known religion.
Michael Chamberlain was a pastor with the Seventh-day Adventist church, a Protestant denomination that few Australians understood. In the absence of fact came rumors that spread with frightening ferocity, of child sacrifice, witchcraft, even Satanism. Had Lindy killed Azaria as part of a twisted religious ritual? Did the name Azaria really mean "sacrifice in the wilderness?" (It is a Hebrew name that means "helped by God.")
The hysteria was reminiscent of the Salem witch trials in the U.S. Even a black dress once worn by Azaria was seen as proof that Lindy was an evil murderess — because what kind of mother dresses her baby in black?
Michael Chamberlain, who was divorced from Lindy in 1991, is now an author in a small town north of Sydney. When asked about the case, he is both weary and wary, carefully limiting what he says ahead of the inquest as he waits to see whether the system will give him a chance.
"The church got so smashed up, erroneously, and all through, really, a nasty dose of prejudice," Chamberlain says. "I can say that I think our religion definitely impacted quite strongly on the attitude that many Australians developed."
The growing evidence that they had unfairly judged the Chamberlains was a bitter pill for Australians to swallow, says John Bryson, author of "Evil Angels," the definitive book on Azaria's disappearance.
"Australians always thought of themselves, and this country, as being the country of fair play," Bryson says. "That certainly wasn't the case."
This article by Ms. Gelineau, along with many others written over the past 30 years is an example of great journalism -- combing accuracy, psychological insight, moral clear-sightedness and great writing. The press at its best.