July 2012

The Nation Reviewed

Four Coroners

By John Bryson
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
The Last Azaria Chamberlain Inquest

Coroner Elizabeth Morris reopened the Azaria Chamberlain inquest on 24 February, 31 years after the babe disappeared from a tent at Uluru and 30 years after her mother’s murder conviction. That morning’s NT News carried a half-page photo of Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton on the front cover with the headline, ‘She’s Back’. The paper’s editorial carried a concession that a new finding would likely exonerate the Chamberlain parents, resenting it in anticipation as “unlikely to satisfy those Territorians who have followed the case closely for the past 30 years”.

Those Territorians should have difficulty maintaining their scepticism. In no other case in our legal history have we seen eyewitnesses join travelling roadshows of lectures in protest against a conviction, a juror come out against her own verdict, a trial judge so appalled by the verdict in his court that he campaigned for the abolition of the jury system, and a senior prosecutor come to refer to his success as his albatross.

Come 10 am on Tuesday, 12 June, Coroner Morris, the fourth to deal with Azaria’s death, has deliberated for three months. In the Northern Territory Magistrates Court, the Chamberlain party wait in the front row. Lindy’s second husband Rick Creighton has his arm around her, with Michael Chamberlain alongside, together with son Aiden and his wife. Lindy and Rick wear matching purple. Malcolm Brown, stalwart of the Fairfax press, has paid his own way to be here. The last of the media representatives file in to take up the second and third rows. With a few sightseers thrown in, it’s a full house.

Lawyers Stuart Tipple and Rex Wild, QC, chat quietly at the bar table. Level with them, at stage right, stands a cameraman with tripod and camera, panning across the scene. Coroner Morris has invited ABC News Darwin to deliver her finding direct to the nation.

Her decision echoes that of the first coroner’s inquest, when Denis Barritt was so unsettled by the unquenchable rumours of satanic ritual, and by death threats against Azaria’s parents, that he invited a television crew to broadcast his finding. At the time, Michael Chamberlain was still a pastor of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and the butt of rumours of a ritual sacrifice. Barritt, an ex-policeman – not a person to rush to judgement, rather deliberating with a heavy step and sturdy ethics – found Azaria had died by dingo attack. He apologised to the family for the rumour-mongering and death threats. He criticised the parks officers for allowing a dangerous scenario to arise.

Barritt also suspected “human intervention” in the disposal of the body. In the police report he had read a reference to Azaria’s clothing being found folded and jammed into a rock crevice. The suggestion was false, the invention of a detective interviewing the Chamberlains hoping to shock them into an admission, and so it was not evidence but an artefact of tactics. The claim was to hang around in the cloisters of rumour for decades.

Today the gods are kind. This morning, as we wait for Coroner Morris, several journalists hold copies of the latest Sunday Territorian, headlined ‘Dingoes Attack Camp Site’, detailing the weekend’s terror of the Hooper family. The court crier announces the coroner. She enters: greying hair, black jacket. She bows, bids us sit. The camera holds on her, broadcasting live to every channel in the nation. In those far audiences are the supporters of the Chamberlains: importantly, the eyewitnesses at the camp barbecue with the Chamberlains when Azaria was taken, and the former chief ranger at Uluru, Derek Roff, who had alerted the NT government to the potential dangers of dingoes prior to Azaria’s death.

Elizabeth Morris deals briefly with the facts, which she is required to find on the “balance of probabilities”. Instead, she states, “I am satisfied, to beyond the required standard, of the following matters,” whereupon she recounts the cry, the disappearance, the shock, the chase, precisely as the Chamberlains and the eyewitnesses had recounted it in evidence years ago. Any qualification or uncertainty is absent.

“It is appropriate to adopt the findings of primary fact of the Commission.” She is referring to the Morling Commission, which exonerated the Chamberlains in 1987, two years after the publication of Evil Angels, my book about the case. In 1995, the third coroner, John Lowndes, could not bring himself to follow the Morling Commission’s conclusion that the Chamberlains were innocent, illustrating the contagious, persistent urge of public hostility.

Moving quickly to the crux, Morris finds:


I am satisfied that the evidence is sufficiently adequate, clear, cogent and exact, and that the evidence excludes all other reasonable possibilities to find that what occurred on 17 August 1980 was that, shortly after Mrs Chamberlain placed Azaria in the tent, a dingo or dingoes entered the tent, took Azaria, and carried and dragged her from the immediate area … Azaria was not seen again. 


So “human intervention” is finally ruled out. Michael Chamberlain is in tears now, and Aiden also. I cannot see Lindy’s face but Rick is holding her tightly.

To choose a proper category for her coronial certificate, Morris finds traditional British alternatives wanting, so she is about to expand the allowable causes of death in this country. Gerry Galvin, the coroner at the second inquiry who committed Azaria’s mother to trial for murder, and her father as an accessory, also knew a coroner’s procedures were not constrained by law. He refused the Chamberlains any protection as persons suspected, so exercising against them the wide power of a court established by the Magna Carta.

“The cause of her death was as the result of being attacked and taken by a dingo.” Morris’ voice is halting; she folds away her notes and picks up another page. Facing directly ahead, she addresses the Chamberlains. “I am so sorry for your loss. Time does not remove the pain and sadness of the death of a child.” The rhythm of her words is broken. At this rate she’ll have us all in tears. Michael cannot control his sobbing, nor can Aiden. Elizabeth Morris stands now, as we all do. Abruptly she turns from the bench, gone without the usual bowing, leaving us in a few seconds’ surprised silence, until applause, normally forbidden, makes its rowdy appearance. The attendants are affected, too, and become busy doing something else. 

The family rush into one another’s arms. Lindy summons me: “And you can give me a hug.” Then Michael. No chance of dry eyes here.

The Azaria story began as a witch-hunt and, as I leave to watch the Chamberlains face a media scrum outside, I wonder if it should not end with a witch-hunt. Who is to blame for the persecution of this tragic family? The person I think of as The Tactician? Local hostility to this family will die out. Those folk who are ‘born the Territory, live the Territory, die the Territory’ are the blackfellas; for whites the label ‘Territorian’ is a temporary boast.

For the Chamberlains, let the story end as it began, with a cry in the dark.

John Bryson
John Bryson is an author and former lawyer. His books include Whoring Around and Evil Angels, which chronicled the story of Lindy Chamberlain’s trial for murder.

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