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Wednesday, February 16, 2005
Dingoes don’t steal babies… do they?
A case of scientific inquisition
Recently I wrote about Australia’s own crime of the century, the case of the disappearance of baby Azaria Chamberlain in 1980 from a campsite at the foot of Uluru, the stone monolith that rises abruptly and ominously from the flat outback landscape in the "dead heart" of the continent. In that post I focussed particularly on the bigotry and prejudice of both the Australian media and the general public who both fanned and participated in a virtual witch hunt of the child’s parents, Lindy and Michael Chamberlain; a witch hunt that eventually saw the former wrongly sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of her daughter and the latter wrongly convicted as an accessory after the fact. It was indeed, in the words of original Coroner Dennis Barrett, "a national disgrace".
But there is another wolf (or is it dingo) in sheep’s clothing in this tragic story and it’s identity may come as a surprise to many, particularly that vocal group to whom it is revered as a quasi god, and its practitioners as infallible high priests of secret and arcane wisdom. I speak of "Science".
I have just been reading Colin Evans’ excellent book A Question of Evidence (Hoboken NJ, John Wiley and Sons, 2003) which examines a number of important cases from around the world in which forensic evidence was crucial to either securing or quashing a conviction, but which also raised disturbing forensic controversies in their wake. One of the cases examined is that of the trial(s) of Lindy Chamberlain.
In my original post I pointed out that Australia is a thoroughly secular country where, to borrow Evans’ words, "skepticism is chiselled into the national character". While this scepticism is directed with withering intensity at anything religious, supernatural, anomalous or otherwise removed from the narrow confines of a worldview dominated by empiricism, materialism and utilitarianism, it has a significant blind spot. It is so fawning of the power and prestige of Science that it is often incapable of seeing the forest for the trees in its unreflective acceptance of the authority of scientific "experts". This often has tragic consequences.
Evans accurately describes the consensus that developed throughout Australia over the Chamberlain case:
Public opinion was already beginning to harden against the Chamberlains. In a country where skepticism is chiseled into the national character, many found the concept of "baby-stealing dingoes" just too bizarre to swallow. This was the stuff of nursery rhymes; big, bad wolf, that kind of thing. Besides, no such an incident had ever been recorded. It didn't take long for the doubts to give way to vicious rumors. The most nonsensical had the deeply religious Chamberlains - they were both Seventh-Day Adventists, and Michael was a pastor - slaughtering their infant because she was subnormal, then manufacturing the dingo story to cover their misdeeds. Behind the scenes there was more than rumor at work...
Evans succinctly summarises the forensic case built against Lindy Chamberlain by a cast of eminent Australian and international scientific experts for hire including one of the world’s foremost pathologists Dr James Cameron, Professor of Forensic Medicine at the University of London and his self-styled "team", all skilled professionals and leaders in their various fields. Other who played crucial roles in building the Crown’s case against Lindy Chamberlain included Joy Kuhl, a forensic biologist with the New South Wales Health Commission, Dr Kenneth Brown and Bernard Sims, forensic ondontologists, Professor Malcolm Chaikin from the University of New South Wales, Australia’s leading authority on textiles and fibres, and other pathologists, psychiatrists and "animal experts". The scientific experts solidly stood behind the Crown’s contention that, for whatever reason - postnatal depression was the popular diagnosis - Lindy Chamberlain had murdered her nine-week-old baby, probably in the family car, then hid the body in her husband's camera bag, until such time as she could bury it in the desert, before returning to the campsite and fabricating the story of the dingo coming into the tent and taking the baby.
Evans asks "Since so many distinguished forensic experts had cast doubt on Lindy’s version of events, was it possible for that many specialists to be wrong?"
Or as an Australian might say "Fifty thousand blowflies can’t be wrong!?"
In court the answer was "No". In the court of public opinion the answer was also a resounding "No!". In reality, as is now recognised, the answer is an alarming "Yes!". Travesties of justice are sadly nothing new, but the faith implicitly given to the authority of science and to scientific experts whose credentialled evidence perpetuates such travesties is a cause for concern, particularly as "science" and the pronouncements of scientists are increasingly seen as the royal road to all truth and knowledge.
Eventually through the dogged campaign by a group of dissenters from the party line - as pushed by the Government, the judicial system, the media, the experts, and popular opinion - the forensic evidence was recognised to be seriously flawed. Lindy Chamberlain was freed. Many of the Chamberlain's supporters were Seventh-day Adventists and other Christians but many were also scientists who began to question the forensic evidence presented at the inquiries and trial by their peers. Several of these dissenting scientists had previously been ridiculed by the "expert consensus". A Royal Commission in 1986 headed by Judge Trevor Morling reserved its strongest criticism for the slipshod science that had condemned Lindy Chamberlain to jail for three years. Morling noted "I conclude that none of Mrs. Kuhl's tests established that any such blood was Azaria's," he said, continuing, "With the benefit of hindsight it can be seen that some of the experts ... were over-confident of the ability to form reliable opinions on matters that lay on the outer margins of their fields of expertise.... In my opinion, if the evidence before the Commission had been given at the trial, the trial judge would have been obliged to direct the jury to acquit the Chamberlains on the ground that the evidence could not justify their convictions."
Ironically, "science had sent Lindy Chamberlain to prison; now it had freed her." Finally, in 1992, the Court of Criminal Appeal in Darwin awarded the Chamberlains the sum of $Aus 1.3 million. While they had finally been vindicated, sadly it had come too late to save the Chamberlain's marriage which had broken down under the strain of the ordeal.
Significantly, public opinion polls registered a deep resentment among many Australians over this payment. In their eyes Lindy Chamberlain remained a fiend in human form, someone who'd done away with her own child and then concocted a fantastic story about cradle-robbing dingoes. Not possible, they murmured; dingoes don't steal babies.
Myths die hard but two recent events have surely laid this one to rest: In April 1998 on Fraser Island, a popular camping spot off the coast of Queensland, a thirteen-month-old baby, Kasey Rowles was attacked and dragged away by a dingo. Only prompt action by her father, who rushed the dingo, forcing it to release the child and run off, prevented a repeat of the Azaria tragedy. Unfortunately three years later in April 2001, also on Fraser Island, nine-year-old Clinton Gage was fatally mauled in a dingo attack. In fact there are hundreds of recorded cases of dingoes attacking people including young children.
Not only did [Lindy Chamberlain] lose her baby she also had the misfortune to fall foul of a regime utterly convinced of her guilt and seemingly prepared to go to any lengths to prove it. Within, hours of Azaria's disappearance the shutters had come down on all explanation save one - Lindy Chamberlain had murdered her own baby. This is a recurring problem around the world. Once the authorities have someone's name in the frame, a dreadful impetus builds; suspicion feeds on doubt, and prejudice feeds on suspicion.
Evans concludes with this chilling pronouncement:
Science is supposed to be our safeguard in such a volatile situation, a bulwark against the twin dangers of emotion and bigotry. Here it merely fanned the flames of hate. What happened to Lindy Chamberlain was nothing less than a forensic lynching.