Tuesday, November 18, 2014

True Story Behind — "Dingo’s Got My Baby"

In 1982, an Australian mother was convicted of murdering her baby daughter. She was later exonerated, but soon fell victim to a joke that distracted the world from the real story.


Vindication at Last for a Woman Scorned by Australia’s News Outlets
‘Dingo’s Got My Baby’: Lindy Chamberlain's Trial by Media

To American ears, the word can seem odd, even comical: dingo. Sounds a lot like “dingbat.” Wasn’t that what Archie Bunker called his wife, Edith, on “All in the Family”?

But there is nothing laughable about the dingo, Australia’s native wild dog and a predator capable of inflicting considerable harm. Certainly, nothing was funny about the most famous episode involving that animal: the 1980 disappearance of 9-week-old Azaria Chamberlain while her family was camping in the Australian outback. Her mother, Lindy Chamberlain, said that a dingo had entered a tent where the baby lay, and made off with her; the body was never found. An initial inquiry supported her account. But then another inquest was held, and soon Ms. Chamberlain stood accused of having slit Azaria’s throat. Found guilty of murder in 1982, she was sentenced to life in prison, only to be released three years later when new evidence surfaced that absolved both her and her husband, Michael Chamberlain, who had been convicted as an accessory after the fact. Even so, it took nearly three more decades before a coroner, in 2012, finally issued what the now-divorced parents had long sought: full vindication in the form of a death certificate formally ascribing Azaria’s fate to a dingo attack.
The Retro Report series of video documentaries examining major news stories from the past takes a fresh look at this Australian tale even though it may seem remote from American experience. It is not. A defining element of the dingo story was news coverage that might reasonably be described as a circus if that would not be a gross insult to circuses. Americans are surely no strangers to three-ring court cases of their own, whether that of O. J. Simpson in the 1990s or the continuing trans-Atlantic juridical odyssey of Amanda Knox.

One can go back further, to the 1950s and the ordeal of Sam Sheppard. He was a Cleveland doctor convicted of murdering his wife, Marilyn, in their home, despite his insistence that an intruder had killed her. (If that summary rings a bell, it may be because the Sheppard case is widely assumed to have been a model for “The Fugitive,” a popular 1960s television series and a 1993 film starring Harrison Ford.) Newspapers in effect convicted Dr. Sheppard before he had even been arrested. “Why Isn’t Sam Sheppard in Jail?” a Cleveland Press headline thundered on the front page. The coverage was so lopsided that in 1966 the United States Supreme Court overturned the conviction, citing the “carnival atmosphere” and the trial judge’s bias. In a new trial that year, a jury found Dr. Sheppard not guilty.

The Chamberlain saga managed to find a niche in American pop culture. It was the case that launched a thousand quips, on shows like “Seinfeld” and “The Simpsons,” and in the 2008 film “Tropic Thunder.” That unfamiliar word, dingo, had something to do with it. So did a 1988 film, “A Cry in the Dark,” in which Meryl Streep resorted to another of her many foreign accents to play Lindy Chamberlain. The mother’s cry, “The dingo’s got my baby,” became a punch line, usually rendered in a mock Australian accent as “The dingo ate my baby.”

When it came to the Chamberlains, the collective failings of Australian officials and news organizations verged on the cosmic. For starters, even before the family had set up camp at Uluru — formerly known as Ayers Rock, in Australia’s Northern Territory — the chief park ranger there had warned his superiors that dingoes were a growing threat to humans and that their numbers needed to be thinned. He was ignored. Supposed experts in forensics thoroughly botched the job. For example, they identified stains on the floor of the family car as dried blood — evidence, they concluded, that Ms. Chamberlain had taken the baby there and cut her throat with some sort of blade, possibly nail scissors. Actually, the stains were the remains of a drink and a chemical compound that came with the car.

Everything about the Chamberlains seemed fair game for Australian cameramen and notepad holders (a phenomenon that Americans also know well). They were devoted members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, a denomination alien to most Australians. Many of them were open to suggestions that this was a strange cult capable of killing an infant. Word got around that Azaria was Hebrew for “sacrifice in the wilderness.” In truth, it means “God helped.”

Then there was the behavior of the parents. They had three other children, all in fine shape, and left in the father’s custody, including a baby born soon after Lindy’s murder trial. To the journalist pack, Michael seemed overly diffident and Lindy too eager to play for the cameras. Her “sultry good looks,” as one writer put it, arched many an eyebrow as did her wardrobe in public appearances; it tended toward sleeveless dresses held in place by thin shoulder straps. A further turnoff for many was her cold, clinical discussion of wince-inducing subjects, like how meticulous a dingo could be in peeling layers of flesh from its prey.

Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton — years after her divorce in 1991, she married an American, Rick Creighton, and added his name — says she felt trapped in a no-win situation. “If I smiled, I was belittling my daughter’s death,” she told Retro Report. “If I cried, I was acting.”

Judging the manner of a criminal defendant in a heavily publicized case is no less an issue today. It may weigh more heavily than ever in this age of social media, when everything can be dissected in endless detail by millions of self-styled experts. Take Oscar Pistorius, the South African track star, who was sentenced last month to five years in prison for killing his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. Through much of his trial, Mr. Pistorius sobbed loudly and uncontrollably. On Twitter, Facebook and the like, people around the world were free to speculate on whether he was genuinely agonizing or grandstanding.

In the 1980s, Australians by huge margins told pollsters that they were sure of Lindy Chamberlain’s guilt. Some animal rights activists even seemed to prefer the thought that a mother had butchered her baby than that a wild dog was responsible. Journalists who covered her trial now say that while Australian public opinion has shifted strongly in her favor over the years, some still doubt her innocence. In a sense, it is the flip side of O. J. Simpson (who, as it happens, once appeared in advertisements for Dingo cowboy boots). Polls show that regardless of Mr. Simpson’s 1995 acquittal on charges of murdering his former wife and her friend, growing majorities of Americans, including African-Americans, now believe he indeed did the crime.

Americans, be they journalists or their readers and viewers, may see a bit of themselves reflected in observations from John Bryson, an Australian journalist and lawyer who was convinced of the Chamberlains’ innocence from the start. His 1985 book on the case, “Evil Angels,” formed a basis for the Meryl Streep film. “Celebrity cases are momentously silly, inaccurate, overblown, largely because we in the media have such a good time with it,” he told a Retro Report interviewer. “And everyone was having a great time with this astonishing story and the astonishing capacity of the Australian public for suspending disbelief that they would never, in different circumstances, have been party to.” — Clyde Haberman | The New York Times

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