By Christopher Halkides
Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton was convicted of the murder of her daughter Azaria in Australia in 1980. She spent several years in prison but was exonerated.
Main reason for conviction: poor forensics
Contributing reasons: demeanor of the accused, lack of knowledge of religion of accused, lack of knowledge of animal predation.
Case Summary: Lindy Chamberlain and her husband Michael, a minister in the Seventh Day Adventist church, were vacationing in Uluru in 1980. Her 9 week old daughter Azaria disappeared. The Chamberlains maintained that a dingo took the infant, and witnesses supported their account. Aboriginals helped to track the dingo and gave corroborating testimony, which was discounted.
Lindy was perceived as being cold and unemotional. Some reports indicate that she was criticized for changing her clothes every day during the trial. The Chamberlain’s public image was hurt by the lack of knowledge of their religion, in particular the belief that it was a cult. There were rumors that Azaria was killed in some sort of ritual sacrifice. “There was this attitude of, ‘We don’t want weirdo religions telling us our bush is dangerous,’ ” says Deborah Staines, a Melbourne-based writer and academic who co-edited a book about the Chamberlain trial, The Chamberlain Case: Nation, Law, Memory. Since that time a number of dingo attacks have been documented, including at least one that was fatal. Another one that was similar to the Chamberlain case was stopped when the father was able to drive the dingo away.
The prosecution’s case included positive presumptive tests for blood using ortho-tolidine in the car. This test for blood is presumptive, and it is now generally agreed that presumptive blood tests must be followed by confirmatory blood tests before an unequivocal claim that blood is present should be made. The Chamberlains lived in Mt. Isa, and copper dust and other metal ores were in the air. One report on this case indicated that many of the cars on the Chamberlain’s street tested positive for blood with ortho-tolidene. Copper is one of the substances that can produce a false positive for blood using ortho-tolidene. The forensic police took the position that substances other than hemoglobin would produce a different color, an absurd statement.
In addition an antibody-based test for fetal hemoglobin (Hb F) on the front seat of their car. The problems with the test for fetal hemoglobin (Hb F) are subtle but serious. Surified Hb F was not the antigen used to produce antibodies against it, cord blood was; therefore, the antibodies that were initially produced would react with many substances other than Hb F. Supposedly the antibodies that reacted with blood components other than Hb F were removed during the manufacturing process, but there was evidence that indicated that the removal was incomplete. Therefore, a positive reaction would not be a certain indicator of the presence of Hb F. The identity of the material giving the false positive was not entirely certain, but it may have been a chemical from the manufacturing process of the car. Two additional problems with the antibody test: One, the forensic police did their antibody tests more than 13 months after Azaria’s disappearance, and it is at best debatable whether or not hemoglobin would retain its ability to react with an antibody after that period of time. Two, substrate controls were not done, making it more difficult to spot false positives.