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AFP Forensics recruits get rare access to Chamberlain collection

In a first, AFP Forensic recruits have been given privileged access to rare items from the National Museum of Australia’s (NMA) Chamberlain Collection - which documents a moment in time which split our nation in two.

AFP Chief Forensic Scientist, Dr Sarah Benson, said it was a ‘real coup and privilege’ for new members of the AFP to see these significant items from Australia’s legal history first-hand.

“This is a first for us and a real milestone opportunity to look back at a slice of our history, where forensic science played such a significant part in leading to a very controversial conviction. There are great lessons here for all of us to learn from,” Dr Benson said.  

Hosting the visit was NMA Senior Curator, Dr Sophie Jensen, who admitted to being more than a little nervous when she contacted Lindy Chamberlain about the planned AFP visit.

Dr Jensen and the museum have been working closely with the Chamberlain family for more than 25 years, creating a collection which now holds more than 250 objects, relating to every aspect of the complex case.   

“Although over the years Lindy and I have spoken about forgiveness and moving on, I wasn’t quite sure how she would react to a visit from the AFP,” Dr Jensen said.

“In fact, she was so pleased. In some ways your presence here today helped to confirm to her the value of all that she has done in terms of documenting her experiences, and most importantly – of making them, and her story, public property and an ongoing archive for us all.”  

Azaria Chamberlain was just two months old when she was taken by a dingo on the night of 17 August 1980, on a family camping trip to Uluru. Azaria’s body was never found.

An initial inquest held in Alice Springs supported the parents’ claim and was highly critical of the police investigation.

The national debate

What followed was a decade-long national debate and discussion. What did happen to baby Azaria on that chilly August night in Australia’s red centre? Do dingoes really take babies from tents? Where is her body?  

Subsequently, after a further investigation by Northern Territory Police, and based largely on forensic science evidence at the time, Azaria’s mother, Lindy Chamberlain, was tried for murder and sentenced to life imprisonment. Her father, Michael was charged with being an accessory after the fact.

Louise Brown, from the Victorian Police Forensic Services Department, was working at the Victorian laboratory when the laboratory was involved in the 1986 Royal Commission Inquiry into the Chamberlain case. The Royal Commission could not exclude that a dingo could have taken Azaria Chamberlain.

“Northern Territory Police and prosecutors were dissatisfied with the initial finding supporting the Chamberlains’ version of events and their investigations continued,” Ms Brown said.

“Based on ultraviolet photographs of Azaria’s jumpsuit, James Cameron of the London Hospital Medical College alleged ‘there was an incised wound around the neck of the jumpsuit – in other words a cut throat’ and that there was an imprint of the hand of a small adult on the jumpsuit, visible in the photographs.

“Professor Cameron and Dr Jones concluded that the blood spray pattern found under the dashboard of the Chamberlain’s car could have been produced by a cut in a small artery.

“Subsequently, Joy Kuhl’s forensic report claimed to have found evidence of foetal haemoglobin in stains on the front seat of the Chamberlains’ 1977 Torana hatchback (foetal haemoglobin is present in infants six months and younger).

“She claimed to have identified foetal blood in 22 areas of the car, including the camera bag, floor, towel, console and scissors.”

There was so much conflicting evidence from witnesses and experts who both disputed and supported the Crown’s scenario and who questioned Joy Kuhl’s testing.

“The questionable nature of the forensic science evidence in the Chamberlain trial, and the weight given to it, raised concerns about such procedures and about expert testimony in criminal cases,” Ms Brown told the AFP recruits.

“The foetal haemoglobin in the Chamberlains’ car was later found to be a ‘sound deadener’ sprayed on during the manufacture of the car.”

After all legal options had been exhausted, the chance discovery in 1986 of Azaria’s missing matinee jacket in an area full of dingo lairs led to Lindy Chamberlain’s release from prison after more than three years.

On 15 September 1988, all convictions were overturned against Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, and a third inquest in 1995 resulted in an ‘open’ finding.

A unique window on Australia

“During the 1980s, the Chamberlain case played out across the nation on a daily basis like a running soap opera,” said NMA Senior Curator, Dr Sophie Jensen.

“Rumours, debates and unrelenting media coverage of every aspect of the case divided the nation, and everyone had an opinion.

“The Chamberlain case opened a unique window on to a range of issues and a multitude of historical themes – including mainstream Australia’s attitudes towards women, the outback, religion and indigenous Australia. We can also delve into questions about the role of the media and our judicial system.

“Even allowing for the significance of this case, and the hold that it has had over the nation, there is another element that brings such resonance to this collection and this particular group of objects.

“That is that they, themselves, became such big players in this event in our history. These innocent, inanimate, innocuous objects have now had lives of their own as they transformed from family possessions into evidence, exhibits, samples and now museum objects. In some cases these objects became as significant as the individual people caught up in the case, and in that sense have created their own identities.

“Perhaps the one object for which this holds most true is Azaria’s matinee jacket. In Australian terms there can only be one matinee jacket – the term itself is now synonymous with one baby girl.

“This jacket, whose chance finding was the key to Lindy’s release and a turning point in the case now rests here with us, having been worn by a baby, having been torn from her body, having lain hidden for years in the sand at the base of the rock, having been identified, examined, studied and tested, it now rests, along with her bloodstained jumpsuit, with us.”

So too does Michael Chamberlain’s pride and joy, his bright yellow Holden Torana, which was another central part of the forensic science case against the couple. Michael donated the vehicle.

In delivering the vehicle to the NMA, bearing NSW plates with the registration ‘4ensic’ Michael said that it: “will survive not just as an example of a total forensic failure, but ultimately as a symbol of the triumph of Australian justice.”

Dr Jensen said the NMA spends a lot of time using this collection to demonstrate to people that the Chamberlain family are real people and the events of the 1980s were also real.

“These stories belong to living, breathing individuals – people who felt, suffered and, in the case of Lindy Chamberlain at least, survived. The objects may now rest with us, but their work is not yet done. They are still telling their stories,” Dr Jensen said.

“Perhaps the other area that we now need to emphasise is that the other players in this case were people too. These objects tell a story of forensic scientists who stepped too far outside their areas of expertise. Who didn’t test their assumptions. Who allowed themselves to get caught up in the drama of the case and lost their detachment and ability to remain critical and impartial.

“New tests can be developed. Methodologies can be re-evaluated. Techniques refined. Knowledge improved. But many of the key errors that were made in this case were those that do not change – because they relate to people and human nature.

A message from Lindy

“I asked Lindy if she had anything specific that she wanted me to say to you today. She asked me to emphasise to you that when you are faced with a new task, a new case, that you examine your preconceptions. That you test your assumptions and then test them again.”

For members of the AFP’s 2018 Forensic group the opportunity to learn about this landmark case and to see rare parts of the Chamberlain collection was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and just one of the new inclusions in the enhanced Forensics New Member Induction Program.

AFP Team Leader, Kate Sloan, who is completing a PhD on standards textile damage examinations, was fascinated to be able to view the damage to Azaria’s clothing up close.

“Canine damage to clothing isn’t something you encounter often in the lab and…from what I can see, from the damage to the clothing around the neck, I’d be fairly sure it was made by a dingo. It is incredible how sharp canine teeth are.” 

“This is a rare and unique experience and we are all feeling very privileged to get this sort of access,” said AFP inductee Ian Franca.

For many of the recruits, Azaria’s disappearance came long before they were even born.

Vicky Wardle was born in England eight years after Azaria went missing.

“I do know it made world-wide news at the time, given the unusual circumstances. It remains a very intriguing case and I’m fascinated to learn more of the details during this visit to the National Museum,” Vicky said.

Coordinator Jane Ackland was in primary school when the news from Australia’s red centre first broke.

“It felt overwhelmingly that people were convinced the baby had been killed by her parents, and there were quite damning discussions in which people demonstrated their biases about people from different religions, or women who behaved a little differently to the norm.”

According to recruit Lauren Kolega “this case really shows the importance of the role of forensic scientists; getting the job done accurately and having good procedures in place”.

And for Adam Burtz “this really shows how far forensic science has come since the 1980s.”

The final word to Dr Sophie Jensen from the NMA who believes the Chamberlain case opens a window onto a range of issues.

“At times, looking through this window is difficult. There are so many aspect of this case that are striking – it often displays aspects of Australian culture and society that people find confronting, difficult, unsavoury, unsettling and unpleasant. In many ways, many people would like to forget.

“Perhaps this is why it is so important that we have museums here to ensure that we do remember.”

Footnote: This group of new AFP Forensics members are the first intake under the Government’s commitment to enhance the AFP’s specialist capabilities from the 2017-18 Budget allocation of $321 million.