Azaria Revisited

rob-morrisonI still have in my collection a plaster cast of what was, once, the most famous criminal footprint in Australia; the dingo at the centre of the Azaria Chamberlain case.

I had been filming at Uluru a few months before she disappeared, and used the occasion to gather specimens and photographs in preparation for my book, A Field Guide to the Tracks and Traces of Australian Animals.

At the third Chamberlain trial, because of my book, I was called on as an expert witness to explain why Aboriginal trackers, asked how they told dingo tracks from dog tracks, gave diametrically opposed reasons in the first two trials. It is not hard to explain.

Cover your watch without looking at it and then describe its features exactly. Almost everybody gets some details wrong; the lawyers certainly did. Imagine trying to do something similar for footprints in a language you don’t speak, in a huge forbidding building in a foreign city in front of a robed judge when you have never before left your home town.

Some spectacularly silly evidence was presented in the first two trials. An English ‘expert’ declared that dingoes could not open their mouths beyond 10cm and therefore could not seize the head of a child. Pommy dingoes may not be able to, but ours certainly can.

I was commissioned to do forensic experiments to see how far dingoes could actually gape. I used a frozen chicken (Ingham’s no 6) run under hot water long enough to soften the skin but not distort the body. A small dingo seized it easily, showing that at least a 13cm gape was no trouble, and bore it off to consume it – slowly; it was very cold.

I stressed that the trials had not been done to show that a dingo could carry such a weight, but when the video showed the dingo carrying the chicken off and then using incisors to pick the skin away (as had been alleged had occurred with the baby and its clothing) there were audible gasps from the audience.

My videos, most casts and other specimens have now been acquired by the National Museum for their extensive Azaria collection, which will be enlarged by what, one hopes, is the final chapter in this sad story.

Dr Rob Morrison (pictured) is a Professorial Fellow at Flinders University.

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2 thoughts on “Azaria Revisited

  1. (Amazed)
    Sounds like the ‘system’ got away with Murder.
    Thank you for this story Rob.
    I always wondered about this case too, I was brought up hearing about it.
    In this country, you can be alleged with a crime, your life ruined, later be exonerated, your life is still ruined.

  2. I have been wondering about the Aboriginal trackers and how much of a voice they have ever been given in this case. From the little that is recorded that I can see, they knew that Azaria had been taken by a dingo. Michael Chamberlin believes they had much to offer but were never heard. He also reported that they were highly credible trackers. Are you able to tell me if the trackers were ever given an opportunity to present their beliefs? I see that plenty of dingo experts did present theirs at the trial.

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