This is an edited version of the speech I gave in thanks to Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton, who was our guest at an event co-sponsored by the Tamar Valley Writers Festival and the Tamar Peace Trust on October 28th 2021 at the Launceston Tramsheds Function Centre. Lindy was in conversation with Dr Fiona Reynolds on the theme of ‘Accidental Celebrity’.
It was in 1980 that Lindy’s dreadful tragedy unfolded: the taking of her baby Azaria by a wild dingo and the subsequent miscarriage of justice that ensued when Lindy was disbelieved for no good reason.
When the Chamberlains were committed for trial in the Supreme Court in 1982 they applied for and were granted Legal Aid, as no ordinary people can afford a murder trial. That’s when my accidental connection with the Chamberlain case started.
Defence lawyers don’t have to believe in the innocence of their clients, but in this case, we did. My colleague Greg Cavanagh was the one officially seconded to the defence team, but I met and talked daily to the senior lawyers, and the witnesses, and we few formed a sadly tiny group of people in the Territory and the country who believed that Lindy and Michael Chamberlain were telling the unvarnished truth. (The campsite witnesses, incidentally, all supported the Chamberlains version of events, without exception. Two of them, Greg and Sally Lowe, were Tasmanians and we kept in touch when I moved here.)
Those were dark days indeed, personally and professionally. We could scarcely believe our ears when the guilty verdict came in, so faulty and unconvincing was the Crown case against the Chamberlains. But don’t get me started…. I have many stories to tell about that time, about the unreasoning prejudice and ignorance of my fellow Darwinians and the legal fraternity, and I told some of them to John Bryson, who wrote Evil Angels. One of the stories I told him didn’t get into the film version but he does relate it in the book:
During the trial I had invited one of the principal defence witnesses, Les ‘Dingo’ Harris, to the Darwin Sailing Club, for some hospitality. There, sad to say, a friend of mine, himself a prominent lawyer, picked a fight with Les over his testimony that a dingo could indeed consume a tiny baby. Like many Territorians at the time, he thought he knew better than the experts and didn’t want outsiders coming in to destroy cherished illusions.
I was so downhearted and disillusioned with the outcome of the trial that I left the practice of law shortly after the trial. Not long after that, I met Liz Noonan and her husband, the late Dr Tony Noonan, who founded the Chamberlain Support Group in Darwin, which became the base for and powerhouse behind the nationwide movement to obtain justice for Lindy and her family. Lindy remembers them very fondly, I know. Some of my own letters and papers are in the archive Liz has lodged in the National Library archive. I was able to tell Liz about the malice that persisted towards the Chamberlains in the months and years after the trial. I knew the senior prosecuting lawyers very well socially and it would make your hair stand on end to hear some of the wicked things they believed and said about these innocent people. I won’t go into it now…it’s too long a story and I still find it upsetting to think about.
It was Liz who introduced me to Lindy the one and only time I ever met her. Lindy won’t remember of course because this was during the Morling Inquiry in 1987 after she’d been released from prison. The tide of public opinion was turning in her favour, she’d become something of an accidental celebrity and was surrounded by dozens of media, so our encounter was very brief.
But during the years of Lindy’s imprisonment in the early 80s, Liz and Tony Noonan supported Michael Chamberlain when he came to visit Lindy in prison, sometimes with his sons, sometimes alone. He often stayed with the Noonans and I met him several times there, and out and about in Darwin. I remember walking with Michael through the central Darwin mall one day headed for the juice bar. You could feel the sidelong hostile glances directed at him.
It was troubling and upsetting enough for me to have constant arguments with wilfully ignorant friends and fellow lawyers about the case – but how much more scary and disheartening must it have been for Michael, who was widely believed to have gone along with his wife’s supposed cover-up of the supposed murder of her child. And how great must have been the anguish of Lindy herself, not just for having lost her baby to a wild animal, but having been wrongly accused and imprisoned for killing her. And then to have had her second daughter, Kahlia, taken from her as an infant.
This is not news or insider knowledge but Lindy Chamberlain became known during her time in prison as a model prisoner, not just for her own behaviour, but also for becoming something of a guide and counsellor for the troubled and unfortunate women there. After I left the law and while working with the Noonans I started at the ABC. I used to imagine Lindy might be listening, and one night I played a lovely sung version of the Richard Lovelace poem whose last line goes: ‘Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage’. I dedicated it, with some trepidation about doing so out loud, on-air and in public, to Lindy.
To me she’s a true Australian heroine, a courageous woman whose strength of character and strong moral core got her through an unimaginable vale of tears. It’s one of the achievements I’m proudest of in my whole life that I took a stand for truth and justice along with Liz and Tony Noonan on behalf of the Chamberlains.