Personal Reflections on the Death of Dr Michael Chamberlain January 2017

Posted by Barbara Etter APM on 18 January 2017 | 1 Comments

As a person with a strong interest in justice and a particular passion in relation to miscarriages of justice, I was deeply saddened to hear the news of Dr Michael Chamberlain’s recent death.

I had 16 years with the NT Police (from 1988-2004), post Chamberlain, working 11 of those years in Darwin (1988-1999). I was also involved in forensic science issues at the national level in the mid 1980’s, whilst at the then National Police Research Unit, following on from the Chamberlain case and the 1987 Morling Inquiry.

I was one of the many Australians who originally thought that Lindy must have been guilty (with Michael possibly involved somehow). The public focus seemed to be very much on Lindy. I certainly did not hold that opinion regarding guilt after the Morling Inquiry and the revelations concerning the deeply flawed forensic evidence presented by a number of local and overseas scientists. Most Australians will never forget being told that the supposed foetal blood spray under the dashboard of the family car was actually sound deadener. I still also vividly remember the day we found out about the finding of the matinee jacket, which Lindy had always said Azaria was wearing at the time she disappeared. I was attending the Australian and New Zealand Forensic Science Society (ANZFSS) conference in Melbourne, where forensic biologist/scientist Joy Kuhl was also in attendance. The accidental discovery of the jacket, after a man had fallen to his death from Ayers Rock or Uluru, was to be a turning point in the Chamberlains' pursuit of justice.

Michael’s death struck me as premature and tragic. I immediately wondered if the personal stress of all of those hard fought years – 32 years in seeking real justice – had taken its toll on his health. 

I remember well his words “if you know you are in the right, never, ever give up”. (Quoted at page 286 of Innocence Regained: The Fight to Free Lindy Chamberlain Norman H. Young The Federation Press 1989). He had certainly continued the fight, but at what cost?

As his 2012 book Heart of Stone states, a book which was published the same year as the Coronial Inquest which corrected the official record of his baby daughter’s death, Michael’s fight for justice revealed the triumph of overcoming insurmountable odds to get to the truth.

I admired Michael Chamberlain and his determination to get justice in a system which sometimes resists admitting that it might have got it wrong.

It appears that Michael and Lindy may have been too naïve and trusting when it came to the investigation and subsequent inquiries into Azaria’s death. Perhaps they thought if they had nothing to hide that the system would work with them to reveal the truth. They under-estimated the prejudice and bigotry in sections of our society at that time, the power of the media, along with community innuendo and rumour, and the legal concept of the finality of a conviction (which has been discussed by those involved in Innocence Projects and research into why miscarriages of justice occur. See for example Richard Nobles and David Schiff (Eds) Understanding Miscarriages of Justice Oxford University Press 2002).

One hopes that valuable lessons have been learned from a case that attracted international attention and polarised our nation. I am still dismayed by the number of people today who maintain their belief in the Chamberlains' guilt.

Dr Ken Crispin, a barrister who appeared for the Chamberlains, who later went on to take silk, become a Judge and the President of the ACT Court of Appeal, in his book The Chamberlain Case: The Legal Saga that Transfixed the Nation (Scribe Melbourne 2012), points out that this was a case in which the prosecution had been able to produce no eyewitnesses, no body, no confession, and no motive. He goes on to discuss how it was that a jury's verdict, twice upheld on appeal, could have led to a miscarriage of justice (p.4).

I was pleased to see Lindy and Michael's solicitor during the case, Mr Stuart Tipple, speaking to the NSW media on Monday 16 January 2017, following Michael's funeral. Stuart stated that Michael had two unfulfilled wishes. He and Lindy had never received an apology from the NT Government and he was never able to organise a memorial plaque for Azaria at Ayers Rock.

I hope that Michael is remembered as someone who was prepared to take on the “system”, pursue justice against all odds and persevere until the very end, whilst maintaining a quiet dignity and enduring faith in humanity. I would like to think that many important lessons have been learned from this infamous miscarriage of justice.

I was interested to read, however, the comments of Nobles and Schiff in their Understanding Miscarriages of Justice book (cited above). In the introduction, at page 1, they state:

In this history [of Miscarriages of Justice] we were struck by the pattern of repeated crisis and reform, and by the part played in such crises by the media. Underlying most reforms of criminal justice and the writings and arguments supporting them are what we identify as the rationalist tradition. This tradition views the history of criminal justice as evolving through a process of enlightened reform, moving criminal justice ever closer, however slowly, to justice without miscarriage. A different perception and assumption inform our approach: that the processes and conditions, which generate undisputed miscarriages of justice and grave concerns about them, cannot be defused by rational reforms. The same processes which lead to miscarriages of justice, and reforms, also set the conditions for further crisis and reform.


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  • I have looked into the presumptive and confirmatory testing for blood extensively. Some of the flaws were obvious, but others were quite subtle. Professor Boettcher wrote a paper that was published in 1988 on countercurrent immunoelectrophoresis that falls into the latter category. Somewhat counterintuitively for most of us who are not immunochemists, contamination of antibodies can sometime be observed at low but not not high concentration of antigen.

    Professor Ouchterlony wrote a paper on this case in 1987, the closing passages of which discuss the problem of wrongful conviction due to faulty forensics: "My own interest for the case, to begin with attracted by the serology involved, has extended to thoughts about certain flaws in the forensic system concerning the transfer of scientific information. In that precinct law and science are at present living in a marriage of inconvenience which in the Chamberlain case miscarried. If we are going to serve justice properly with our information a radical change of the Rules of Court should be requested.”

    Posted by Christopher Halkides, 25/01/2017 11:29pm (1 year ago)

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