The dingo took over my life – book review

Andrew L. Urban.

Journalist Malcolm Brown managed to irritate both sides: the Northern Territory Police (and Government) as well as Stuart Tipple, the lawyer for Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, which makes the two men ideal co-authors of Tipple’s journey through the history-making case of 9-week old Azaria Chamberlain’s 1980 disappearance at Ayers Rock (Uluru) and Lindy Chamberlain’s wrongful conviction of her murder. 

The media coverage of the Chamberlain case played a significant role in the case, which riveted Australia – and later the world – and split the public and the media in two. The dingo took her baby … or she is an evil murdering mother. Some members of the public sent cruel and accusatory letters … and then there were the nutters.

Now we know the truth, but it took three decades for the final closure, the fourth coronial inquest, with NT coroner Elizabeth Morris finding that yes, the dingo took her baby.

While this is not the first book on the case, it is the first told from their lawyer’s perspective – presented by a journalist who was not always ‘on board’ the innocence train. It provides some tension and some anecdotal entertainment in a gripping tale told chronologically. It is a valuable addition to the massive trove of archival material and other books that do to this case what forensic scientists failed to do: reveal the truth.

The book also provides insights into the personal costs of the main players, notably Lindy and Michael – and of course, Stuart Tipple.

Eventually, the Morling Royal Commission examined the wrongful conviction; Morling said he put the onus of responsibility for what amounted to a disaster in the legal system squarely on the shoulders of the Crown forensic experts. The Crown’s experts had come with lengthy credentials … that was misleading.

It was the view of Counsel Assisting, Chester Porter QC, that the system was crippled.

The traditional catchcry was: “It is better that 10 guilty men go free than an innocent man be convicted.” But the innocents were convicted, in the face of what, even at the time of conviction, was reasonable doubt. The judge saw the doubt, the jury did not. Chester Porter, commenting on the Chamberlain case, was quoted in July 1990 saying that the prospect of an innocent person being convicted “could easily happen again”. He said nothing had changed since the case. He was critical of the judicial system and the gathering of forensic evidence in Australia. Morling’s call for a National Institute of Forensic Science had been ignored. “The main reason the Chamberlains were convicted was because of bungled forensic evidence,” he said. And the evidence needed for a court of criminal appeal to reach an acquittal was too stringent.

By then, of course, the convictions had been squashed, after tremendous battles and official obstructions. The NT government seemed to have been more concerned about avoiding blame than about justice.

“The quashing of the convictions against Lindy and Michael Chamberlain by the Northern Territory Court of Criminal Appeal has been described as proof that our legal system works. The opposite is true. The Chamberlains finally received justice despite the system. The saga of the Chamberlains’ quest for justice showed that once the system gets something wrong, it can be incredibly difficult to turn things around. The people in control of the legal system begin to believe the system has to be defended rather than the rights of the individual it is intended to serve.”

Tipple was relieved when the convictions were quashed; but he wasn’t convinced the legal system had learnt any of the lessons.

“It’s been a wonderful effort but, will it be good enough to stop a tragedy like this happening again?”

Dr Malcolm Simons, a medical scientist, told Tipple: “It is pleasing that the role of Forensic Scientists is coming under scrutiny in the aftermath of the case. Hopefully, this will result in new standards of performance.

Of course, it did not. In 2010, some 30 years after this debacle, Sue Neill-Fraser was put through a similar ordeal – and is still in prison as a result. The parallels are damning and disturbing; not because of any similarity in the deceased – a 9 week old girl and 65 year old man. But the errors that led to the wrongful conviction and the determined, seemingly vindictive efforts by The System not to correct those mistakes afterwards. (Neill-Fraser’s final appeal is due to be heard in Hobart from March 1, 2021.)

Chester Porter QC and Stuart Tipple speaking about the Neill-Fraser case after a public Sydney screening of the Eve Ash documentary, Shadow of Doubt in 2013, organised by Eve Ash and Andrew L. Urban.

The book reveals Tipple’s disappointment tinged with disdain. He writes at one stage:

Congratulations Australia! A baby is snatched away by a wild animal and the parents are universally vilified, convicted and punished. All those years and years, collectively, of education and training, all that experience of the police offices and scientists and lawyers, all those hundreds of years in which the legal system had been studied, scrutinised and refined, all that money spent on investigation and court proceedings, and yet this happened.

The book is full of letters and telegrams between the participants (no emails as yet at the time) and personal notes. One of the notes and letters written by Lindy Chamberlain while in prison could have been written by Neill-Fraser. It underlines the impact of perceptions – by the public, by the jury – when the accused does not behave as expected.

No longer, in Australia, are you innocent till proved guilty – that is a mere myth perpetrated in the hope of keeping ‘Mr Average Man’ as gullible and trusting as he is now. Now in Australia, one is guilty until one can prove one’s innocence – but one is given little chance to do that. In Australia, a person may have a number of court appearances before they are committed on a charge. And of course, they are instructed by counsel to present a neutral face in the court, since any other is open to misinterpretation. Now when a plea of innocence is entered, and they go before a jury, the jury wonders why they do not look shocked, or penitent, or whatever emotion the jury themselves feel appropriate on being presented with the facts for the first time. The frustration of sitting listening to this without being able to answer back, added to the anger pent up over months of the same treatment, leads to an impression the jury may interpret badly, thinking it is the ‘don’t care’ attitude of a hardened person . . .

The dingo took over my life: A lawyer’s journey
Stuart Tipple & Malcolm Brown
Tablo Publishing ISBN 9781922355089

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5 Responses to The dingo took over my life – book review

  1. Garry Stannus says:

    LINDY SUE parallels… The forensic (i.e. legal cases – science) evidence:
    In Lindy’s case a forensic biologist, Joy Kuhl – whose evidence of finding foetal haemoglobin in stains (claimed to be bloodstains) was crucial in convicting Lindy (and Michael Chamberlain as accessory) for the murder of their daughter Azaria. According to Tipple (pg 72), Kuhl said

    “I am so experienced I can tell if a positive presumptive result is really blood. I would not have been fooled by a false positive.”

    Compare that with forensic scientist (Tas) Deb McHoul’s:

    “with experience you can distinguish sometimes between false positive reactions with luminol and true positive reactions with luminol and how it reacts, the colour, the longevity is all an indication of that.”

    You can read that at CT pg 640 of the Susan Neill-Fraser trial transcript.
    [ ]

    I’m not saying that Debra McHoul’s evidence was ‘on the mark’ or flawed, but I am pointing out that in both the Chamberlain case (according to Tipple) and the Neill-Fraser case, the scientific witnesses who gave evidence asserted that their experience allowed them to interpret the result of a presumptive test … i.e., apparently without recourse to a confirmatory test.

    McHoul made mention [ CT pg 646 ] of a second ‘screening’ test’…

    In my view you should understand by ‘screening test‘ a process to identify those materials which do not contain the substance being looked for. Roughly speaking, a negative result with luminol means there isn’t any blood (except in the case of a ‘false negative’). But a positive result means that there may be blood (and not necessarily human) and/or there may be ‘metals, plants, paints, cleaning materials, and other substances’.
    [ ]

    Bleach is a cleaning material. Horse radish is a plant.

    A positive result (according to the text books) should be followed by a confirmatory test,
    [ ]

    It seems to me that often the use of another, second type of presumptive test (following a positive reaction to an initial presumptive test) is taken as having confirmatory status, when in science, , in my view, it has not.

    We now know/believe that the scientific evidence presented against the Chamberlains was wrong and in my view, what was presented to the Neill-Fraser trial court by way of scientific evidence was just a mish-mash of method (some of it poor), supposition by the police and clever insinuation by the prosecution. None of it, in my view, proved that Sue Neill-Fraser killed her partner, Bob Chappell.

  2. Garry Stannus says:

    It’s an information-filled book, though the font size will suit younger eyes. This book is in my view, a valuable contribution to the lore on the Chamberlain case. It is moreover, the story of Stuart Tipple through the prism of his involvement in the case – he too, a Kiwi in Oz and also a Seventh Day Adventist: He … a young lawyer (25 years old) … a chance meeting with Michael Chamberlain and then … when the going gets tough, Tipple goes in to bat for them…

    The book, ‘A Dingo Took Over My Life : A Lawyer’s Journey’ is by ‘Stuart Tipple with Malcolm Brown’. Until now, Malcolm Brown has been a little outside my reading radar. And … I guess I’m a little wary these days of what comes via our journalists unless it’s corroborated and referenced, rather than repeated parrot-fashion in all the chain media outlets – but please note that this comment is not directed at Brown.

    Readers of Wrongful Convictions Report [WCR] might recall The Australian‘s Tasmanian correspondent, Matt Denholm, claiming (in the usual ‘it is understood’ manner) that Meaghan Vass had again changed her story about being on the boat. The WCR editor found that the MR released by TasPol, mentioned perhaps in Burnie’s ‘The Advocate’ and picked up by The Australian’ … wasn’t true. WCR even published the transcript of a minor dope charge she faced … and published part of that court transcript in which the prosecutor herself backed up Meaghan against the police claims.

    The parallels between the Neill-Fraser case and that of the Chamberlains referred to in this WCR-book-review of the Tipple-Brown book, are several. At the moment I’m thinking of the wacky-winch-test that police used to insinuate that Sue had winched a body up two sets of stairs and so forth.

    (Detectives Sinnitt and Puurand had conducted a test to demonstrate the ability of winches to move items of some weight and perhaps to see if it was possible to winch a body up from the saloon of the Four Winds. A rope leading from the rear winch was handed to Dtv Sinnitt who was standing down below in the saloon. He wrapped it around his waist, and Dtv Puurand began to wind the winch. Dtv Sinnitt resisted by placing his hands either side of the exit, but couldn’t resist, couldn’t stop being pulled forward. [CT pp 743-744])

    With Lindy, some of the police proved their case to their own satisfaction over a few beers and a bucket of sand in the bar at the Red Sand Motel. Our scoffer policeman … but probably it’s best just to read on…

    “The four law men first assigned to the Chamberlain case talked over drinks at the Red sands Motel. Inspector Michael Gilroy accepted the Chamberlain’s story, while Frank Morris kept his own counsel.  John Lincoln, according to John Bryson’s account in Evil Angels, doesn’t buy the dingo story:  “Not a chance.  Never happened before.  There’s a fact you can’t beat.  Never ever happened.”  Gilroy noted that, even though none before had been fatal, there had been a series of recent dingo attacks in the park on children. Lincoln scoffs at the possibility that a dog could lug a ten pound baby over hundreds of yards.  To prove his point, he leaves the room and returns with a pail filled with ten pounds of sand, which he succeeds in supporting by his mouth for less than a minute.  He challenges the other officers to see if they can do better“.
    [this excerpt from Professor Douglas O’Linder’s trial commentary of 2012: ):

    I’d elsewhere read of that account myself, quite some years ago. As I recall, it was written by a journalist who was sent up to Alice Springs to cover the case … and who may have been present in the bar at the incident described above. It may have been first told in what Fay Anderson calls a now discredited book written by journalist Steve O’Brien (1984), O’Brien [also referenced elsewhere as ‘Steve Brien’] claimed that Chamberlain murdered Azaria [ see this reference in ‘Photographing Lindy: …’/Fay Anderson … ]. Elsewhere, Malcolm Brown himself [in the SMH (24Jul2004) ‘The Truth is Still Out There’] mentions Steve Brien, saying that Brien…

    “wrote a book expounding the guilt theory, published in 1983. He wrote about a small black dress found in the Chamberlains’ home in a 1981 police raid. Why shouldn’t it be black? Brien also mentioned a miniature coffin found in the home. That was also innocent. The Seventh Day Adventists discourage smoking, and the coffin was to take through an audience after anti-smoking lectures, inviting people to deposit their tobacco products.”

    Whether or not it was O’Brien’s book that I recall, I don’t know, and unfortunately, I do not have my copy at hand. However, this ‘bucket of sand in the mouth’ was mentioned in whichever book it was that I read many years ago. In my recall the author was present with the police in the Red Sands Motel bar that night. I didn’t like the book, in fact I thought it was trash and in retrospect, definitely not up to the standard of other journalists such as the late Evan Whitton. Yet our ‘bucket of sand’ journalist, later gained Lindy’s confidence, getting her to speak to him (in a car during a journey?) and using whatever material he could get on her/them as ammunition for his novel which – on the basis of that bucket of sand in the teeth … in the bar … amongst the fellahs … which on that basis he was always going to write a ‘she is guilty’ book.

    Can I share a quote on the role of the journalist from the esteemed Evan Whitton? He wrote once on the then Lindsay Tuffin ‘Tasmanian Times’ by quoting erstwhile Fleet-Streeter, Sol Chandler:

    “The oldest rule of journalism, and the most forgotten, is to tell the customers what is really going on. You do that by disclosing a new fact or a new pattern, or both. The pattern emerges when you put a lot of old facts into a strict chronology…”

    I was even a bit worried about Malcolm Brown’s co-authorship of ‘The Dingo Took Over My Life’. Tipple himself says of Brown (introduction, pg 6) that…

    “There was no one better suited than Malcolm Brown [to co-write the book]. [Their] relationship has often been prickly because as the consumate reporter Malcolm is driven by the need to tell the story whatever the consequences. Nothing was ‘off the record’ to him even when he gave assurances to the contrary.”

    Brown himself admits in the same introduction (page 4), that:

    “With Stuart, it was a prickly relationship. Probably the worst moment was when Stuart had private negotiations with Brian Martin QC, then the Solicitor-General for the Northern Territory, about a possible release for Lindy. Stuart told the SDA [Seventh-day Adventist] hierarchy, who distributed the information in a confidential document. This was leaked to me and, in accordance with what I understood to be my obligations as a journalist, I publicised it and that threw a huge spanner into works as far as negotiations with the Northern Territory went.”

    Of course, I’ve read Lindy’s own book, ‘Through My Eyes’ and Bryson’s ‘Evil Angels’ and now I’m reading Tipple-Brown’s ‘The Dingo Took Over My Life’. I haven’t read the late Michael Chamberlain’s ‘Heart of Stone’, but will do so when I get the opportunity. But for now, I’m continuing to read ‘The Dingo Took Over My Life’. I find that it’s not a book that one can ‘speed read’ through – though it is definitely for the reader who is committed to the Chamberlain saga and to those other cases where ‘justice gets it wrong’.

  3. Rosemary says:

    excellent parallels drawn. I have heard Stuart Tipple speak so should be a good read. n.b. Azaria age 6 or 9 weeks not months, I think is a typo

  4. Tom Cairns says:

    Thank you again Andrew for keeping us up-to-date and for examples of comparison. It is hard to think of Susan Neill-Fraser without thinking about Lindy Chamberlain. Then there are the many other cases of police and judiciary stuff-ups laced with a public conscience that is more motivated to wonder who will win the AFL premiership.
    Shadow of Doubt indeed, a very murky and dense shadow. March 1 is only two months away. I wonder what the plotters will come up with this time? They could put the appeal back to the Ides of March. Might be more appropriate.

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