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Boehringer, Gill --- "The TV mini-series Through My Eyes" [2004] AltLawJl 93; (2004) 29(6) Alternative Law Journal 309



TV mini-series; Director Di Drew script by producers Tony Cavanaugh and Simone North, Channel 7, 23-24 November 2004.

Channel Seven should be congratulated for. showing this drama based on the book Of the same name by Lindy Chamberlain (published in 1990). It is of course a well known story of a classic Australian 'law and order' stuff-up, and a timely reminder of the problems which still exist in the systems of criminal justice across Australia. I do not want to deal with the drama itself other than to say it was riveting to watch so long as you were prepared to put up with the excruciating ads which pushed the viewing time out to about five hours over the two nights it was broadcast. Get it on digital DVD is my advice. For teachers -at any level -it Will make an invaluable teaching tool or) the processes and institutions of criminal law and punishment. Its depiction of the construction of a miscarriage of justice will provide a startling but completely believable counterpoint to the often uncritical accounts to which students are subjected in our schools and tertiary institutions.

For those too young to remember, in the early 1980s Lindy Chamberlain was convicted of the murder of her two­month old baby, sentenced to prison for life and served over five years of that sentence before being freed after a Royal Commission rejected the Crown's account. As strange as it seemed at the outset, Chamberlain steadfastly claimed that a dingo had taken the baby. As the Channel Seven drama makes clear, that is indeed what had happened. Further, it is clear from the production that dingoes had been attacking young children for some time prior to the disappearance of the Chamberlain baby from the tent the family was using on their holiday near Ayres Rock (Uluru). A useful account of the events can be found in lawyer/writer John Bryson's book, Evil Angels (1985). And a further account of the matter by Norman Young innocence Regained: The Fight to Free Lindy Chamberlain (1989).

Seven's drama deals effectively with a number of issues which have been widely canvassed relating to the case. But in doing so it reminds us that these issues are still with us. For example, Lindy and her husband were members of a Protestant church which was not mainstream (Seventh Day Adventist) and they seemed to react in a way different from the way in which 'ordinary Australians' would be expected to react to the loss of their daughter. Much has been made also of the manner in which Lindy was portrayed in the media and was understood by the public as a very strange, perhaps evil (certainly hard) woman. Thus, at one point the police commissioner over-seeing the case exclaims 'we've got the bitch'!

It also highlights some other issues which have not had as much attention. A number of these issues continue to appear as we learn more about miscarriages of justice, past and present in Australia. Let me just refer to some of these here. First, and perhaps most importantly, the manner in which the police construct the 'guilty' offender. In this case it is especially interesting because there were two competing stories. The local police at the scene had little doubt that a dingo had taken the baby. This was reinforced both by their understanding of dingo behavior and by the view of the local Aboriginal people who believed the dingo had done it. not least because they saw the tracks and accompanying signs in the sand of the child's garments. But, when the special police investigators were brought in from Darwin and took over the investigation the special local knowledge is discarded and the target shifts to Lindy. (A similar sequence occurred in the Phuong Ngo case after the murder of John Newman). From that time on she is 'targeted' and a story woven to convict her. Any evidence which does not fit the police story is shunted aside, and the story is strengthened in dubious ways. Second, the relationship between the police and the media in the Chamberlain case was of particular importance in creating an 'Other' who justifies such targeting. We have seen these elements in the case of Tim Anderson (twice wrongly convicted), the recent cases of Roseanne Catt and, I believe, Phuong Ngo. (See generally Helen Birch, ed. Moving Targets: Women, Murder and Representation).

Lawyers were central to Seven's account of the Chamberlain affair. In particular the portrayal of the prosecutor who was hell bent on securing a conviction and did not care much about how he got it. One saw similarities to a prosecutor in NSW who has been involved in several miscarriages of justice. Other lawyers were seen as sympathetic but ineffectual (again a common feature of some of our more famous miscarriage cases including, I believe, that of Phuong Ngo), while still others were seen as sharp, fair and effective; the cost, and the lottery involved, in retaining that kind of legal representation was made clear.

The conviction, and ultimately the freedom of Lindy Chamberlain were both due in large measure to expert testimony. Here again, we saw how the police and prosecution worked to establish guilt through the unfair manipulation of the forensic evidence, and the difficulty those representing Lindy had in combating the testimony of the 'experts'. Why would they lie? How could they be incompetent? Jurors were simply misled into reaching their verdict of guilty. It took a re­ examination by a Royal Commissioner of the 'expert' views to reach the proper conclusion that a dingo had indeed taken the baby and that Lindy had not cut her baby's throat. I believe this was the fifth time a Royal Commission has rejected a finding of guilt, and of course there have been innumerable inquiries where conviction has been seen as wrongful (see eg Tom Molomby's books, Who killed Hannah Jane? (1981), Spies, Bombs and the Path of Bliss (1986) and now, The Shearer's Tale (2004)).

For a basic introduction to the role of the police, media and prosecution in 'targeting' a person and constructing their guilt, Through My Eyes provides a fine primer. And thrown in for a bonus, the oppressive experience of imprisonment is shown briefly but deftly.

GILL BOEHRINGER teaches law at Macquarie University.

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