Two high-profile exonerations have brought criminal injustice into the headlines this summer: In southern California on May 24, a judge cleared the record of football player Brian Banks, after the woman who accused him of rape recanted. And in Australia on June 11, authorities officially declared that a dingo really did kill Azaria Chamberlain, the infant whose 1980 disappearance on a family camping trip led to a media frenzy and the mother’s murder conviction.
On the advice of his attorney, Banks plea bargained ten years ago when charged with rape, rather than risk a possible 25-year sentence if convicted at trial. He had already spent more than five years in prison and was on probation with an ankle monitor when he was contacted by his former accuser, who was ready to recant.
The California Innocence Project helped with Banks’s appeal, which associate director Jeff Chinn says has generated more publicity by far than any other case they’ve worked on. The office had no trouble keeping up press files on Ken Marsh, released in 2004 after serving 21 years in a child-death conviction, and even Shirley Ree Smith, whose infant-shaking conviction reached the U.S. Supreme Court last year, but ”Brian Banks was next to impossible,” Chinn told me last week.
In the wake of the exoneration, Nancy Petro at the Wrongful Convictions blog published an insightful observation about plea bargaining by innocent people. A subsequent post by Phil Locke about how false confessions can happen criticized the interrogation strategy known as the The Reid Technique®, which is commonly employed with suspects in shaken baby cases. Locke’s blog triggered a fascinating response from Joseph P. Buckley, president of John E. Reid & Associates, the firm that’s trained investigators across the country in the technique.
On the day of Banks’s dismissal hearing, an Associated Press report quoted him making a comment that contains a double meaning for parents accused of abusing their children:
“I know the trauma, the stress that I’ve been through, but I can’t imagine what it’s like to have your child torn from you,” he said. “I don’t know what I would have done without my parents.”
When Azaria Chamberlain disappeared from her family’s tent on a camping trip in 1980, her mother Lindy Chamberlain said she had seen a dingo running off with something when she went to check on the baby. Extensive searching produced no body, only the child’s torn jumpsuit. Investigators concluded that the rips had been caused by a knife, not teeth, and accused Lindy Chamberlain of murdering her daughter in the front seat of the family car before raising a false alarm near the tent. After two years of sensationalized press coverage, Lindy Chamberlain was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Three years later, however, police searching for a hiker found the child’s missing jacket in a dingo lair, supporting the mother’s original story. The case was re-opened and Lindy Chamberlain was released from prison.
Last week, coroner Elizabeth Morris issued an amended death certificate that officially declared Azaria’s cause of death as a dingo attack. Australian journalist Julia Baird wrote in an editorial in the Australian edition of the New York Times:
We assumed an innocent woman was guilty. We threw rocks at a grieving mother. And a nation founded by convicts somehow forgot the presumption of innocence.
The case had stayed in the news in Australia for years, with early coverage that suggested the Chamberlains had sacrificed their child in a cultish ceremony followed by criticism of the mother for appearing too “icy” and dressing too well.
Public opinion went from hostility to sympathy, however, after Chamberlain’s conviction was reversed and her story told in the successful 1988 film “Evil Angels”—released outside of Australia and New Zealand as “A Cry in the Dark.” Meryl Streep received her eighth academy award nomination for her portrayal of Lindy Chamberlain.
In an article last week in the Australian edition of the New York Times, reporter James Gorman said the coroner teared up during the presentation of the new death certificate, telling the parents:
“Please accept my sincere sympathies on the death of your special daughter. I am so sorry. Time does not remove the pain and sadness of the death of a child.”
For a time after her release from prison, Lindy Chamberlain, now Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton, lived in New Zealand, where Matthew Theunissen at the New Zealand Herald reported on her new project, a book about forgiveness. Like so many people who’ve been falsely accused of killing or injuring children, she says she would like the people who press these cases to stop. “I doubt that it’s ever going to happen,” she conceded, but:
“I’ve got a punishment I’d like to see for certain individuals who have been involved with this case, deliberately misconstruing the truth. I reckon it would be really nice not to do it again, to see them have to pay in a charitable fund for other victims for where the system had gone wrong.
“If they did that I’d know that they’d put their bad behaviour behind them and really meant they were sorry.”
®The Reid Technique is a registered trademark of John E. Reid & Associates.