From Lindy Chamberlain to Amanda Knox, Vilification to Exoneration
Michael and Lindy Chamberlain
Thirty two years ago Lindy Chamberlain, a twenty three year old Australian wife and mother of three on vacation with her family, left a barbeque and walked toward her tent in an Uluru campground. Another camper had alerted her that they heard her infant daughter, Azaria, crying. Half way to the tent Lindy saw the outline of a dingo emerging from the tent shaking its head vigorously. She screamed the now famous words “the dingo's got my baby!” as she ran to check on her children and found that Azaria was indeed missing. She then bolted in the direction she believed the dingo headed while calling for help. What an unimaginable nightmare. Their precious child was stolen from a tent and killed by a wild animal during a family camping trip.
Anyone would have sympathy for this horrendous and tragic loss. Lindy Chamberlain however did not behave in the manor the public expected. She did not scream, cry, roll on the ground and cling to her husband. The public soon came to see her as cold, lacking in emotion and unnatural. As a Seventh Day Adventist, she and her husband were considered by many to be cult members and it was rumored in the media that the name Azaria meant “sacrifice in the wilderness.” The public and press turned on Lindy Chamberlain. Instead of a figure of great sympathy and tragedy, to Australia she had become a cold, strange woman capable of killing her own baby. Extreme vitriol was aimed by the nation toward Lindy in the form of cruel jokes, t-shirts, names and comedy routines. In October 1982 Lindy Chamberlain was found guilty of murder and her husband, Michael, an accessory after the fact. In February 1986 rescue workers searching for a missing hiker in the same area discovered Azaria’s missing matinee jacket near a dingo’s lair. Lindy was released from prison, and later acquitted of the murder due to reasonable doubt in 1988. Despite the acquittal, a shadow of public suspicion hung over the Chamberlain family. A three decade long battle to clear their names ended in June 2012 when a Northern Territory coroner finally ruled that Azaria’s death had been a result of a dingo attack. It was a ruling that would have Australians looking at their own treatment of a grieving mother.
This would not be the first or last case of press vilification of an individual, nor the last group of people to engage in collective demonization of someone later exonerated of a crime. In October 2011 the gripping Amanda Knox case ended in an acquittal after a four year span of dramatic media coverage that first saw her convicted of murdering her British roommate Meredith Kercher December 2009 in Perugia, Italy. Press coverage would multiply in the Amanda Knox case with three countries involved. The British tabloids created the fictitious character ‘Foxy Knoxy’ to portray Amanda as a seductress who was able to convince two men to help her kill her roommate. In Italy, Amanda was an innocent face with icy blue eyes. She was portrayed as a wild, sexy, out of control American student. The American press repeated the story with little analysis in the beginning, although over time that changed. As was the case with Lindy, Amanda’s behavior would be judged as odd and inappropriate. The comment sections of online papers were full of hate filled comments by angry villagers with torches. The character assassination of Amanda Knox would be difficult to overstate. Her clothes, facial expressions, sex life and social media posts were all used against her to paint the image of a sexy, spoiled killer. In reality Amanda Knox was a victim of an over-zealous, incompetent and corrupt police and prosecution. She was a typical college student who naively stayed in Italy after the murder to help police find her friend’s killer, but soon found herself accused of the crime. Lindy Chamberlain received several apologies this week in Australia. Amanda Knox has yet to hear any apologies from the worst of journalists who smeared her name in newspapers around the world.
Duke Lacrosse players: David Evans, Collin Finnerty, and Reade Seligmann
The presumption of innocence was also thrown out the window by the media in the 2006 Duke Lacrosse case. The story of a black stripper accusing three privileged Duke Lacrosse players of rape was shocking. The added elements of race, social and economic class brought national condemnation onto the lacrosse players. The media framed the story as privileged white males versus a struggling black female student. The New York Times labeled the case the ‘Duke Rape Case’, not bothering with the word alleged. The rape was assumed in the press to be true. Angry groups gathered at the homes of the lacrosse players banging pots and pans. Wanted posters of the team’s 40 players were posted on campus with their names and photos. The Duke athletic culture was maligned as a breeding ground for depraved behavior. The case came apart in court as forensic tests failed to identify any of the players DNA on the accuser and she gave contradictory testimony. The innocence of the lacrosse players, David Evans, Collin Finnerty, and Reade Seligmann, became apparent and the charges were dropped a year after the initial allegations were made. North Carolina’s attorney declared that the students were not merely not guilty, but actually innocent, the victims of a “tragic rush to accuse.”
Media vilification of innocents is uncomfortable to think about. Is it possible that a witch hunt mentality is hidden in all of us waiting for the right opportunity to come out? How many people were wrong in assuming the defendants above were guilty? How many participated by joining in with derogatory comments or tweets. Perhaps some were influenced by media portrayal, prosecutors or gossip. Will the lessons of Lindy, Amanda and the Duke Lacrosse players ever be learned? Vilification of defendants has even impacted trial results. The media will always try to make money out of a dramatic story; hopefully these cases of misplaced accusation and subsequent exoneration will serve to give pause. These cases should caution all of us to be skeptical of what we hear in the media before accepting it as the truth. There are warning signs to look out for: an astounding story, a confession after hours of interrogation, the mention of satanic rituals, shady activities by the authorities involved. The next sensational crime story is likely around the corner; watch for signs of vilification and hold back judgment. Ask the press hard questions and the next time, for victims like Lindy Chamberlain, it may take a lot less than thirty two years to find the truth.
Tags: Lindy Chamberlain , Amanda Knox , Duke Lacrosse Case , Wrongful Conviction , Media Vilification Exoner
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