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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Weeping on cue : the socio-legal construction of motherhood in the Chamberlain case Cunliffe, Emma


This thesis considers the influence and effect of the dominant Australian ideology of motherhood on the Chamberlain case. Lindy Chamberlain was convicted on 29 October 1982 of murdering her baby daughter, Azaria. Her conviction was overturned in 1988 after a Royal Commission into her trial. Two main explanations have been proposed for Chamberlain's wrongful conviction. The first explanation is that the scientific evidence adduced in support of the prosecution was seriously flawed. The second is that Chamberlain's right to a fair trial was prejudiced by the enormous media attention focused on the case. I argue that each of these factors influenced the jury's decision to convict Chamberlain but that each factor and the outcome of the case were also affected by the jury's assessment of Chamberlain as a mother. The failure of the scientific evidence was also at least partly attributable to the fact that certain scientists, convinced on the basis of behavioural evidence that Chamberlain was guilty of murdering Azaria, conducted their scientific investigation with tunnel vision and therefore overlooked anomalies that invalidated their results. The scientific and media discourses were also influenced by the dominant ideology of motherhood. I have identified at least three discursive constructions of motherhood in the Chamberlain case. The Crown presented Chamberlain as a murdering mother, whose strange behaviour after Azaria's disappearance could be attributed to her guilt. The defence sought to construct Chamberlain as a good mother - sentimental and loving - who related normally to her daughter and who deeply grieved Azaria's death. Chamberlain presented her own view of herself as innocent yet angry at the misappropriation of her daughter's memory and at the damage that the legal process and media attention had inflicted on her family. The disjuncture between Chamberlain's persona and the mother constructed by the defence likely served to entrench juror suspicions about Chamberlain's honesty and the bona fides of the defence as a whole. I have drawn on a unique source of information - the notes taken by juror Yvonne Cain throughout the trial and jury deliberations - to demonstrate the relative influences of media, science and common sense notions of motherhood. These notes suggest that the jurors' assessment of Chamberlain as a mother was crucial to the decision to find her guilty of murder. They also provide some insight into the method by which juries construct a case story and seek to assimilate evidence into that story.

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