An exploration of the crown cases against Lindy Chamberlain and Keli Lane

There are two cases that stand out in the legal history of Australia as monumental legal stuff ups: Lindy Chamberlain and Keli Lane. Both cases involve women and their missing babies. Both involve women who lived outside the mainstream – Lindy was a Seventh Day Adventist  and the wife of a clergyman and Keli was an athlete and a potential Olympian. In both cases the crown case against them was ludicrous and not supported by the facts.

The crown case against Lindy Chamberlain was that for no known reason, and while on a family holiday at Uluru, she had gone and sat in the family car and cut her baby’s throat with a pair of scissors so rusty and blunt they later broke when investigators tried to use them to cut the collar of a baby’s matinee jacket. They might have cut butter, but not much else. There was no motive, no weapon, no witnesses, no body. As for opportunity: another family in the barbeque area the night the baby went missing, saw Lindy take the baby into the family’s tent and re-emerge a few minutes later, wearing the same tracksuit, without a speck of blood on it. It was after this that the family heard the baby cry in the tent, meaning the baby was still alive after Lindy came back from the tent. The crown case was that during the time she was absent from the barbeque area she had murdered the baby. Clearly she had not. Lindy then ran to the tent and spoke the now iconic words, ‘A dingo’s got my baby.’ As we now know that was a completely accurate statement.

But that story wasn’t good enough for the Murdoch press or the TV news. That story wasn’t going to make enough money, so they found a better one: Lindy Chamberlain, the sexy clergyman’s wife, had killed the baby herself, they claimed. Why? Because the Seventh Day Adventists believed in human sacrifice and Azaria Chamberlain was sacrificed to the savage God of the Adventists. A photo of the baby in a black dress in the Murdoch press proved it. The woman-hating Murdoch press had a field day. The Northern Territory police believed she was guilty and the TV news programs and Murdoch and current affairs programs backed them all the way. When a coronial inquest finds that a dingo had indeed taken the baby, the media barely pauses in their attacks on Lindy and their promotion of a completely false narrative. It was only a matter of time before they would put Lindy in the dock for a crime that was a media fantasy. A crime that never happened. The similarities between what happened to Lindy and what subsequently happened to Keli are striking. A missing baby. An unconventional woman. No body, no motive, no weapon, no witnesses and very little opportunity. To leave the hospital with the baby, kill it and hide the body, go home and get all dolled up and make it to the wedding at the time indicated on the wedding video’s time code is just about impossible. To hand the baby over to the father at the hospital, go home and get all dolled up and then go to the wedding: that fits the time frame. So what was the crown case in terms of motive? The motive, according to the prosecution was that she wanted to be in the Olympics and after all she had to get to that wedding so she killed the baby to make it on time. Obvious isn’t it? Not to a rational person. Therefore, of course, the standard legal ploy is used: she was mad, bad and dangerous to know. It was pretty much the Lindy script but with new, sexy additions because Keli Lane’s sex life was enough to make the average person dizzy.

And yet her parents knew nothing. They had no knowledge of their daughter’s two abortions when she was still pretty much a schoolgirl. They had no knowledge of her pregnancies, of the grandchildren of theirs she gave away. Nothing of any of this penetrated their illusory image of Keli as a golden girl, champion athlete and perfect daughter. This says more about her relationship with her parents than anything else. Her main emotion re her parents is fear, not love. There cannot possibly have been the kind of closeness that most daughters have with their parents. In the police station when they tell her she is going to be charged with killing her baby, her reaction is sheer panic-but not about being charged: ‘It will all come out,’ she cries and even asks desperately if her parents have to know. Curiouser and curiouser.

Keli Lane, contrary to appearances, was an iceberg. Only the smallest fraction of who she was, was ever on display to her parents or anyone else. The truth was hidden while she lived a double life. One example is the fact that she was still having sex with her boyfriend of the time when she was eight months pregnant, but he never at any time knew she was pregnant. They were living together part of each week. It seems inevitable that he would have seen her changing her clothes and showering but he had no clue.  She competed in a water polo championship when she was nine months pregnant. Her team lost but they still went to the pub for drinks. While at the pub Keli went into labour, disappeared, got herself to the hospital, gave birth, organized the adoption. The next day was her birthday. She left the hospital, went to a birthday party, playing the role of the perfect daughter. Then she went back to the hospital to tie up loose ends and discharged herself. She would have made an excellent spy. The media loved it, every salacious detail of it.

At the wedding she appears in the wedding video looking blonde, tanned and pretty and, unbelievably, wearing a white suit. Later, a lot of people found it hard to believe that a woman who had just given birth to a baby, and if the crown case is to be believed, killed that baby and who would still have been bleeding from giving birth, wore a white suit to that wedding. But, of course, this is similar to the black dress Lindy dressed her baby in. It only proves that both these women were somewhat eccentric, not that they killed their babies. The Keli Lane case is a rabbit hole and the further in you go the deeper the mystery becomes but it seems to me the mystery the media focused on – namely did she or didn’t she kill her baby, Tegan – is the wrong place to start. The wrong mystery. Is the mystery how and when and where and why she killed her baby or is it who the father is and why was this baby different to the others?

Keli Lane’s first experience of sex was date rape at fifteen. It seems it was never reported to police. Perhaps because her father was a policeman and knew exactly what Keli would face going through the court system and trying to get a guilty verdict. Then while still a schoolgirl Keli Lane became pregnant to her first ever serious boyfriend. She wanted to have the baby but he said they were too young and insisted she would have to have an abortion. Trained to obey from early childhood on, as an athlete, she obeyed and had an abortion. Her boyfriend said the girl who came back to him after the abortion was a ‘shattered girl’. To compound the trauma she got pregnant again just as they were breaking up and this time she waited and waited. She waited until she was five months pregnant to have a late term abortion. Already traumatized from the first abortion she endured a two part process to kill a baby she probably wanted. She may have vowed never to have an abortion again. And she never did.

But why all these unplanned pregnancies? She was ‘on the pill’ as her first boyfriend said, which was why he was so surprised that she was pregnant. Three pregnancies followed those two abortions. Two babies were adopted and Keli claims Tegan was handed over to her biological father and his girlfriend ‘Mel’ after which the supposed father and his girlfriend vanish into thin air, as does Tegan. The father, the man she said was called Andrew Norris or Morris, has never been located to this day. By getting pregnant over and over was Keli Lane trying to replace the babies that had been aborted? Surely so many pregnancies could not have been accidental? And how is it possible that her parents, especially her mother, knew nothing about any of it? Her fear of somehow bringing her parents into disrepute was extreme. To Keli Lane’s way of thinking her parents must never know anything about her feverish pursuit of sex, her drinking, her abortions or her ‘illegitimate’ children. Talking about Keli, when interviewed by an ABC journalist, her parents’ pride was obvious. Her father produced a box full of sporting medals, one of several. It’s clear who wanted her to go to the Olympics. Not Keli (she must have known she didn’t have the self-belief to do that) but her father. This was his dream for her. But what did she want for herself? Actions speak louder than words and her actions show that what she really wanted was to be a wife and mother, just like her own mother. She was pulled two ways: to be the perfect, dutiful daughter who achieved her parents’ dream of athletic glory and perhaps even an Olympic medal, or to be someone’s wife and someone’s mother. She never seems to have been able to reconcile these two life paths. The image of her competing in a water polo championship while nine months pregnant (a pregnancy she denied when team mates asked her if she was) crystallizes her dilemma and her conflict.

When DNA tracked down the two other fathers of the three babies in question, those men were astonished that they had fathered these children. They knew nothing about the pregnancies or the babies. She told them nothing, so why, then, did she tell Tegan’s alleged father? Why did she not only tell him but turn the baby over to him and his girlfriend ‘Mel’. It’s completely inexplicable. Keli Lane’s mania for secrecy was either a quirk of her personality or something that had been inculcated into her from an early age. She was the keeper of her family’s secrets (whatever they may have been) from childhood on but the level of secrecy around her lifestyle and the conception, birth and adoption of these children is truly amazing. She routinely lied to doctors and hospitals and her parents and the men she slept with so with this history of lying, when she was finally questioned, accused and charged of the disappearance of Tegan, whatever story she told was disbelieved. Nothing seemed far-fetched when the truth about her pregnancies came out. Even the theory put forward by Tedeschi Q.C. that she had murdered Tegan because she wanted to be in the Olympics and because, after all, there was that wedding to get to. The idea that a sane woman would kill a baby so she could go to a wedding seems never to have seemed absurd to Tedeschi. This probably says more about him then it does about

Keli Lane. As for the Olympics, she was never a contender for that and she must have known it. One coach even said that as a water polo player Keli was not gifted but she had grit and determination. As an Olympian, everyone asked, whether coaches or team mates, said that she was a non-starter and had never expressed interest in going. The motive put forward as the rationale for the supposed murder is therefore completely unconvincing. This is another striking similarity with what happened to Lindy Chamberlain.

And the similarities don’t end there. In cases where the evidence is mostly circumstantial, there can be one witness who makes the difference between ‘guilty’ and ‘not guilty’. In Keli Lane’s case there were two but in Lindy Chamberlain’s case the one person who made that difference was Joy Kuhl, a pathologist who testified that a spray mark in the Chamberlain’s car was a spray of foetal blood. This was a lie and it’s impossible to believe that an experienced scientist would be unable to tell the difference between foetal blood and sound deadener (because that’s what it turned out to be). Ultimately that’s a question for Kuhl’s conscience and we will never know why she did it. Not for certain. The point is this image of blood spraying out of a baby’s throat sealed Lindy Chamberlain’s fate, with devastating consequences for her and her entire family. It was a powerful and sickening image and removed any possibility of reasonable doubt from the juror’s minds. Bear in mind that Lindy Chamberlain was innocent, as we now know. Being innocent didn’t help her at all. It’s more than possible that being innocent didn’t help Keli Lane either.  

Nicholas Cowdrey Q.C., head of the DPP remarked, when asked if Keli Lane was a danger to the community, that she was a danger to the ‘young, male portion of the community’-adding after a pause, ‘Of course that’s not a reason to put her in jail’. He looked ashamed. It was that kind of misogyny that got Keli charged in the first place. Cowdrey made the decision that she should be charged. The police officer who led the investigation, Sharon Rhodes, believed that the police had not reached the standard of evidence that put it beyond reasonable doubt. She also told the journalist from the ABC that the case broke her and led to her leaving the police force. Interestingly, the Keli Lane case also led the judge in that case to retire from the bench. He is on the record as saying that, in effect, Keli Lane did not get a fair trial and he was amazed when she was found guilty. So amazed he left the law. As in the case of Lindy Chamberlain, the prosecution had to find a motive. As in the case of Lindy Chamberlain, that was a problem and that problem was never solved in any satisfactory way in either case. To me what speaks most powerfully to Keli Lane’s innocence is that John Abernathy, coroner at the time of Keli’s trial told her that he had the power to grant her a certificate of immunity if she told him that she had post natal depression and she showed them where the body was. Without hesitation, Keli Lane turned down the offer, telling Abernathy, ‘I’m not going to say I did something I didn’t do.’ This means she turned down an offer that meant she wouldn’t spend a single day in jail. She would not be separated from her young daughter and her husband: she would be a free woman. Only an innocent woman would have done that. A guilty woman would have grabbed that offer with both hands. And, of course, if she didn’t kill the baby she couldn’t take them to the body.

At one point Keli Lane said in a puzzled way, ‘Why would I kill the baby? I could have just put her up for adoption like the other two.’ Thereby revealing the true mystery. Who was Tegan’s father and why was this baby different from the others? We don’t know and probably never will, unless Keli Lane tells us the truth. And why is that truth worth being in jail for? This is the mystery and it is a perfect mystery with no solution. Keli Lane is eligible for parole in 2023.

Toni Hildebrand

Antonia Hildebrand is a widely-published poet, short story writer, novelist and essayist. Her work has appeared in Downs Images and Woman’s Day Summer Reading. She reviews for Toowoomba Chronicle and Polestar. She contributes to Radio National’s Bush Telegraph and Queensland Storyteller Her latest book is ‘A Simple Twist of Fate’ (Ginninderra Press, 2020). 

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