SYDNEY - A coroner on Friday opened Australia's fourth inquest into the most notorious and bitterly controversial legal drama in the nation's history: the 1980 death of a 9-week-old baby whose parents say was taken by a dingo from her tent in the Australian Outback.
Azaria Chamberlain's mother, Lindy, was convicted and later cleared of murdering her and has always maintained that a wild dog took the baby. She and her ex-husband, Michael Chamberlain, are hoping fresh evidence they have gathered about dingo attacks on children will convince Northern Territory Coroner Elizabeth Morris and end relentless speculation that has followed them for 32 years.
Anne Lade, a former police officer hired by the court to investigate the case, told a packed courtroom that in the years since Azaria disappeared, there have been numerous dingo attacks on humans, some of them fatal. Rex Wild, a lawyer assisting the coroner, described several of the attacks and said he believed the evidence showed that a dingo could have been responsible for Azaria's death.
"Although it (a dingo killing a child) may have been regarded as unlikely in 1980 ... it shouldn't be by 2011-12," he said. "With the additional evidence in my submission, your honor should accept on the balance of probabilities that the dingo theory is the correct one."
Morris adjourned the hearing without issuing a decision, and did not say when she would release her findings.
Azaria's death certificate still lists her cause of death as "unknown." The Chamberlains say they want to set the record straight on behalf of their daughter.
"It gives me hope this time that Australians will finally be warned and realize that dingoes are a dangerous animal," Lindy said outside the courthouse in the Northern Territory capital, Darwin. "I also hope that this will give a final finding which closes the inquest into my daughter's death, which so far has been standing open and unfinished."
Azaria vanished from her tent in the Outback on Aug. 17, 1980, during a family vacation to Ayers Rock, the giant red monolith now known by its Aboriginal name Uluru. Fellow campers told police they heard a low growl followed by a baby's cry shortly before Lindy who had been making dinner at a nearby barbecue area went to check on her daughter.
Lindy said she saw a dingo run from the tent and disappear into the darkness. There were dingo prints outside the tent, and spots of blood on the bedding inside. Upon seeing Azaria's empty bassinet, Lindy screamed, "The dingo's got my baby!" a line made famous by the Meryl Streep movie, "A Cry in the Dark," based on the case.
Azaria's body was never found, though her torn and bloodied jumpsuit turned up in the surrounding desert.
Officials, doubtful that a dingo was strong enough to drag away a baby, charged Lindy with murder. Prosecutors said she slit Azaria's throat in the family car which initial forensic tests said was splashed with baby's blood and buried her in the desert. Lindy was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
Years later, more sophisticated tests found that the "blood" in the car was a combination of milk and a chemical sprayed during manufacture. Three years into Lindy's prison sentence, a jacket Azaria had been wearing was found by chance near a dingo den. Lindy was released from prison and her conviction was overturned.
Still, three separate coroner's inquests have failed to agree on a cause of death for Azaria. The last inquest, held in 1995, returned an inconclusive finding, with the coroner saying there was not enough evidence to prove a dingo was responsible.
Since then, the Chamberlains have gathered new evidence of around a dozen dingo attacks on children, three of them fatal, said their lawyer, Stuart Tipple. That evidence was presented to Morris, the coroner, for consideration at Friday's inquest.
"When you actually look at what has already been given, and you consider the new evidence, we say you are compelled to make a finding that Azaria was taken by a dingo," Tipple told The Associated Press.
In court, Michael Chamberlain fought back tears as he spoke of the nightmarish aftermath of his daughter's death.
"Since the loss of Azaria I have had an abiding fear and paranoia about safety around dingoes," he said. "They send a shudder up my spine. It is a hell I have to endure."
Australians have followed the case closely since it began, and most have strong opinions. Although public support for Lindy has grown over the years, many still doubt that a dingo could have killed Azaria.
"I think that the people that don't think for themselves aren't ever going to be convinced, and it really doesn't matter what you show them," Tipple told the AP. "I could show them a video of the dingo taking the baby and it wouldn't convince them because they've made their mind up."