criminal justice

New York Times ignores key faith facts when covering Michael Chamberlain's fight for justice

New York Times ignores key faith facts when covering Michael Chamberlain's fight for justice

I'll be upfront about my interest, or perhaps "bias," in the case of Michael Chamberlain, 72, who passed to his rest on Jan. 9 from complications of leukemia.

Chamberlain, an Australian, was a Seventh-day Adventist, as am I.

Knowing a few Australian Adventists, I can attest that the case of Michael and his former wife, Lindy, was a searing moment in the 131-year history of the movement in that country. (Adventism -- founded by some veterans of the Millerite movement -- itself dates back to 1863, when its General Conference was first organized.)

The Chamberlains were a young pastoral couple serving in Australia when they went on a camping trip in 1980 with their children, including a nine-week-old daughter, Azaria. At one point, Azaria vanished from the campsite, with Lindy claiming to have seen a dingo, a wild dog native to Australia, in the vicinity. Azaria's body was never found.

Almost immediately, public suspicion fell on the Chamberlains: No one else heard or saw an animal in the area when the child disappeared. Was baby Azaria's name some sort of cultic reference to a child sacrifice? (It wasn't.) And what about the Chamberlain's religion -- aren't those Adventists a weird sect that does kooky things?

While some may wish to debate the pros and cons of Seventh-day Adventist belief and practice, I can't think of too many rational people who believe that Adventism is a blood-sacrifice-loving cult. But in the heated antipodean media environment of the early 1980s, it was easily possible to lose sight of that.

But 37 years after Azaria's tragic death — ruled, in 2012, to have indeed been caused by a dingo and without the parents being at fault — the faith angle of this story is, or should be, widely known. Apparently, however, these crucial details slipped past The New York Times (paywall), which reported on Michael Chamberlain's passing thusly:

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Where's the beef? Report on Texas attorney's controversial prayers missing crucial details

Where's the beef? Report on Texas attorney's controversial prayers missing crucial details

Where's the beef?

In a front-page story today, the Dallas Morning News nails the basic facts of a prayer dispute pitting a Texas criminal defense attorney against prosecutors and judges. However, crucial specific details are missing about, well, religion. More on that in a moment.

But first, the lede from the Morning News:

Defense attorney Mark Griffith prays for God’s guidance each time he walks into a courtroom.
He prays on Facebook, too, asking God to help the jury “see the heart of my client.” Or for “God to be with them all tonight as they await closing arguments tomorrow and the decision by the jury as to what will echo in my client’s life forever.”
And he prays, as he writes on Facebook, about how he has “one of God’s children in my hands. He has no voice, I am his voice in the courtroom. I actually pray before trial starts and at every break during trial. I ask God to lead me to the truth with his grace, by my questions.”
Now, Griffith says, two judges have ordered him to stop praying on social media at the request of Ellis County’s County and District Attorney Patrick Wilson.

Whoa!

But that's just one side of the story. The Dallas newspaper reports the other side, too:

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Can forgiveness play a role in criminal justice?

That’s the provocative headline that accompanies a story I’ve been pondering ever since Amy Welborn brought it to our attention. The New York Times Sunday magazine piece runs about 7,000 words and it’s completely riveting. You can — and should — read it here.

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