Scott Austic spent 12 years in jail for a murder he never committed. His life now is a shadow of the one he hoped for.
Stacey Thorne’s family thought police had caught her killer. Now, they live with an unending grief, fearful they might never see justice.
Both families’ lives have been devastated by the murder of Stacey Thorne and the exhausting legal process that followed.
They are leading calls for the murder investigation to be reopened and for Western Australian police to find Stacey’s killer.
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains the name and images of a person who died.
Noongar woman Stacey Thorne, 34, was 22 weeks pregnant when she died on a neighbour’s front lawn late one night in 2007. She had been stabbed 21 times.
Scott Austic, the 45-year-old father of her unborn child, was wrongfully jailed for the crime and later acquitted after revelations that crucial evidence against him had been planted.
The 14-year ordeal has left the victim’s family desperate for answers.
“We want to know what happened that night,” Stacey’s older sister, Brenda Thorne, told Australian Story.
“There’s people out there know what happened. And we want them to just come forward – come forward and tell me what happened to my baby sister.”
The Thorne family told Australian Story how they have recently hired a private investigator to keep their hopes of justice alive.
“[Stacey] was our sister … and we want them to reopen this case so we can get justice for Stacey,” Brenda said.
Since his release from prison, Scott Austic has been living in his parents’ home, reconnecting with the daughters whose childhoods he missed and struggling to rebuild his life.
His family are also fighting for the WA police to reopen the investigation.
“We want the case re-opened so there can be justice for Stacey,” Scott’s mother, Robyn Austic, said. “Scott wants the case reopened. We want to find Stacey’s killer.”
Murder charges laid ‘miraculously’ fast
In 2007, Scott Austic felt like he had everything — a house, a job at the local bauxite mine and two young daughters, “a great life to look forward to”, he said.
Stacey Thorne was a teacher’s aide and Aboriginal Liaison Officer at the local primary school, “an easy-going person” who “loved what she was doing”, according to her sister Hayley.
“We were a really close family,” Hayley said. “What I loved most about her was her personality and her laugh.”
Scott and Stacey had grown up together in the small town of Boddington, south of Perth, and attended the same school.
“We’d been friends our entire lives,” Scott said. “We’d always been close to the Thorne family.”
About a year after Scott broke up with his daughters’ mother, he and Stacey became lovers, starting a casual relationship they kept quiet from their families.
“She was looking forward to having a baby,” sister Brenda said. “She wanted to be a mother, she was always a mother to Hayley’s children, and she wanted one of her own.”
On the night of the murder, Scott went to the pub for “a few bourbons”. After being refused service at the bar, he visited Stacey at her home.
“We had a chat for a bit and then we’d had sex and then a little chat again,” Scott said. “Then I’d gone home.”
By about 11:00pm, Stacey was found bleeding on a neighbour’s front lawn after staggering 100m down the road, desperately calling for help.
Within a week, police had wrapped up their investigation, charging Scott with Stacey’s murder.
“The police were convinced in their own mind that Scott Austic was the killer,” Scott’s barrister, David Edwardson QC, told Australian Story.
“It was a miraculous completion of a murder investigation in a really, really short period of time.”
Police claimed that, on the night of the murder, after returning home and grabbing a can of Jim Beam, Scott had gone back to Stacey’s house and stabbed her.
Police found a text message Scott sent to Stacey 10 days before the murder, saying he “would do anything” for her not to have the baby.
They said it proved he had a motive for the murder.
At the trial in 2009, the prosecution claimed Scott had lied about the clothes he was wearing on the night of the murder and that he had burnt them in a stove to conceal the crime.
Three pieces of evidence proved crucial in Scott’s conviction.
A knife covered with Stacey’s blood had been found in a paddock between their homes; a cigarette packet with Stacey’s blood on it was discovered on a table at his house; and a Jim Beam can with his DNA was found on the lawn not far from Stacey’s house.
The integrity of all three pieces of evidence would later be called into question.
The jury found Scott guilty of Stacey’s murder, a decision his current lawyer says was warranted based on the evidence presented at trial.
“I have no criticism on the jury at the first trial convicting Scott of this crime,” Scott’s lawyer Clint Hampson said.
“The case, as it was presented to that jury, appeared overwhelming.”
For Stacey’s family, the guilty verdict and Scott’s jail sentence was a relief. “We thought that was finished, it was over,” Hayley Thorne said.
Scott’s mother Robyn Austic was shattered. “Every piece of my body just shook” when the sentence was read out, she said.
“I never, ever thought that he would have been found guilty,” she said. “So many things didn’t add up.”
A year later, a chance encounter would end up confirming those misgivings.
Key evidence brought into question
Despite the case presented in court, Robyn never gave up believing her son was innocent.
She could not imagine Scott harming anybody, “let along murdering somebody”.
“He wasn’t what you would say, a perfect angel, but he was never violent and stuff like that at all,” she said.
In 2010, she attended a Justice WA dinner where she first met Dr Clint Hampson, a lawyer who specialises in forensic pathology.
She implored him to take look at her son’s case, insisting he had been framed for the crime.
“My initial reaction was, ‘OK, it’s a mother who’s pleading her son’s innocent, I’ve heard that before,'” Dr Hampson said.
“I said I wasn’t a gun for hire. I said I would look at this forensically and I’ll give you my honest opinion.”
He agreed to look at the case pro bono. A few months after taking on the case, Dr Hampson made a startling discovery.
“The first thing that stood out to me was the cigarette packet,” he said.
Police found a cigarette packet smeared with the victim’s blood on a table at the back of Scott’s house – a key piece of evidence in his conviction.
While examining photos and video evidence, Dr Hampson noticed the packet was only visible in digital photos of the scene, and not in video footage of the table taken a day earlier.
It suggested that someone had come in later and placed the packet on the table.
“That immediately put me on alert as to what else might have been going on in this particular case,” Dr Hampson said.
Other inconsistencies soon came to light.
The story of the Jim Beam can’s discovery, which police found in plain sight outside Stacey’s home, seemed to stretch credulity.
“That verge area had been searched the night before by no less than five officers of the WA police, some of whom were forensics officers,” Dr Hampson said.
“They conducted a thorough search and none of them identified or located a Jim Beam can.”
However, a police officer who wasn’t part of the initial search later testified she had seen a can outside Stacey’s house.
Dr Hampson then looked more closely at how, and where, police found the murder weapon.
The prosecution said the bloodied knife was found on the bare ground between Scott and Stacey’s homes, despite a specialist SES search team having scoured the same spot a day earlier, finding nothing.
“We are trained to search these areas,” one SES worker said.
“We find out the next day that they found a knife exactly where we searched, so we failed. And that’s when we said to ourselves – ‘bullshit’.”
Scott Austic had always maintained his innocence.
As he launched an appeal against his conviction, Hayley Thorne remembers a horrible feeling setting in: “We’ve got to go through all of this again.”
Miscarriage of justice frees Scott, but questions loom over murder
In 2020, the Criminal Court of Appeal found that there was “credible, cogent and plausible evidence” that crucial evidence against Scott Austic had been planted.
The Court of Appeal decided the integrity of some aspects of the police investigation were also compromised.
But having done an independent assessment of the evidence, it found that “despite the miscarriage of justice which had occurred, the State had at the trial, and continues to have, a strongly arguable circumstantial case” against Scott Austic.
Scott’s conviction was quashed, but he was not yet acquitted. Instead, the court ordered a retrial for a jury to consider the circumstantial evidence including motive, allegations of lying to police and burning clothes, and the opportunity to commit the crime.
At the new trial in November 2020, the timing of Scott and Stacey’s movements became of critical importance.
In a minute-by-minute reconstruction of the night, Scott’s defence team argued he couldn’t have been the killer because he had been home at the time Stacey was stabbed.
Dr Richard Shepherd, a UK-based forensic pathologist who has worked on more than 20,000 cases and gave evidence in the review into Princess Diana’s death, also testified at the trial.
He said he did not believe the knife police alleged was the murder weapon could have caused injuries as deep as those found on Stacey’s body.
“In 40 years, I’ve seen many things, but I’ve never, ever seen such a blatant attempt to plant incriminating evidence in a case,” Dr Shepherd told Australian Story.
“I’ve seen evidence lost. I’ve seen evidence mislaid. I’ve seen evidence misinterpreted, but never such a blatant attempt to try to pervert the course of justice.”
Scott’s defence team argued that evidence had been planted and that the T-shirt that had been burnt in the stove was different to one he was wearing in CCTV taken the night of the murder. His housemates gave evidence that they had used old clothing dipped in diesel to start fires for winter heating.
Scott’s barrister David Edwardson QC said it is a difficult thing to stand up in front of a jury and “make very, very serious allegations against police and effectively accuse them of corruption”.
“And that was the case that we had to present to the jury on this retrial.”
The jury took two hours and 16 minutes to acquit Scott.
After 12 years in jail for the murder, on hearing the words “not guilty”, Scott felt the tears running down his face. In November 2020, he walked free.
For the Thorne family, the verdict was a shock. “I couldn’t even walk, the girls had to help me out of the room,” Hayley said.
Push for fresh investigation for ‘clarity’
More than a year later, the West Australian police have still not reopened the case.
More than a decade on, Stacey’s murder has derailed the lives of two families and divided the town of Boddington.
“The whole town is just devastated,” Brenda said. “What happened – it just broke this little town apart. It’s something that you can’t really bounce back from.”
Hannah McGlade, a legal and Indigenous human rights academic, believes the judicial process delivered the “racist legal outcome of an all-white jury”.
“If Stacey had been a white woman — a pregnant white woman — there’s no way that an Aboriginal man would have been acquitted,” she said.
Fed up with a lack of action on finding the killer, the Thorne family has hired private investigator Robyn Cottman to help them find answers.
Ms Cottman says her investigation is independent, even though she first heard about the case from one of the original police investigators and discusses it with him.
She can’t understand why police are not offering a reward for people with new information to come forward.
“It’s almost like it’s all been swept under the carpet now, hidden, put in a box that’s too hard, basically,” Ms Cottman said.
“Nobody is asking, ‘Is there anybody out there that actually knows anything that might be able to assist us here?’ It’s like they’ve just shelved it.”
At the re-trial, Scott Austic’s defence team argued there was a potential alternative killer known to the Thorne family.
It’s an avenue Ms Cottman is pursuing: “We actually need to consider them in the overall picture”.
The WA Corruption and Crime Commission (CCC) told Australian Story it was “reviewing the Court of Appeal findings relating to police conduct”.
Former WA police commissioner Karl O’Callaghan, who was in the role at the time Stacey was murdered, told Australian Story a CCC investigation would “provide clarity on exactly what happened so we can preserve confidence in our justice system.”
“Evidence tampering destroys everyone’s faith in the justice system,” he said.
“The consequence of that is somebody spends a long time in prison and a lot of their life is lost.
“It also has a very significant impact on the families of victims because they don’t get closure. And that, of course, has lifelong consequences for them.”
Scott Austic is now sleeping in a single bed in his mother’s home.
“For Scott, coming out of prison at 46 and having to live with his mum… he has lost the independence that he did have,” Robyn Austic said.
“He’ll never be able to be the same person.”
Scott is seeking compensation, “so I can start my life again”.
“In the end there are no winners because there’s still nobody convicted of Stacey’s murder and I have spent 12-and-a-half years in prison,” he said
For the Thorne family, this year would have marked Stacey’s 50th birthday. Now all they have left is a grave to visit.
“We just can’t understand how it got to this stage,” Brenda said. “We thought maybe we could have a bit of rest, a bit of peace; she can rest in peace. But at the moment, she’s not.”