A composite shot of Stacey with dark, curly hair, her grave stone and a pendant with her face on it
Some 14 years after Stacey’s murder, her family are back fighting for answers.(ABC: Australian Story/Phil Hemingway; Graphics: Julie Ramsden)

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.

A woman in a black t-shirt and sunglasses on her head looks concerned
Brenda is begging anyone with information on her sister’s murder to come forward.(ABC: Australian Story/Marc Smith)

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.

A bald man wearing a black jumper sits on a step, looking upward
Scott Austic spent more than 12 years behind bars for Stacey’s murder.(Australian Story: Phil Hemingway)

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.”

Bald man in red Asics T-shirt sitting down next to two teen girls with long brown hair
Scott Austic is reconnecting with his two daughters, Heidee and Skye.(ABC: Australian Story/Phil Hemingway)

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.”

A woman in a widebrim hat sits on the edge of her sister's grave with flowers in foreground
The Thorne family should be celebrating Stacey’s 50th birthday this year, instead they only have a grave to visit.(ABC: Australian Story/Marc Smith)

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.”

A person's hands hold a photo of two women and a man with their arms around each other.
The Thorne family remember the good times with Stacey.(ABC: Australian Story/Marc Smith)

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.”

A bald man in a black t-shirt stands side on leaning against a wall
Scott Austic was the prime suspect in Stacey Thorne’s murder and was arrested within a week.(ABC: Australian Story/Phil Hemingway)

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.

A Jim Beam can and a bloodied knife were found not far from Stacey Thorne’s body.(Supplied)

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.

Dr Clint Hampson worked for the Austic family pro bono in a bid to look at the case again.(ABC: Australian Story/Phil Hemingway)

“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.

From one day to the next: the cigarette packet appeared on the table in the evidence photos.(Supplied)

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.”

A man sits in a dark room at a laptop computer
With the help of other experts, Dr Clint Hampson uncovered discrepancies in the police evidence.(ABC: Australian Story/Phil Hemingway)

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.

A man stands in a jumper looking up to a wide blue sky
Scott Austic has been free for over 12 months, but he’s still rebuilding his life.(ABC: Australian Story/Phil Hemingway)

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.”

Evidence Stacey Thorne murder
SES workers say they would have noticed a knife in their searches.(ABC: Australian Story/Phil Hemingway)

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.

Sisters Hayley and Julie Thorne leave court.
The Thorne family had to endure the pain of re-living Stacey’s death at Scott Austic’s retrial.(ABC News: Joanna Menagh)

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.

Wide shot of a cemetary with a red car parked. The ground is red dirt and there is a large shade tree in the centre
Brenda and Hayley visit Stacey Thorne’s grave.(ABC: Australian Story/Marc Smith)
A woman in a black t-shirt rakes dirt and rocks at a cemetary
Remembering Stacey Thorne.(ABC: Australian Story/Marc Smith)
Close up of a rock being brushed over dirt and rocks
Brenda tends to the area surrounding her sister Stacey Thorne’s grave.(ABC: Australian Story/Marc Smith)

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.”

A bald man in black t-shirt stands cooking at barbecue next to his parents
Scott Austic is settling back into life outside prison with the support of his family, including his mother, Robyn.(ABC: Australian Story/Phil Hemingway)

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.”

Two women's hands cross over on top of a marble grave stone
The Thorne family will not stop fighting for answers.(ABC: Australian Story/Marc Smith)

Source – https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-04-04/how-evidence-tampering-put-scott-in-jail-for-a-murder/100631388