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A father-of-two wrongfully convicted over his pregnant girlfriend’s murder was freed from prison after an eagle-eyed lawyer re-examining crime scene photos discovered key evidence had been planted.
Stacey Thorne, 34, was 22 weeks pregnant when she was found dead with 21 stab wounds on a neighbours lawn in Boddington, southeast of Perth, in 2007.
Days later, police arrested her partner Scott Austic, 45, and would allege in court he killed his partner because he did not want her to keep his baby.
Mr Austic was sentenced to life behind bars in 2009 after a jury found him guilty of murder based on key items – a blood soaked knife, cigarette pack, and Jim Beam can – officers claimed to have found near the scene.
But after spending 12 years behind bars – and missing crucial chunks of his daughters lives – he was acquitted in November 2020 after the integrity of the three pieces of evidence came into question.
Stacey Thorne (pictured) was found stabbed to death in her Boddington home, south east of Perth, in 2007
‘I could feel tears running down my face hearing those two words – “not guilty”,’ Mr Austic told ABC’s Australian Story.
On the night of Ms Thorne’s death, Mr Austic went to a pub for a drink but was refused service, instead deciding to then visit his partner at her home.
‘We had a chat for a bit and then we’d had sex and then a little chat again. Then I’d gone home,’ Mr Austic said.
Later that night, Ms Thorne, a teacher’s aide and Aboriginal Laison officer at the local primary school, was found dead near her home after staggering down the street calling for help.
Police prosecutors claimed Mr Austic returned on foot to her home some time after he first left and killed her with a 10cm folding knife.
In court, police argued three items found near the scene implicated Mr Austic in his girlfriend’s murder, alleging text messages he’d sent her days earlier pleading with her not to have the baby was proof of a motive.
Scott Austic (pictured) spent 12 years in prison before being acquitted over his ex-girlfriend’s murder
Police alleged Mr Austic (pictured) was motivated to kill his girlfriend because he wanted her to terminate his baby
A knife covered in Ms Thorne’s blood was found in a paddock between their homes, and a Jim Beam can with Mr Austic’s DNA was located near her residence.
A cigarette packet covered with Ms Thorne’s blood was also found on a table at Mr Austic’s house.
Mr Austic, who has always maintained his innocence, appealed his conviction in 2010 but failed.
That same year, his mother Robyn, determined to prove her son’s innocence, sought the help of Dr Clint Hampson, a lawyer who specialises in forensic pathology, after meeting him at a Justice WA dinner.
She begged him to check out the case, and Dr Hampson obliged – albeit warning he was not a ‘gun for hire’ and would give her his honest opinion.
But just months later, the pro-bono lawyer noticed the cigarette packet was only visible in digital photos of the scene, not in video footage of the table taken a day earlier, suggesting it had been placed there at a later time.
A blood-spattered cigarette packet on a table in Mr Austic’s backyard was not in the original photos taken of the area hours earlier
The concerning discovery sparked alarm bells for Dr Hampson, who soon found other inconsistencies in the police’s initial case – including the details surrounding the Jim Beam can and alleged murder weapon.
Both areas where the items had been found had previously been searched by WA Police and SES specialists – but were not found until later.
In 2020, the Criminal Court of Appeal found that there was ‘credible, cogent and plausible evidence’ that the evidence had been planted at the scene.
Mr Austic’s conviction was quashed in May – however the court found the circumstantial evidence in the case was still strong and ordered him to face a retrial.
At the trial in November that year, the defence argued the evidence had been tampered.
UK forensic pathologist Richard Shepherd testified some of Ms Thorne’s wounds measured between 13cm and 15cm, which meant they were ‘very unlikely’ to be caused by the weapon.
He said the evidence presented in the initial case did not add up at all.
‘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.’
A UK forensic pathologist said the alleged murder weapon, a 10cm long knife (pictured), was too short to have inflicted the wounds found on Ms Thorne
Later that year, the jury found him not guilty, and after the 12-year saga, Mr Austic was finally acquitted of Ms Thorne’s murder.
Mr Austic was a long-time friend of Ms Thorne’s, growing up together and attending the same school, before they began dating shortly after he broke up with his daughters’ mother.
The tragedy has rocked both of the families lives as Ms Thorne’s relatives continue to seek justice while Mr Austic, currently living with his mother, tries to rebuild his life and make up for lost time with his children.
Despite Mr Austic being cleared of the crime, the West Australian police have not reopened the case.
Both Mr Austic and Ms Thorne’s family are fighting for police to reinvestigate the matter to look into the Noongar woman’s murder.
Ms Thorne’s family have now hired a private investigator to try and find answers.
‘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,’ Stacey’s older sister, Brenda Thorne, said.
Mr Austic’s legal team have raised concerns over a Jim Beam can that was found in a road verge near Ms Thorne’s home that had his DNA on it