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By Joanna Menagh
After 13 years fighting to clear his name, most of that time in custody, WA man Scott Austic has been found not guilty — after a second trial — of murdering his pregnant lover.
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains the name and images of people who have died.
Amid allegations that police in 2007 framed the 45-year-old, the Supreme Court jury deliberated for two hours before acquitting him of fatally stabbing 35-year-old Stacey Thorne.
Mr Austic’s mother broke down sobbing when the verdict was delivered.
Ms Thorne was 22 weeks’ pregnant with Mr Austic’s child when she was stabbed 21 times at her Boddington home, about 120 kilometres south-east of Perth, before stumbling outside where she collapsed and died.
Mr Austic, described in court as Ms Thorne’s casual sexual partner, first stood trial in 2009 when he was found guilty of wilful murder and sentenced to life in jail with a 25-year minimum.
An appeal in 2010 was dismissed, but he was granted a rare second challenge to his conviction eight years later, after concerns were raised that key pieces of evidence, including the alleged murder weapon, were planted by police.
Last year, after that second appeal was heard, Mr Austic’s conviction was overturned and a retrial ordered.
That took place over the past three weeks with prosecutor Justin Whalley SC outlining “11 strands of circumstantial evidence” that he claimed proved Mr Austic was Ms Thorne’s killer.
The evidence included:
- Mr Austic “lying” to police in an interview about what he was wearing on the night of the stabbing, because CCTV from the local hotel showed him in different clothing
- the discovery of a Jim Beam can with Mr Austic’s DNA on a verge outside Ms Thorne’s home
- the discovery of a knife with Ms Thorne’s blood on it in a paddock near Mr Austic’s home
- the finding of a bloodstained cigarette packet on a table at Mr Austic’s house; and importantly
- a motive, because Mr Austic did not want Ms Thorne to have his child
The evidence about that alleged motive included a text message Mr Austic sent Ms Thorne 10 days before her death saying “I will do anything for you not to have it. Just please let me know. I’ll do anything.”
As he did at his first trial, Mr Austic denied having anything to do with Ms Thorne’s death.
Police allegedly planted evidence
However, at the retrial, unlike the initial case, the defence was based on allegations “a small but corrupt” group of police officers, who had decided early on Mr Austic was the culprit, planted crucial evidence against him.
David Edwardson QC said that included the Jim Beam can and the knife that was alleged to be the murder weapon.
The defence called an expert, who testified the knife “miraculously” found by detectives in a paddock that already been thoroughly searched by State Emergency Service volunteers, was not long enough to have inflicted the deep wounds suffered by Ms Thorne.
The defence also claimed the cigarette packet found on the table at Mr Austic’s home did not appear in photographs and videos of the same scene taken by forensic police the day before.
The police officers who found the items were called to testify at the trial, and categorically denied “introducing”, or planting, the items in question.
In a closing address to the jury, Mr Whalley described the allegations as “fantasy land.”
He suggested the bloodstained cigarette packet on the table at Mr Austic’s could be seen in “zoomed in” versions of the original photographs taken by police.
He also raised the possibility that the forensic pathologist who did the post-mortem examination on Ms Thorne’s body in 2007, who had since died, may have made “erroneous” measurements of the knife wounds she suffered.
But in the end, the jury of 12 men and women was not satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that Mr Austic murdered Ms Thorne, and delivered a unanimous verdict of not guilty.