The Bain family murders, 30 years on

David Bain pictured in October 1994, at the time of his first trial for the murders of his...
David Bain pictured in October 1994, at the time of his first trial for the murders of his parents and siblings. Photo: Otago Daily Times files
By Adam Burns of RNZ

There was no happy ending for anyone.

That is the brutal reality of the Bain family murders - one of the most infamous cases in New Zealand's history, one legal academic says.

Thursday marks 30 years since the bodies of five members of the family were found at a run-down house on Every Street in the south Dunedin suburb of Andersons Bay.

Robin and Margaret Bain, and three of their four children, Arawa, Laniet, and Stephen, had been shot dead.

David Bain, Robin and Margaret's eldest child - and the sole survivor of the massacre - was convicted in 1995 for the murders.

But after the Privy Council quashed his convictions on the grounds of "a substantial miscarriage of justice", a retrial was ordered.

Bain would be acquitted at a 2009 retrial of wall-to-wall proportions, a payoff that followed years of appeals and legal wrangling.

The case has been the subject of intensive media scrutiny, books, podcasts and television mini-series.

But how, and why, has the case gripped the public?

'They're all dead'

Bain, then aged 22, raised the alarm after returning home from his early-morning paper run on 20 June, 1994.

"They're all dead," he told the 111 call-taker.

Initially, police's inquiries hovered over a suspected murder-suicide with Robin, a principal at Taieri Beach School, put forward as the person responsible.

Detective chief inspector Peter Robinson confirmed a .22 rifle was found near Robin's body during the investigation's early phases.

David Bain was cleared of any involvement during the immediate aftermath, according to police.

But things changed.

Four days later, in a shocking twist, police arrested and charged Bain for the murders of all five members of his family.

Murder accused David Bain sits with his head down yesterday in the High Court at Christchurch.
David Bain spent over a decade in prison
Central to the police case were the presence of his fingerprints on the bloody rifle and the fact one of his spectacle lenses was found in Stephen's room.

Bain was convicted on all five counts following a three-week trial at Dunedin High Court in May, 1995 after pleading not guilty to all charges.

Upon the verdicts being delivered by the jury, Bain turned pale and collapsed in the dock, later needing medical attention.

The day after the convictions, defence counsel Michael Guest told RNZ's Morning Report that Bain was "shaking, shivering and having convulsions" when he was led out of court, having learnt his fate.

When asked what sort of person his client was, Guest answered "a nice person".

"That's as defence counsel of course, but my staff, even my family, he's struck us all as a nice person and we simply cannot understand how these murders occurred.

"If he did it, it just seems simply out of character."

Guest told RNZ's Morning Report his client had "no motive".

"The big unanswered question that will forever remain unanswered, is why."

Fight for freedom

Bain has always maintained his innocence - and soon, he would have high-profile backing.

Businessman and former All Black Joe Karam took up Bain's case a year after he was jailed when he caught wind of fund-raising efforts by university students for an appeal. He would spend years advocating for the accused killer.

After Bain's acquittal in 2009, a new battle arose.

Joe Karam campaigned for David Bain's innocence for years.
Joe Karam campaigned for David Bain's innocence for years.
Justice Minister Simon Power was notified of a claim by Bain for compensation for "wrongful conviction and imprisonment".

Power engaged a former judge of the Supreme Court of Canada, Ian Binnie KC, to provide advice on whether Bain was innocent on the balance of probabilities - the threshold he needed to meet to be eligible for compensation.

Binnie's 2012 report concluded Bain was "innocent on the balance of probabilities", amid a number of errors in the police investigation, which constituted extraordinary circumstances.

A month later, Judith Collins - who now held the justice portfolio - advised Dr Robert Fisher KC, a retired judge of the New Zealand High Court, to provide a peer review of Binnie's report.

Fisher found numerous errors in the report, prompting Collins to send proceedings back to square one.

By this stage, the government had spent more than half a million dollars on Bain's compensation case, a process that Binnie described as "a stitch-up".

Auckland University law professor Mark Henaghan said the two opposing government reports clouded the saga.

"Bob Fisher was an outstanding lawyer and outstanding barrister and an outstanding judge, and also the Canadian judge ... he was convinced the other way," he said.

"So there's two very high analytical, outstanding legal minds, who came to different points of view on the evidence as they looked at it.

"That's why I think there's mystery to this case."

Bain's legal team and the government would spend the next few years entrenched in a judicial holding pattern.

Amy Adams became the third government minister to seek official legal advice on the case in 2015.

A report completed by retired Australian High Court Judge Ian Callinan in 2016 also concluded Bain should not be compensated.

An ex-gratia payment of $925,000 was made to Bain in 2016, in lieu of full compensation by the government.

Bain's campaign ultimately cost taxpayers nearly $7m.

A tale of two sides

Two weeks after the murders, the Bain house was burned down by local fire crews, at the request of relatives who wanted it destroyed.

Otago University law professor Andrew Geddis was a law student in 1994.

He saw the smoke of the Every Street property waft over the Otago Harbour out of the window of his tutorial class that day.

But as the smoke soared, so did the rumour mill.

"Some things that happened which in retrospect were a little odd," he said.

"Dunedin being quite a small place, rumours immediately started to fly around the case.

"Everyone felt they had some little piece of background information, most of which turned out to be speculation, or without any evidence behind it."

The curious state of the Bain family - Margaret's preoccupation with new-age spiritualism, the family's hoarding tendencies, allegations of incest perpetrated by Robin against Laniet - would be extensively traversed.

The Bain property on Every Street, Dunedin, as photographed by police in 1994. Photo: Supplied/NZ...
The Bain property on Every Street, Dunedin, as photographed by police in 1994. Photo: Supplied/NZ Police
The case's "salacious and gossipy elements" would only fuel the public fire over the years.

"There's a background story which is just interesting as a human story."

Geddis said there were several other reasons as to why the tragic case piqued people's interest.

With only two possible suspects - father or son - it allowed people to easily fall into two separate camps.

"There was such a mass of evidence, it allowed people to cherry-pick things that supported their side," Geddis said.

"Arguments about footprints, arguments about where spectacle lenses were, blood splatter, all those sorts of things.

"It allowed people to argue about the case without ever being able to provide one conclusive thing that proved it one way or the other."

The Bain case, including the family's offbeat background, was thoroughly unpacked in the award-winning 11-part podcast series Black Hands by Christchurch journalist Martin van Beynen.

Henaghan said the case being retried underlined how important it was for investigators to secure as much evidence as possible.

"Trying it 13 years later is quite hard," he said.

"The house has been burned down and there was some evidence about the gunpowder that wasn't collected and there are various bits and pieces, so it does get hard.

"Any trial where it is a difficult trial, you need to keep as much of the evidence as pristine as you can so it is available if there's going to be a re-trial."

Irrespective of any theory, or position, there were "no happy endings" for anyone involved, Geddis said.

"If you believe that David Bain is guilty, then you think he's got away without a conviction and having been let out of jail, years before he should've been," he said.

"If you believe David Bain is innocent, he spent 12 to 13 years locked up for a crime he didn't commit, with the shadow still hanging over him.

"Whatever the truth of what happened in Every Street that day, there's no satisfactory resolution to it."

Henaghan also felt the "unusual" saga remained a mystery.

"No one was there on that morning ... we'll never know."

Attempts to reach David Bain, who now goes by the name William Davies, were unsuccessful.

Friends of his spoken to by RNZ, including Karam, said the 52-year-old was keen to leave the chapter behind him.

He now reportedly lives in the Waikato town of Cambridge.

Robin, Margaret, Arawa, Laniet and Stephen are buried together in East Taieri, near Mosgiel.