23 May 2024

Attorney-General claims prosecutors made 'serious mistake' in case against pedophile

| Albert McKnight
Shane Rattenbury in the Assembly

Shane Rattenbury (pictured) has described Stephen Mitchell’s abuse as “a terrible series of crimes”. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

CONTENT WARNING: This article refers to child abuse.

Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury has accused ACT prosecutors of making a “serious mistake” during the prosecution of a notorious pedophile who successfully launched an appeal to be resentenced.

Speaking to ABC Radio on Wednesday (22 May), Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury described the abuse that Stephen Leonard Mitchell inflicted on six girls as “a terrible series of crimes”.

He was told survivors felt let down because while they had been told Mitchell would face a type of charge that carried a maximum penalty of 25 years’ jail, his resentencing will actually see him face a maximum of seven years for that charge.

“I understand exactly why they are upset. It does appear there was a serious mistake made by the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and they were given poor advice,” Mr Rattenbury said.

“I met with them just last week and they explained this to me. They are deeply upset and I can absolutely understand why.”

When asked what he was going to do, Mr Rattenbury said he had ensured the government would review the legislation to see whether there were any ways in which it could be clarified.

“I have also undertaken that I will be writing to the incoming Director of Public Prosecutions [Victoria Engel SC] to ask questions about what follow-up is being done to ensure that these sort of mistakes are not systemic issues.”

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One of Mitchell’s survivors, Libby Hall, told Region she was meeting with Mr Rattenbury in June to discuss some of his comments.

“I just want the legislation to be fixed or made clear to be used as intended to ensure this doesn’t happen again,” she said.

Ms Hall also said while it was re-traumatising to have to face the resentencing, “it is actually just infuriating”.

Mitchell pleaded guilty to abusing six girls between the mid-1990s and the late 2000s when they were aged between about 10 and 15.

Last year, he was handed a 13-year jail sentence on convictions that included three counts of the persistent sexual abuse of a child, but then successfully launched an appeal to be resentenced on these charges.

man in suit walking to court

Stephen Leonard Mitchell, who is now in custody, arrives at court on an earlier occasion. Photo: Albert McKnight.

The sentencing judge said the charge carried a maximum penalty of 25 years’ jail with a statutory cap of 14 years.

However, when conceding the appeal, then-ACT Acting Director of Public Prosecutions Anthony Williamson SC said it appeared the maximum penalty for the charge at the time of the offences was seven years’ jail.

The law states that a person cannot face a penalty greater than the one they would have received if they had been sentenced at the time of their offending.

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After the news that the appeal would not be contested was announced, Odette Visser, one of Mitchell’s survivors, sent a letter endorsed by three of Mitchell’s other survivors to ACT Opposition Leader Elizabeth Lee.

In it, she said prosecutors had negotiated plea deals with Mitchell by withdrawing and condensing several charges per victim for them to become the persistent sexual abuse charges.

“We accepted those plea deals on their advice that a 25-year maximum was in place,” she wrote.

“None of us would have willingly accepted any action that reduced the charges to a seven-year maximum sentence if we had known otherwise.”

Also, in a response to Region, Ms Lee said she had been told this issue was raised with the ACT Government in May 2022.

On Wednesday, Mr Rattenbury was asked if he would commit to a full inquiry to ensure it would not occur again.

“We take this very seriously and we are working our way through it at the moment,” he said.

The Director of Public Prosecutions was contacted for comment. Mitchell will be resentenced on 27 August.

Ms Engel, the first woman to become the ACT Director of Public Prosecutions, started work earlier this month.

Anyone impacted by sexual, domestic or family violence can contact 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or Full Stop Australia on 1800 385 578. Local support services include the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre on 6247 2525, the Domestic Violence Crisis Service (DVCS) on 6280 0900, and Victim Support ACT on 1800 822 272 or 6205 2022. You can report a sexual assault by attending an ACT Policing station in person, calling 000 in an emergency or 131 444 for police assistance, or online if the sexual assault occurred more than six months ago.

If this reporting has raised mental health concerns for you, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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