10 May 2024

Attorney-General tells survivors government can't intervene ahead of pedophile coach's resentencing

| Albert McKnight
Shane Rattenbury

Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury has written a letter to the survivors of a coach convicted of child sex offences. Photo: Region.

CONTENT WARNING: This article refers to child abuse.

Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury has written to the survivors of pedophile coach Stephen Mitchell to explain why the ACT Government cannot intervene in the case of their abuser, who will likely be resentenced to less jail time.

In Wednesday’s (8 May) letter, he wrote, “I appreciate that bringing the perpetrator to justice and navigating the justice system has been a difficult and challenging experience.”

Mitchell pleaded guilty to abusing six girls between the mid-1990s and the late 2000s when they were aged between about 10 and 15 while he held various positions that involved working with children in Canberra.

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.

The judge who sentenced Mitchell said the charge carried a maximum penalty of 25 years in jail with a statutory cap of 14 years.

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

READ ALSO 72-year-old committed for trial over alleged murder of partner, Thi Nguyen, in Bruce

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.

In 2018, this charge was changed to have a maximum penalty of 25 years in jail. However, this relates to offences that took place after 2018.

Mr Williamson told the survivors he expected Mitchell would be resentenced to a very significant period of full-time jail, but it was likely to be shorter than his original sentence.

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.”

Stephen Mitchell.

Stephen Leonard Mitchell arrives at court before pleading guilty. Photo: Albert McKnight.

Mr Rattenbury told the survivors that “it would not be appropriate for the ACT Government to amend legislation in order to change the outcome” of the case.

“Once a matter has been commenced before the court, it is not appropriate for a legislative body to change the laws which will apply to the parties,” he said.

He also said it was not correct to describe the legal issue that led to the resentencing as a “loophole”.

READ ALSO More potent than fentanyl: Canberrans urged to watch out for dangerous synthetic opioid nitazene

A Justice and Community Safety (JACS) Directorate spokesperson said Mitchell had appealed on the basis that the judge who sentenced him used a method of sentence construction and legislative interpretation that the ACT Court of Appeal had previously disallowed in a decision from 2022.

Mr Rattenbury said the sentencing judge “impermissibly” referenced the current maximum penalty for the charge, then used the maximum penalty as it was at the time of the offence as a ‘cap’.

He said the 2022 Court of Appeal decision found “this approach was inconsistent with the fundamental principle of retrospectivity”.

“It is not accurate to suggest that any new sentence is limited to seven years,” the JACS spokesperson also said.

Mr Rattenbury told the survivors the government was considering the construction of the law regarding sentencing for historical offences to determine whether there were any clarifying amendments that could be made.

“The Justice and Community Safety Directorate is undertaking work to consider these options and will consult further with key justice stakeholders,” he said.

Ms Visser said she accepted Mr Rattenbury could not intervene in their case.

“I’m encouraged that he has committed to finding a solution to prevent this happening to other victims,” she said.

Mitchell will be resentenced on 27 August.

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.

Daily Digest

Want the best Canberra news delivered daily? Every day we package the most popular Riotact stories and send them straight to your inbox. Sign-up now for trusted local news that will never be behind a paywall.

By submitting your email address you are agreeing to Region Group's terms and conditions and privacy policy.