22 April 2024

Paedophile coach Stephen Mitchell to be resentenced, survivors call for action to prevent similar appeals

| Albert McKnight

Stephen Leonard Mitchell was originally sentenced to over 13 years’ jail, but will now be resentenced. Photo: Albert McKnight.

CONTENT WARNING: This article refers to childhood sexual abuse.

While a former rock climbing coach who sexually abused six children will be resentenced due to a legal error, one of his survivors is determined to have this “loophole” closed as quickly as possible to prevent other offenders from launching similar appeals.

Last week, the ACT Supreme Court allowed Stephen Leonard Mitchell’s appeal. The court set aside the 13-year jail sentence he was handed in May 2023 and ordered him to be resentenced by Justice David Mossop.

This followed prosecutors conceding an error was made when he was sentenced using a maximum penalty that was higher at the time of his sentencing than it was when he committed his crimes.

However, one of Mitchell’s survivors, Odette Visser, said sex offenders thinking of using this “loophole” to shorten their sentence “need to go and take a cold, shared shower” because victims were determined to close it quickly.

“While it might be too late to change the law to help us, we can’t let it happen twice. We won’t look the other way,” she said.

“News of this loophole has already spread among the legal profession and jailed sex offenders, so we need the support of every Canberran to ensure that amending this law is a priority. This is urgent.”

Lee de Percy, the mother of another woman who survived Mitchell’s abuse, said the fact he had to be resentenced was “re-traumatising”, and she called on the ACT Government to “fix it”.

“We were done and now we’re back here again,” she said.

“It should have been avoided.”

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Mitchell abused the 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 and coaching children in Canberra.

His convictions included three counts of the persistent sexual abuse of a child, relating to three of the survivors, which Justice Mossop said was a charge that carried a maximum penalty of 25 years’ jail and had a statutory cap of 14 years.

However, Mitchell’s lawyers argued that the judge should have used the maximum penalty for the offence at the time he committed his crimes. The law was not changed until after he committed his offences.

The defence lawyers said their argument was supported by an ACT Court of Appeal decision from 2022, and prosecutors conceded Mitchell’s appeal earlier this month.

ACT Law Courts

In 2023, the ACT Supreme Court originally sentenced Stephen Mitchell to about 13 years’ jail with a non-parole period of nine years. Photo: Michelle Kroll Region Media.

In a letter from ACT Acting Director of Public Prosecutions Anthony Williamson SC, seen by Region, he said his office had briefed external senior counsel from interstate for advice.

However, the counsel thought there was no reasonable prospect of overturning the appeal court’s decision from 2022, which would have been the only way prosecutors could have then challenged Mitchell’s appeal.

Also, Mr Williamson said after reviewing the matter, it appeared the maximum penalty for the persistent sexual abuse charge at the time of the offences was seven years’ jail.

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.

“I appreciate the above decision will be difficult for each of you, and I assure you the decision was not made lightly,” he wrote in his letter.

“It is almost unprecedented that this office would brief a senior counsel from interstate to provide advice. That was done in this matter to ensure that no stone was left unturned before a decision was made to concede the appeal.”

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The matter returns to court on Wednesday (24 April) to find a date for resentencing.

“The sentence for the most serious sex crime you can commit against a child cannot stay at a seven-year maximum,” Ms Visser said.

“It’s a clear and devastating error that needs to be fixed.

“The government needs to act urgently, and I’m hopeful that they will.”

Shane Rattenbury, MLA

Attorney General Shane Rattenbury said he admires the women who survived Stephen Mitchell’s abuse. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

ACT Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury said he had met with a number of the survivors and he admired “their courage and strength, and am appalled by what they have experienced”.

“As the case is currently before the courts, it is not appropriate for me to make specific comment,” he said.

“It is an important principle of criminal law that no one should be punished more severely now than would have been possible at the time of their offence.”

Mitchell’s original non-parole period of nine years’ jail would have meant he could be released from custody in May 2032.

When he was sentenced in 2023, the court heard the then-56-year-old met the diagnosis for paedophilic disorder.

If you need help, or someone you know does, you can contact 1800RESPECT, the national domestic and sexual violence support service, by calling 1800 737 732.

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