English jury returns mix of verdicts in policeman's serial rape trial

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Thursday, November 25, 2010

A jury in Newcastle Crown Court, northeast England has cleared a police officer of some charges in a trial over serial rapes and related offences, and convicted him of others. Northumbria Police's Police Constable Stephen Mitchell faced five counts of rape, six of indecent assault and 15 of misconduct in public office. He is guilty of two rapes, three indecent assaults and six counts of misconduct, with most of the sex charge convictions coming yesterday.

In all the case involved 16 women aged from 17 to 48, all of whom were arrested on drugs charges or shoplifting thefts between 1999 and 2006; the prosecution said Mitchell picked his victims based on vulnerability. The prosecution claimed Mitchell used blackmail to demand sex in exchange for favours; Mitchell described a conspiracy to frame him involving "...a very small-knit community in Newcastle city centre's criminal fraternity." Mitchell's defence dismissed the claims as driven by one woman motivated by "self-preservation;" he refused to explain this further in open court.

It was alleged he told one woman who wanted a female officer present when searched said "I am the law. I can do anything. I don't need a woman here," and later attacked her in his patrol car. The woman had been arrested for possession of drugs and was 37.

Cquote1.svg He threw me over the settee, I couldn’t move with the handcuffs on, I was petrified. He said this is what you’ve wanted for a long time and he raped me. Cquote2.svg

—Alleged victim testifies

"Each [victim] was vulnerable, whether because of drug abuse, health problems, domestic circumstances or a combination of these factors. The defendant took advantage of their vulnerabilities, usually providing or offering favours, but then requesting, or in some cases requiring by force, sexual favours in return," was how prosecutor Paul Sloan QC explained the circumstances early in the trial.

Testimony in October included that of one lesbian, now 32, who in June 1999 was interviewed by the officer in Newcastle's Pilgrim Street police station, and claimed he groped her and "that was the beginning of hell for me". She told the court from behind a screen how he undid his trousers, saying that in arranging for her to be bailed he had helped her and he expected this reciprocated. "I was gay and had never had sex with a male," but she claimed she was grabbed by the hair and forced, with a warning her girlfriend would be contacted if she made allegations. She had been arrested for cheque fraud.

She said the next month she was arrested again and he made a similar demand. Her testimony stated that he blackmailed her for four years, receiving regular sex after driving her into the country, culminating in a 2003 handcuffed rape at her home. She told the court he gave her drug money, as well as a lighter and foil to take heroin, after discovering she was in rehab. She says she pretended to take the drug but disposed of it, leaving rehab and beginning to study in 2002 in the belief the man had been evaded.

However, "[my] world just crumbled before me" when he arrived at her door and stole her spare keys, she said. She claimed he regularly visited her Sunderland house when she was away and once left a knife embedded in her pillow. She testified her fear made her sleep beneath her bed. Her testimony stated the policeman used what he said was video evidence of her committing fraud at a Post Office and in 2003 said he was going to hand the tape over.

She said when he arrived "[h]e was furious, he said I had disrespected him by not being in touch. I was trying to calm him down but he handcuffed me and said he was arresting me for fraud at the post office. He threw me over the settee, I couldn’t move with the handcuffs on, I was petrified. He said this is what you’ve wanted for a long time and he raped me." She moved to Durham shortly after.

Detective Constable Cath Easton of Northumbria Police's Professional Standards Unit said she visited one woman in June last year during the investigation. Although stating she had no problems with police treatment, Easton testified the woman called the following day. "She was crying, she was hysterical," Easton told the court.

Cquote1.svg these people will grab any opportunity they can. They are lying Cquote2.svg

—Mitchell describes the women

"It took her a while to get her words out, but she was saying 'how do I know I can trust you? How do I know he has not sent you to test us?' She was frightened and she told us she was frightened. She was in a real state... She was absolutely terrified that he knew I had contacted her."

The alleged victim was assured the investigation was genuine and later called again, claiming Mitchell forced her to perform a sex act following the former heroin addict's arrest six years previously. Another woman told the court Mitchell raped her whilst in uniform in the woman's flat, hands cuffed behind her, and blackmailed her for years demanding sexual favours.

One woman, 25 at the time, said while in Newcastle's Pilgrim Street police station following her arrest for a minor offence she was grabbed and kissed by the policeman. "He put his hands on my shoulders and kissed me, it was a passionate kiss. The door was open and I was shocked, anyone could have walked past or seen him or anything." She told the court this occurred in the fingerprint room.

"After I was photographed he told me he was finishing his shift, which I took to be a hint," the witness, another former heroin addict who said she was drunk at the time, continued. "Then when I came out of the station PC Mitchell pulled up in a car and offered to take me home, it seemed the safest way of getting home was with a police officer." She had no complaint about him during the journey but said she resisted another kiss upon arrival at her house.

The woman, who says she has not used drugs for nine years, stated that he arrived at her house the following day and gave her a second lift. “He said he had a wife and kids but that he would like to see me again. Obviously it was never going to happen but he was saying he wanted some kind of relationship where he was seeing me on a regular basis, I would imagine for sex or something like that. He said we would have to be discreet because he had a wife but I was not interested and eventually he accepted my ‘no’."

Cquote1.svg What it means is: ‘Resign and this will go away’. Cquote2.svg

—The defence makes accusations against the officer in charge of probing Mitchell

She said he gave her money, suggested they get a private room and was "very persuasive". Her mother also gave evidence to say Mitchell had called her to discuss the daughter's drug-addict boyfriend. "You want to stop her going with him, he's trouble, he's a bad lad," she claimed Mitchell said, adding her daughter told her the officer "was pestering her, she said he wanted to take her out." The boyfriend also gave evidence, saying he had known the officer during former heroin addiction and giving a description of him.

One young mother met Mitchell when released from prison in 2001 after a theft sentence. Days later, he had given her heroin and felt she "owed him" according to testimony, receiving sex in return. She failed to attend Gateshead Magistrates' Court in December the following year and he arrested her, she told the court. She wept, claiming he raped her in his vehicle. "I could not get out of the car, the doors were locked," she told the trial.

"He said he wanted to have sex and that it would be the last time. I was shouting for him to let me out of the car, just screaming and shouting at him to let me go. He said if I told anybody, nobody would believe me because I was just a dirty junkie and I would never get my children back," she said, describing him telling her he would plant drugs at her home and prevent access to her children if she made claims against him.

In November a woman in her fifties, who has four children and was 48 during her alleged attack, testified Mitchell raped her in a room used for reading reports at Pilgrim Street following her July 2006 theft arrest. "No one's going to believe a thief," he is claimed to have told her. "I said if you just let me go I'm not going to say anything; I'm not going to tell anyone. No one will ever know this has happened. I just wanted to be away." She says she explained she was ill and taking cancer medication although "he did not seem bothered."

Outside the police station following the alleged attack, "...there was two young lasses coming along. I will always remember one had a red Berghaus coat on. They seemed to know PC Mitchell and he did not seem to know whether to stay with me or talk to them and I just walked straight across the road. I was in total shock. I got on the bus home and I was trying to keep from crying and I had a pain in my throat."

She said her life had been severely affected; "I was always thinking about it and crying for no reason. I just used to burst into tears for no reason and I’m not a crying person. I’m normally bubbly and happy and I really just let myself go. I never ever went with my partner again and from that day to this I have never slept with another man." She triggered the probe that resulted in Mitchell's prosecution by reporting him when, she says, he began arriving at her house.

She told Sloan she had not immediately contacted police because "I thought no-one would believe me. I was a shoplifter and he was a police officer. I still would never have been here to this day if he had not kept coming back to the house. If he had not done that it would have been a secret till the day I died."

Mitchell, who has been a policeman since leaving the military in 1991, stated in the dock this month that the women had discussed their "host of rumours" amongst themselves and they were similar for this reason. "I think it has been demonstrated that people have been talking about this on a number of occasions... I know these people are not always truthful." "But you are?" responded prosecution QC Paul Sloan. "Yes, these people will grab any opportunity they can," according to the officer. "They are lying," he later added.

Cquote1.svg He said if I told anybody, nobody would believe me because I was just a dirty junkie and I would never get my children back Cquote2.svg

—Testimony at trial

In an attempt to disprove this defence the prosecution produced a sex tape in which Mitchell uses similar phrases to his partner as the women alleged he had said to them. "So it just so happens the words used are exactly the words you used in the video?" Sloan inquired. PC Mitchell desribed this as coincidence and rejected claims he had used such words to any of the women. He also said supplying heroin to one addict was far too risky for him; "I know police monitor drug dealers’ homes and it would be a massive risk to take my vehicle to the address of a drug dealer. I don't want people to be on drugs. If I could help them I would."

Mitchell, 42, divorced in 2005, admitted meeting a woman he had met on duty for sex in 2006, having admitted the same at an internal misconduct hearing in September 2007. He told the court that if interviewing woman it was in his interests as an officer to be friendly, but insisted this was all.

Defended by Toby Hedworth QC, Mitchell said his father's murder meant he could not possibly have committed one rape in Burdon, near Sunderland, on August 31, 2001 as he had returned to his original home city of Glasgow following his father's murder. He was accused of raping the woman in a parked car in a field.

"Have you ever been with her in the fields in the Burdon area of Sunderland?" asked Hedworth. "No, I haven’t. My dad was attacked on July 30, 2001 by somebody and subsequently died on August 10, 2001." Hedworth: "Had your father in fact been murdered?" Mitchell: "Yes. And from the 9th to the 16th of August I was in Glasgow," he explained. Hedworth took him through denials of every charge, which he said there was "no truth whatsoever" in.

The defence also produced a recording secretly recorded by Mitchell with Detective Chief Inspector Chris Sharman, who headed the rape investigation. Hedworth told the court Mitchell is warned on the tape, made in March, that if he is charged he would "probably be front page of the national newspapers and they are horrible" but the team would "stop digging" if he stepped down.

Hedworth likened the offer to a Monopoly "get out of jail free card" and claimed despite a warning his client was "running the risk of going to jail and going on the sex offender register", Mitchell chose to fight the allegations - a fact which demonstrated innocence. "What it means is: ‘Resign and this will go away’." The prosecution denied Northumbria Police were seeking to offer their colleague an alternative to investigation, stating the allegation - made during Hedworth's closing speech - was untrue and the recording did not indicate an offer to drop the probe.

The jury began deliberations on Wednesday. After three days, on Friday they cleared Mitchell of three rapes, two indecent assaults and two counts of misconduct in a public office. Following this, trial judge Mr Justice Wilkie said he would accept majority verdicts on the remaining charges, instead of unanimous verdicts. The jury departed for the weekend, returning on Tuesday to convict him of six misconduct charges and clear him of the same number; another indecent assault charge also produced an acquital.

Yesterday, the verdicts were delivered on the remaining charges. The remaining seven misconduct charges were acquitals, as did the other indecent assaults. Two charges of rape and three of indecent assault produced guilty verdicts.

At least one of the misconduct charges he was convicted of was unrelated to indecent assault or rape; it concerned a drug-addicted woman caught with non-prescriped diazepam (valium) when her friend was arrested for shoplifting in 2003. Her testimony was that he stroked her leg and tried to kiss her in Pilgrim Street, returned the drugs upon her release, obtained her number and met her several times to give her drugs. She says although he asked to go at night to a hotel she refused, and ultimately she began ignoring his calls while he ceased supplying drugs.

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