‘It’s not pleasure. It’s murder’: Grace Millane filmmaker explores ‘heinous’ rough sex defence

On 2 December 2018, British backpacker Grace Millane should have been celebrating her 22nd birthday during the trip of a lifetime in New Zealand.

Thousands of miles from her home in Essex, the messages and requests for video calls from friends and family kept pinging through to her phone. But they were never answered.

Her disappearance made headlines around the world. Grace had been murdered by Jesse Kempson, a 26-year-old man she met through Tinder. He strangled her in a hotel room in Auckland, calmly left in the morning to purchase a suitcase, and later buried her body in an area of bushland in the Waitakere Ranges.

Jesse Kempson is seen at his sentencing after he was convicted of murdering Grace Millane
Jesse Kempson initially lied to police – but CCTV showed the inaccuracies in his story

When CCTV contradicted his story – that they enjoyed a short date before going their separate ways – he admitted she had died while with him, but claimed a case of consensual “rough sex” gone badly wrong.

Kempson’s defence meant Grace’s parents David and Gillian, grieving and in a strange country, listened in court to what felt like blame and shaming of their daughter; details of her sex life raked over, never able to tell her own story. Following the trial, it emerged Kempson had a record of violence against women and had raped another British tourist eight months before he murdered Grace.

Almost five years on, a new documentary, The Murder Of Grace Millane, takes a look back at the night of her death and Kempson’s subsequent trial, focusing on his use of the defence and the reaction from some on social media that Grace was in some way at fault for going back to a hotel room with a man she had met that day.

Grace Millane's parents David and Gillian arrive at Auckland High Court
Detective Inspector Scott Beard pictured with Grace Millane’s parents David and Gillian outside Auckland High Court

“Essentially the rough sex defence re-victimises that victim and their families – in a murder case, their families who are sitting in court,” Detective Inspector Scott Beard, the lead investigator on the case, tells Sky News. “The victim isn’t there to answer.”

The documentary has been made by filmmaker Helena Coan, featuring DI Beard and with the blessing of Grace’s family. She says Kempson’s defence, arguing that Grace had asked to be choked during sex, was one of the main reasons she wanted to tell the young woman’s story.

“I’ve been in that position and probably every woman in the history of the world has been in that position, on a new date with someone that you don’t really know,” she says. “We’re excited to be there.” The CCTV footage shows a “young girl having fun in a new country”, she adds. “She was just a normal young woman who absolutely didn’t deserve what was about to happen to her.”

Grace Millane in the last picture of her taken alive, stands with her killer Jesse Kempson
Grace, in the last image of her taken alive, stands with Kempson in the hours before he murdered her

Coan’s film lets the evidence speak for itself. There is contradictory CCTV, footage of Kempson rifling through Grace’s bag when she left the table during her date, his internet search history for porn in the hours after Grace’s death, as well as for “Waitakere ranges” – the location where he would later bury her body. He also took photos of her. And there was no call to emergency services, no attempt to get help.

Jurors saw through Kempson’s account and he was ultimately found guilty, sentenced to a minimum of 17 years in prison. But campaigners say the rough sex defence in some cases can lead to reduced sentencing.

“People don’t really understand the prevalence of the rough sex defence,” says Coan. “Men are getting away with the most heinous, manipulative, planned, pre-meditated crimes. And they are saying, basically, ‘she asked for it’.

“It’s scary to see how lawyers use this defence and how juries still buy into this idea, that a woman can consent to being strangled to death.”

As it was said in court, she points out, it takes five to 10 minutes to kill someone by strangulation. “That’s not pleasure. That’s murder.”

Read more:
The final hours of Grace Millane’s life
Mother tells killer he has ‘ripped a hole’ in her heart

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Grace Millane’s murderer in police interview

In England and Wales, following much campaigning, it was announced in 2020 that “rough sex” legally should not be considered a defence to violent crime, that a person “cannot consent to actual bodily harm or to other more serious injury or, by extension, to their own death”.

Before this, the We Can’t Consent To This campaign group, which was set up following another woman’s killing, said the use of the defence had increased tenfold since 2000. It features the stories of dozens of women and girls on its website.

Following Kempson’s conviction in 2019, Susan Edwards, a barrister and law professor who spent years campaigning for a change in legislation in the UK, told Sky News she believed the “alarming” increase in the use of the defence was down to “a narrative in society of pornography in the media and much more generally” which meant jurors “might be more persuaded to accept that women are more consenting to this type of dreadful behaviour”.

Coan says she wants to see changes in the conversation generally, “outside of the courtroom – about women and violence against women and domestic violence and victim blaming – that then makes these defences harder to use because juries don’t buy into them as much”.

Her film features comments made about Grace on social media as news of her disappearance and death made headlines. She says it was “horrifying” to see the negative remarks. “It’s always scared me how quickly people want to blame victims of violence for the violence that’s committed against them. I want people to hear [the evidence] and then go, there is no way she could have consented to this.”

Coan says she hopes more than anything that the film will help more men understand the “silent burden” of the fear of violence that women carry.

“That’s really where things start to change, is with good men calling out other men. I want men to watch this film and understand that this feeling that something like this could happen is with every single woman, all the time. All the way through their lives. I want men to watch this and realise the fear that we carry and how heavy that is, and how men can really help to solve that.”

Watch The Murder of Grace Millane on Sky Documentaries and NOW from 22 October