Grace Millane Murder Trial Week Three: Justice for Grace

By Jessica Sutton.

We have a verdict.
Grace Millane was murdered, beyond reasonable doubt, in the eyes of the jury, the Court, and New Zealand. But this resolution is not the end of the matter. Not only has the world lost another woman to the growing epidemic of male violence, but her murderer’s trial has laid bare the way our legal system fails the women who turn to it for justice.

The Final Week in Brief

Following the close of the Crown case, the Defence case did not open until Tuesday, and lasted a mere two days (compared to the Crown’s two weeks). The Defence’s narrative rested largely on attempts to use Ms Millane’s personal life and sexual interests to cast the murderer’s actions in a more excusable light. I will not elaborate on the specific components of the Defence’s case, as I believe the information about Ms Millane’s personal life which was revealed to the court, and ultimately to the media, was excessive and disrespectful. I do not wish to cause her any further indignities.  

The jury deliberated for only five hours, pausing in the afternoon to ask the Judge a question about the meaning of “application of force”, before returning to the jury room to finalise their decision. The jury returned a unanimous guilty verdict, some jurors weeping as the ordeal finally came to an end. In recognition of their sterling work, the Judge has excused them from any further jury service for a period of seven years.

The convicted murderer retains his name suppression, and will appear before the Court on February 21st for sentencing.

Why does he still get name suppression?

Name suppression is an entirely separate legal question from that of guilt. This means that the murderer will be able to apply for the name suppression order to continue, even once he is imprisoned. This issue will likely be determined in February, around the time of his sentencing. Until that time, the murderer’s name remains suppressed and it continues to be an offence to disclose his name in New Zealand.

Understanding the Verdict

The legal form of murder that the jury decided on under section 167 of the Crimes Act 1961 will not be revealed. This is due to the general verdict model which the New Zealand classic jury system uses – no details around the jury’s verdict are disclosable, outside of the question of guilt. However, as two out of the four forms of murder under section 167 are not applicable to the facts of the case, the jury will have decided that the murderer either had murderous intent (he wanted to kill Ms Millane, and did so) or he had reckless intent (he intended to inflict bodily injury on Ms Millane, knowing her death was likely, and continued to strangle her despite this risk). Consent is irrelevant to this inquiry.

The other option the jury could have turned to if murder had not been proved, is that of manslaughter under section 171 and section 160. Homicide by unlawful act without reckless or murderous intent would have amounted to manslaughter. Consent is relevant as a defence to manslaughter. If the jury had held that Ms Millane consented to the strangulation, then the murderer could have been acquitted of both murder and manslaughter.

There were therefore extremely high stakes for the Defence’s case. If they had been successful in shifting the strong impressions from the Crown’s case via employment of victim blaming techniques and harmful rhetoric around consent, Ms Millane’s murderer could have been exonerated on all charges.  

The rise of the ‘rough sex’ defence is startling, having been used in 59 killings in the UK alone, as collated by the We Can’t Consent To This campaign.[1] This defence, horrifying in its callousness, suggests that men are entitled to inflict fatal violence on women during sex, with subsequent recourse to their supposed consent. Some of these defences succeed, in the way it could have succeeded in Grace’s trial under different circumstances. Juries are susceptible to rape myths and sexist misconceptions. Justice is not always served when our system allows disproportionate attacks on the credibility of female victims. The rough sex ‘defence’ should no longer be an option. It is high time it was consigned to a painful history, just as the partial defence of provocation was scrapped after the trial of the murderer of Sophie Elliot.[2]

As it is, justice has at last been done. New Zealand has a legal presumption in favour of life imprisonment for murder, with a minimum term of imprisonment of not less than 10 years.[3] The length of the non-parole period will be a discretionary decision for the Judge, taking into account all aspects of the offending. The particularly callous way in which Ms Millane’s body was disposed of, the murderer’s repeated and elaborate lies to Police, and the violent nature of the offending will be highly relevant to this inquiry.

Victim Blaming

Despite the conviction constituting a positive outcome for Ms Millane’s family, the trial has decisively demonstrated the shockingly negligent way our criminal justice system treats female victims of both sexual violence and femicide.

Mercifully only two days in duration, the Defence’s case nevertheless put an obscene amount of Grace’s personal life into the public eye, robbing her of what little dignity she retains after the horrific actions of her murderer. The conclusion the Defence was asking the jury to reach was a highly problematic one – that a woman’s expressed interest in a sexual activity that she had previously engaged in cautiously and with safeguards with someone she trusted, meant that she was likely to have consented to violent, unsafe sex with a virtual stranger.

These details of Grace’s personal life were broadcasted for little purpose other than to try to blacken her reputation. Undoubtedly, the Defence’s case appeared to be poor despite this desperate attempt to cast blame onto Grace. There is no plausible connection between safe, pleasurable breath play between two consenting adults, and the 5-10-minute long strangulation that ended Grace’s life.

As I noted in my first article, this is a perfect example of the Defence attempting to play into the binary between pure, innocent women, and reckless, promiscuous sluts. This binary is outdated, reductive and disrespectful. Showing interest in sex should not be used as a means to present a murdered woman as a reckless deviant. As the sexual culture expert called by the Defence noted, times have changed. Women are allowed to express themselves sexually. The fact that Grace was pilloried for this in court and in the media, even for a relatively short period of two days, does unacceptable disservice to her memory and disrespects the autonomy that was so cruelly taken from her.

Enough is Enough

What happened to Grace is not an isolated aberration. We can’t allow ourselves to wipe away our tears, send our prayers to her family, and move on. What happened to Grace is another horrific reminder of New Zealand’s part in the global epidemic of gender-based violence. The convicted murderer in this case isn’t one disturbed man in a sea of ‘good guys’. Violence against women is a global crisis, and needs to be recognised as such. It is societally entrenched, societally condoned, and societally perpetuated.

Men like the man who murdered Grace, kill because they have learnt to think of women as disposable sex objects. The man who killed Grace would have expressed sexist and harmful ideas throughout his life, as his interest in violence increased. Male entitlement to female attention, sex, and female domestic and emotional labour, is a potent and ever-present undercurrent in our society, which we only seem to discuss when another woman is murdered.  Rather than putting the responsibility on men to refrain from violence and respect every woman’s fundamental right to life, we continue to present female behaviour and sexuality as the reason and justification for male violence.

We have seen this all over social media as Grace’s trial unfolded. Men, trying their best to tie up their comments with a pretty ribbon of sympathy, and ultimately falling back on damaging stereotypes. Still, they ask why she was travelling alone. Still, they ask why she was internet dating. Still, they ask why she went to a stranger’s apartment. We need to fight these stereotypes. Only one question should be asked in reference to what happened to Grace:

Why has another amazing woman, with her whole life ahead of her, had her life taken from her by another violent man?

Final Thoughts

As the fanfare of the trial dies away, and her murderer is convicted, Grace Millane may become just another name in the long list of mothers, sisters, daughters and friends we have lost to male violence. I urge each and every one of you to keep her memory alive. The way we think about male violence needs to change. Our trial system needs to change. The way we talk about and think about young women needs to change. The only appropriate response to the losses suffered in the fight against male violence is to continue fighting, in the hope that what has happened over the last year to Grace, to Amber-Rose,[4] to Azalia,[5] and to countless others, never has to happen again.

Rest in peace, Grace.


[1] https://wecantconsenttothis.uk/

[2] https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=10611973

[3] Sentencing Act 2002.

[4] https://www.newshub.co.nz/home/new-zealand/2019/11/family-of-slain-dunedin-teenager-relive-horrific-night-she-was-found-dead-in-her-bed.html

[5] https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/crime/117524855/wanted-man-speaking-to-police-after-young-mothers-death-at-invercargill-motel

Image by Sang Hyun Cho from Pixabay.

This is an opinion piece. She’s Right is not a journalistic news publication. She’s Right does not certify the accuracy of any of the statements above, and any statements are made as the opinions of the author only.

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