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Jemma Mitchell: The first woman sentenced live on British TV

Judges wooden gavel with a United KIngdom flag in the background.

Since 2020, the British public has been able to view some criminal sentencing on TV. In some select cases judges can sentence criminals live on TV and with the story of Jemma Mitchell, whose conviction is explored in Body In The Suitcase: The Murder Of Deborah Chong we thought we’d explore the history behind televised sentencing and the laws around it.

Jemma Mitchell was the first woman in the UK to be sentenced to life, live on TV and since her sentencing in October 2022, three further women including serial killer nurse Lucy Letby, have also had their sentence passed during a live broadcast.

The history of photography and videography in British courts

Photography and broadcasting of Crown Court cases was illegal from 1925 until June 2020. Other courts including the Supreme Court and Court of Appeal allowed photography and broadcasting sooner but in June 2020, the Crown Court (Recording and Broadcasting) Order 2020 was passed.

The use of cameras had been illegal in British courts since the publication of unauthorised pictures of Dr Crippen’s trial in 1910.

The new regulations allow only the judge to be filmed and only the sentencing remarks in serious high-profile criminal cases will be broadcast. The defendant will never be filmed and while the sentencing itself may not be the most fascinating viewing, it makes a landmark change to our access to criminal courts.

Before broadcasting and still present in most courts, courtroom sketch artists gave the clearest pictorial description of the events. Courtroom artists quickly capture moments of the trial on paper and can sell their works to media outlets to support their coverage of any trial, this would be accompanied by written reports and articles created by journalists attending trials in the public viewing area.

The case for and against televised sentencing

There are of course critics of broadcasting criminal sentencing and those who fought hard to get the law passed. Key advantages include increasing transparency and trust in the judicial system and giving an honest depiction of what occurs, rather than a journalistic interpretation. It is also a great opportunity to further educate the wider public on how sentencing works, which in turn increases their confidence in our courts and judicial process.

Those opposed to the process cite many reasons including the risk of increased sensationalism. Some of the most well-known televised trials have attracted huge media attention and become more like appointment-to-view television than a serious legal process. By limiting the broadcasts to the words of the judge during sentencing it is easier to limit the chance of sensationalism seen in cases overseas.

Sentencing live on TV: Ben Oliver and Jemma Mitchell

Ben Oliver’s case was the first ever to be sentenced live on TV. Ben Oliver was jailed for life for killing his grandfather at a televised hearing on 28th July 2022. The televised hearing took place in Court Two of the historic Old Bailey at 10am and Her Honor Judge Sarah Munro QC was responsible for the sentencing. Ben Oliver stabbed his grandfather David 21 times, including cutting his throat and pleaded guilty due to diminished responsibility. He was cleared of murder but convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to a minimum of ten years in prison.

Jemma Mitchell’s case attracted even more attention. Born in Australia and living in Wembley at the time of the crime, Jemma killed her friend Mee Kuen Chong (known as Deborah) and decapitated her. Deborah’s headless body was found in a suitcase over 200 miles away in Devon. Mitchell’s case was the first televised example of a woman being sentenced live on air and also the first trial with a murder conviction in England and Wales to be televised.

On 28th October 2022, Mitchell was sentenced at the Old Bailey. Judge Richard Marks QC sentenced her to life imprisonment with a minimum term of 34 years.

Famous Televised Trials from around the world

While we don’t have televised trials in the UK and it doesn’t seem likely to ever be the case, televised sentencing has given us more access to and understanding of the final stage of the trial process. However, in other countries, whole trials can be broadcast and often they become must-watch viewing for people around the world, here are just some cases you might remember:

1. Ted Bundy

Ted Bundy’s trial in 1979 was one of the first ever examples of a broadcast trial available across the whole country (the USA). Just a month before Bundy took to the stand to face accusations of 20 murders (many more suspected), the Florida Supreme Court allowed journalists to film trials across the state. Bundy’s chilling charisma quickly made him a media hit and people could not get enough of the charming persona he presented despite his grisly crimes.

2. OJ Simpson

OJ Simpson was accused of murdering his ex-wife in 1994 and in 1995 he went on trial, with the whole world watching. Simpson’s case remains one of the largest media spectacles of all time. When the jury declared Simpson not guilty of murder, over 150 million Americans were watching, and telecom companies saw a 50% drop in phone use during the verdict as everyone was tuned in.

3. Oscar Pistorius

Famed Paralympian turned killer Oscar Pistorius was already of high public interest due to his success on the track. The huge interest in his case meant the South African High Court chose to broadcast the whole trial live via audio and certain parts were also televised. Pistorius shot and killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp claiming he mistook her for an intruder. In a live broadcast sentencing Pistorius, he initially received a maximum sentence of 5 years for culpable homicide, though this was extended to a murder charge after the state appealed the original conviction.