Dr Honor Doro Townshend is a criminologist, writer and presenter who has shared her expert opinions as a contributor in two recent Crime + Investigation shows, Body in the Suitcase: The Murder of Deborah Chong and #DEAD2ME.
In her new companion podcast, #DEAD2ME: The Interviews, Honor speaks in greater detail to some of those affected by the crimes featured in the series. In speaking to the families of the people at the heart of these cases and contributing experts, Honor finds out more about what the warning signs were, what the trigger points may have been and how we can protect ourselves and the people we love.
Crime + Investigation caught up with Honor to discuss the themes raised in #DEAD2ME and got her insight into what made the 'Body in the suitcase' murder so unusual from a criminology perspective.
What made the 'Body in the Suitcase' murder so unusual?
It's still one of the most interesting and bizarre cases that I've ever come across. From a criminological perspective, you've got several factors that make it stand out. For starters, you have a female perpetrator, Jemma Mitchell, and statistically, that is less common. But not only that, the offence is a very brutal murder. Again, statistically speaking, that's quite uncommon from a female perpetrator, especially with the decapitation of Deborah Chong.
In one sense, the crime seems very well-thought-out and methodical, but Mitchell also makes a lot of careless mistakes. What do you think explains this?
The methodical way in which she had decapitated Deborah Chong, suggests it was very planned out. Where it gets a bit chaotic, is her leaving the body and the head close together, at the same disposal site.
Personally, I get the impression from having read and talked about this case, that she had a serious plan in place, but several obstacles popped up unexpectedly. That's what throws her off and that's where you see these seemingly very glaring obvious errors in what she originally thought was a foolproof plan.
What does the arrest footage tell you about Jemma Mitchell’s state of mind?
The arrest footage is fascinating. It's one of the most British arrests you ever going to see. She comes down to answer the door as if she's just woken up. And she's like, 'Oh, hi. How are you?' I was almost expecting her to ask them in for a cup of tea. It's bizarre.
My interpretation is that Jemma truly believed that she was going to get away with it. I see her reaction, as her taking stock. She is taking a moment to internally process what’s happening.
She was sentenced to 34 years. What factors would have influenced the judgement?
In the UK, when it's first-degree murder, you generally start with a tariff theoretically set at 25 years. But then, either based on mitigating or aggravating circumstances, it can go up or down from a minimum tariff. Aggravating circumstances will be things like the decapitation, trying to hide the evidence and not being forthcoming with information. Even small things like her not admitting guilt, despite the evidence stacked against her is an aggravating factor.
All of those things combined with the brutality of the crime and that Deborah was a vulnerable individual are very aggravating circumstances, which is ultimately what led to her having a longer minimum tariff.
Jemma Mitchell was the first woman to be sentenced live on TV. What are your thoughts about TV sentencing?
I'm all for the court and the judicial system being transparent, accessible, and open. That's the best way for institutions to learn and develop. For sentencing, it's important that people should know how the system works.
Looking at #DEAD2ME and the companion podcast, which case stood out for you and why?
I struggle to answer that question because every single case leaves a mark on me as an individual. To do the job that I do, I feel like I have to understand and ingrain myself into the stories. As I’m talking through them and building a picture of who these people were, it does feel like a loss when I then have to talk about the fact that they've been taken away under such awful circumstances.
#DEAD2ME focuses on romantic relationships that go wrong. What are some relationship red flags people should look out for?
One of the first danger signs that you almost always see is a relationship developing very quickly, so that could be people meeting and moving in together within a couple of months. It's commonly referred to as ‘love bombing’ in instances of coercive control. It's not to say that every instance where that happens is going to lead to an abusive or violent relationship or eventually a domestic homicide. It's just to say that that's one thing to be aware of.
If it's a family member or a friend who is becoming more withdrawn after the start of a relationship; if they’re engaging less; if they're changing how they dress for instance, after the start of a very fast-moving relationship: then these are what I would call ‘pink flags’.
Individually, they're all mildly concerning. But when you have multiple of them stacked together, it becomes a very, very big red flag.
Is there anything about online dating that opens people up to these sorts of risks?
We hear more about how online dating leads to bad relationships now because the vast majority of people meet on an online dating platform. So naturally, we're going to hear more about it. That's not the vast majority of relationships that stem from those platforms. However, online platforms allow people to filter their lives and their personalities. There should be a greater responsibility on verifying profiles, also in terms of background checks. You do have lots of cases across #DEAD2ME where the men entering these relationships already had significant histories of violent behaviour and domestic abuse. But they didn't go on to tell their future partners about it. Why would they?
We do have Clare's Law in the UK, where you can request information on someone's criminal background. However, if you're not concerned about a person, what is the likelihood that you're going to use that? If you've met someone on a dating app, and they are kind and caring and loving, you wouldn't necessarily think immediately, ‘I need to try and find out more about this person's potential criminal background’.
Is there a typical personality type for someone who kills a partner?
The vast majority of them will have been instigators of coercive control. But in terms of behaviour demographics, #DEAD2ME shows that there isn't a one-size-fits-all-all.
You have 10 different episodes. They're all different ages. Some perpetrators are women. They're from different areas with different interests and lifestyles. One of the strengths – and one of the scary parts of the show – is that it shows that it can happen in many relationships, scenarios, and settings. It's not necessarily just a certain typology of human being who would commit these crimes.
What do you hope viewers will take from the series?
What is important in this series is how the victims and their stories are very much centred. It's very much about them, their families, their loved ones, and their stories. This series is focused on the people who should be at the centre of the story: The victims. It shows them as the whole human beings they were, as opposed to just the fact that they're a victim. I'm very glad that to me, the series is actively pushing against that kind of narrative.