An excerpt from Missing Persons - a collection of true crime writing by Steve Braunias.
The most despised man in New Zealand – a status Jesse Kempson earned not merely by choking Grace Millane to death on the floor next to his bed on the eve of her 22nd birthday, but more so because of what he did to her afterwards, despicably and, worse, efficiently – only ever appeared in media images as a pixilated blur during his trial, and to tell you the truth, he didn't look that much different in person. I gazed at his face quite a lot during his three-week trial in Courtroom 11 at the High Court at Auckland in the early summer of 2019, and for the longest time he failed to make much of an impression at all. His features were vague, smudgy. He had a flat face with a weak chin, small nose and thin mouth. His worst side was either side; he presented a bad profile, his thick neck and squashed features giving his head the appearance of a solid block of wood – i.e. a blockhead. Frankly, he looked like a charmless moron.
But by the third week Kempson's face started coming into view. He was quite a good-looking guy. He scrubbed up nicely in the blue suit he wore every day, and the alternating white open-necked shirt or black open-necked shirt. He carried himself well. He smiled, once, and held it for few minutes, on the final day of his trial, when Justice Simon Moore lightened the mood with a self-deprecating joke. The jury and public gallery had been cleared; that one glimpse of his good humour was in private. The smile animated his face, softened it, gave it shape and focus – the most despised and most despicable man in New Zealand actually had a sweet, even rather tender face.
It would have been the face that Grace Millane saw and liked very much when she met Kempson on their Tinder date in downtown Auckland on a Saturday night. Physically, he was to her specifications; she liked men dark and solidly built, "the rugby type" as one of her friends put it. She was 21 and he was 26. She wore a black T-shirt dress and a pair of white Converse trainers. He wore a pale jacket and dark trousers. She was from Essex, backpacking her way around the world for a year. He was of no fixed abode and no fixed identity: during the trial and for a long time afterwards, he had name suppression. He appeared in the daily court list stapled on boards at the High Court under the initial of K. But even to print his initial at that time was to sail too close to the wind. He could only be known as the accused, or as X. Not Mr X, just plain X. And not X to flatter him as someone mysterious, but X in the sense of a wrong answer. X, crossed out by the jury when they took just five hours, including a break to eat white-bread sandwiches wheeled in for lunch, to find him guilty; X, aka Jesse Kempson, a deeply and profoundly wrong human being.
Grace arrived in Auckland on November 20, 2018, on the edge of summer. The trial began a year later on Monday, November, 4, in a week of blazing sunshine; on the way to court each morning, I saw backpackers tumbling out of the $17 airport bus and squinting in bright sunlight as they got their bearings, and headed for the hostels offering dorm rooms and cheap drinks. Grace booked into Base Backpackers. It was right in the middle of the city, just off Queen St. "The party backpackers," as Kempson described it; the bar on the top floor has Wet Wednesday T-shirt contests, Thursday is themed as Glow Party. A travel agent two doors down advertises car and campervan deals, $15 per day. After Grace's family reported her missing, police distributed a still image of her leaving Base, taken from a CCTV camera to the left of the front entrance. It was 5.37pm on December 1, 2018. She was on her way to meet Mr Wrong.
The police photographed Kempson with and without his shirt on the night of his arrest. They are pictures of a fat boy with sagging breasts, no waist, and a dim, wide face. He'd evidently lost weight during his year on remand and cut a pretty trim figure that first morning in Courtroom 11. He appeared between two security guards to the right of the court, and behind the witness box. He faced the jury on the opposite side of the room. In between were three rows of media; I sat on the far left, and yes, you could say I was conscious of the fact that I was directly in front of Grace Millane's parents. Each and every session, David and Gillian Millane were always the first allowed into the courtroom to sit in the public gallery. The next person allowed in was a grey-haired gentleman who kept himself to himself at all times: Kempson's father sat in the middle of the row.
There were other regulars in court. Detective Inspector Scott Beard, who headed the Millane investigation, took up the most space – partly because of his height, partly because he had such an immensely grave and serious bearing. Crown prosecutor Brian Dickey, 52, looked younger than his colleague Robin McCoubrey, 44 – partly because of the darkness and vigour of Dickey's black hair, partly because McCoubrey had the prematurely aged look of someone who you imagine wears his suit, tie, waistcoat and possibly even judicial gown to the beach. Dickey had a casual, languid manner. Also, he looked like All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, and had the same demeanour, too, which is to say he came across as a good bastard.
For the defence, Ian Brookie, 43, looked considerably younger than his colleague Ron Mansfield, 52. Brookie had a kind of appealing blandness. It was in contrast to the shrewd, self-contained Mansfield, witty and likeable outside of court, quite intense and certainly very intent inside it. It wasn't so much Mansfield's presence that was felt as his absence: whenever he was away, it felt as though a dark force had vacated Courtroom 11. In recess, he chomped on apples, his little teeth tearing at the flesh.
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The finest legal mind belonged to the judge. I remember watching Simon Moore in his past life as a Crown prosecutor. He was very, very good, a persuasive and often physical advocate for the police – ah, how I cherish the memory of when he mimed holding murderer Antonie Dixon's Samurai sword above his head, and his shirt rode up to expose a patch of pink tum. He threw himself into the prosecutor's role, but really it was too narrow for him. As Justice Moore, he called on his experience and relied on his wits to preside over every aspect of a difficult case, and the only time he ever lost his footing was the day he called the Crown prosecutor Mr Tickey. Every trial is a work in progress. The trial of Kempson was very nearly a work of art, Justice Moore's masterpiece.
"Right," he said, when the jury were selected. "Good morning." The public gallery was full, standing-room only. The eyes of the nation were on Courtroom 11. Two nations, in fact; there were hacks from the BBC, The Guardian, and the Daily Mail. Many murder trials start off as tense chambers of suspense, but relax during recess, when media, court staff and lawyers chew the fat, horse around, gossip. Black humour creeps in, too, because the tension has to escape somehow, somewhere. But there was never anything like that in the trial of Kempson. It remained solemn, hushed, a tense chamber of suspense for the entire three weeks. What Kempson had carried out was so dreadful. It inspired a kind of reverence for the most important person in the courtroom: Grace Millane, the missing person.
Missing Persons by Steve Braunias is available now.