June 13, 2024 12:56 pm

Bruce Lehrmann: Australian parliament rape trial aborted over juror ‘misconduct’

The case of a former political adviser accused of raping a colleague inside Australia’s Parliament House has been aborted after juror “misconduct”.

Bruce Lehrmann, 27, denies sexually assaulting Brittany Higgins on a government minister’s sofa after a night out in March 2019.

He says they did not have sex at all.

But after a 12-day trial and five days of deliberation the jury was discharged when it emerged one member had looked at academic research on sexual assault.

Juries are required to decide a case only on evidence presented in court.

“It may be that no harm has been done, but that is not a risk I can take,” Chief Justice Lucy McCallum told a Canberra court.

Judge McCallum estimated she had given the jury at least 17 and “possibly considerably more” warnings about undertaking research of their own.

The academic paper was discovered by a court official after it was knocked off a table during “routine tidying” of the jury room.

Before giving her account to police in early 2021, Ms Higgins gave up her right to anonymity and went public with her claims in high-profile newspaper and television interviews.

Her allegations were a catalyst for what’s been called Australia’s ‘Me Too moment’ – prompting nationwide protests and discussion about the safety of women, and exposing a toxic workplace culture inside Australian politics.

The trial heard that Mr Lehrmann and Ms Higgins worked in the same office – for then-Defence Industry Minister Linda Reynolds. On 22 March 2019 they both had drinks with colleagues and others.

Ms Higgins said she was the most intoxicated she’d been in her life, after spending hours at two Canberra bars, before the pair shared a cab to Parliament House, the jury was told.

Inside the courtroom, she was in tears as the jury was shown CCTV footage of herself and Mr Lehrmann entering the building.

In a police interview played to the jury, Ms Higgins said she’d fallen asleep in Minister Reynolds’ office before waking to find Mr Lehrmann having sex with her.

She told police she was crying. “I told him no – I told him to stop,” she said.

Prosecutors argued that Ms Higgins was “unconscious” and could not have consented to sex.

She reported the alleged rape to police in the days afterwards but then did not proceed with her complaint because she was afraid she might lose her job, the jury heard.

Mr Lehrmann chose not to give evidence, but in a police interview that was played to the court said what was alleged “simply didn’t happen”.

His lawyer, Steven Whybrow, argued parts of Ms Higgins’ evidence were “totally and utterly inconsistent”.

“We can’t be satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that she knows what happened,” he said.

Ms Higgins was in court to hear the case collapse, but left midway through the judge’s ruling.

Several members of the jury were visibly upset when they were told that they were being discharged.

On Tuesday, they sent a note to the court saying they had so far been unable to reach a unanimous decision, but the judge sent them back soon after to keep deliberating.

“Everyone is disappointed at what happened but it would be inappropriate and irresponsible to say anything at this stage,” Mr Lehrmann’s lawyer told media outside the court.

The parties are yet to make arguments about whether Mr Lehrmann should face a retrial, but Justice McCallum set aside a date in February in the event one does occur.

That will mark two years since Ms Higgins’s rape allegations on national TV sparked a wider reckoning.

There was collective anger at the perceived inadequate response from the government. Her claim reignited – yet again – criticisms of Australian politics as a hostile workplace, especially for women.

It sparked massive protests last year when more than 100,000 people gathered in towns and cities across Australia to voice their fury about sexism, misogyny and abuse in society.

It also led to a damning review which found that a third of employees in federal parliament had been sexually harassed.

There had been concerns that Mr Lehrmann might not get a fair trial because of the publicity, but an earlier application for it to be thrown out was rejected.

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