Australian Judge Orders New Trial in Rape Case That Shook Capital

by -123 Views

MELBOURNE, Australia — The high-profile trial of a former parliamentary staffer accused of raping a colleague in Australia’s Parliament House was halted on Thursday after the court discovered that a juror had brought a research article on sexual assault cases into the jury room.

Justice Lucy McCallum dismissed the jury, which had been deliberating for five days, saying that the juror had contravened her strict instructions to rely only on evidence presented in court. She tentatively scheduled a new trial for February.

The defendant, Bruce Lehrmann, 27, is charged with sexually assaulting a fellow parliamentary staffer, Brittany Higgins, in 2019. Ms. Higgins, 28, alleged that Mr. Lehrmann had raped her in the defense minister’s office after a night of drinking with colleagues. Mr. Lehrmann has consistently denied the accusation.

The trial of Mr. Lehrmann, more than a year and a half later, has cast unusual scrutiny on Australia’s often secretive halls of power, with a parade of senators, staff members and parliamentary security guards called to the witness stand.

Ms. Higgins took the stand for several days, describing in detail her recollection of being raped and, later, of being discouraged from going to the police by members of the government that employed her. Tapes were played of Mr. Lehrmann’s police interview, in which he said there had been no sexual activity between the two of them.

As she dismissed the jury in Canberra, the capital, on Thursday, Justice McCallum said that sheriff’s officers had accidentally discovered the research paper while tidying up the jury room. She said it was possible that the paper would not have influenced the jury’s decision, “but that is not a risk I can take.”

She said the paper was “a discussion about the unhelpfulness of attempting to quantify the prevalence of false complaints” of sexual assault, “and a deeper analysis of the reason for both false complaints and skepticism in the face of true complaints.” It could be used to argue for either side in the case, she said.

In a country where sexual assault trials are usually shrouded in secrecy, the case is unusual in that both the plaintiff and defendant have been publicly identified. It has been covered by dozens of journalists providing live updates, putting a rare spotlight on the process, including the grueling cross-examination practices to which accusers in such cases are often subjected, experts said.

The extraordinary publicity the case received has presented issues in a country where the courts are sensitive to outside influences on jurors. Justice McCallum had warned the jury on at least a dozen occasions that they could not seek out media reports or outside information about the trial, and must solely rely on what was presented to them in court.

Ms. Higgins testified that she had blacked out and woken up to find herself on the couch in the defense minister’s private suite, with Mr. Lehrmann on top of her. She told Mr. Lehrmann no several times, she said in a police recording that was played for the court. “It wasn’t acknowledged,” she said. “He just kept going.”

She sat through days of intense cross-examination by defense lawyers, who suggested that she did not actually remember what had happened and accused her of making up the accusation to protect her job. She denied that each time, sometimes defiantly and sometimes in tears.

Mr. Lehrmann did not testify. In a taped interview with the police, he said there had been no sexual contact between them and that he had never entered the defense minister’s private suite. When the two arrived at the office, he told the police, he went to his desk and Ms. Higgins went to the private suite, after which “I didn’t see her again.”

He said he spent about 45 minutes preparing some documents for the defense minister, picked up what he needed for the weekend and summoned an Uber.

Outside the court on Thursday, an emotional Ms. Higgins said, “I told the truth, no matter how uncomfortable or unflattering, to the court. Today’s outcome does not change that truth.”

She highlighted the differing levels of scrutiny she and Mr. Lehrmann faced during the trial. “My life has been publicly scrutinized, open for the world to see,” she said. “His was not.”

“This is the reality of how complainants in sexual cases are treated,” she added. “Their lives are torn apart, their friends and families are called to the witness stand, and the accused has the legal right to say absolutely nothing.”

Steven Whybrow, Mr. Lehrmann’s lawyer, said that the outcome was disappointing, but that it would be “inappropriate and irresponsible” to say anything else while the matter was still before the court.


No More Posts Available.

No more pages to load.