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Prosecutor drops Australian Parliament House rape charge

Former Liberal Party staffer Bruce Lehrmann (AAP Image via AP)
Former Liberal Party staffer Bruce Lehrmann (AAP Image via AP)

A rape charge against a former government adviser has been dropped because of the life-threatening trauma a trial would cause the woman allegedly assaulted in a Parliament House office.

Former government staffer Brittany Higgins alleges a more senior colleague, Bruce Lehrmann, 27, raped her in a minister’s office after a night of heavy drinking in March 2019.

The Associated Press does not usually identify alleged victims of sexual assault, but Ms Higgins has chosen to identify herself in the media.

Director of Public Prosecutions Shane Drumgold said he dropped the case based on medical evidence that a trial could cost Ms Higgins’ life.

“I’ve recently received compelling evidence from two independent medical experts that the ongoing trauma associated with this prosecution presents a significant and unacceptable risk to the life of the complainant,” Mr Drumgold told reporters.

Ms Higgins was in a hospital receiving the care and support she needed, her friend Emma Webster said in a statement to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

While the decision to drop the case was disappointing, Ms Higgins’ heath came first, the statement said.

Mr Drumgold said there was a “reasonable prospect” that a trial would end in a conviction.

“In light of the compelling independent medical opinion and balancing all factors, I’ve made the difficult decision that it is no longer in the public interest to pursue a prosecution at the risk of a complainant’s life,” he said.

Mr Lehrmann’s lawyers did not immediately comment.

Mr Lehrmann had pleaded not guilty to a charge of sexual intercourse without consent and his trial in the Australian Capital Territory Supreme Court ended without a verdict in October.

A judge discharged the jury while they were deliberating their verdict after a juror had been found to be researching academic publications on sexual assault, which amounted to juror misbehaviour.

The jury was supposed to reach its verdict solely on the evidence presented during the 12-day trial.

Mr Lehrmann was to be retried in February 2023. He faced a potential 12-year prison sentence if convicted.

Complainants in sexual assault cases in the Australian Capital Territory are entitled to testify remotely via video rather than face their alleged assailants in court, but Ms Higgins chose to attend court in person to testify.

Mr Lehrmann did not give evidence, but claimed through his lawyers that he had no sexual contact with Higgins.

A book deal Ms Higgins had signed was offered as a motivation for her to lie about being raped.

After the mistrial in October, Ms Higgins gave a press conference in which she attacked the justice system.

“I chose to speak up. Speak up against rape, speak up against injustice, to speak up and share my experiences with others. I told the truth no matter how uncomfortable or unflattering to the court,” she told reporters outside court.

“Today’s outcome does not change that truth. But I did speak up, I never fully understood how asymmetrical (the) criminal justice system (is), but I do now,” she added.

She recounted how she was questioned for days in the witness box and forced to surrender her telephones, messages, photos and data to Mr Lehrmann’s lawyers. Mr Lehrmann exercised his right not to give evidence.

“My life has been publicly scrutinised, open for the world to see. His was not,” Ms Higgins said.

Mr Drumgold on Friday praised her bravery.

“During the investigation and trial, as a sexual assault complainant Ms. Higgins has faced a level of personal attack that I’ve not seen in over 20 years of doing this work,” Mr Drumgold said.

“She’s done so with bravery, grace and dignity and it is my hope that this will now stop and Ms Higgins will be allowed to heal,” he added.

Ms Higgins has become a household name in Australia since she went to the media last year with her accusations that the former government had treated her rape allegation, when she was 24, as a political problem and failed to adequately support her.

The case sparked nationwide protests as an example of a toxic work culture in Australian politics that is criticised as hostile toward women.

She quit her government job in January 2021 and then made a statement to police about the then-two-year-old alleged rape.

Then-prime minister Scott Morrison responded in February 2021 by apologising to Ms Higgins in Parliament for the “terrible things” that she had endured in the building.