Prosecutor Drops Australia Parliament Rape Case, Citing Toll on Accuser
Prosecutors have dropped a rape charge against a former parliamentary staff member in a case that has gripped Australia for months, a decision they called necessary to protect the plaintiff’s health after she had endured rounds of grueling questioning in an initial mistrial.
The plaintiff, Brittany Higgins, 28, had accused a colleague, Bruce Lehrmann, 27, of raping her inside Australia’s Parliament building in 2019. Her accusation, which prompted street protests by women across the country, brought rare scrutiny to both Australia’s insular halls of power and the way its criminal justice system treats complainants in sexual assault cases.
On Friday, the lead prosecutor, Shane Drumgold, announced that he would not seek a retrial after the first trial had been halted in late October because of juror misconduct.
While he said he still believed he could have secured a conviction, the continuing mental trauma that Ms. Higgins faced from the proceedings presented a “significant and unacceptable risk” to her life, he said. “Ms. Higgins has faced a level of personal attack I’ve not seen in over 20 years of doing this work,” Mr. Drumgold said.
Emma Webster, a friend of Ms. Higgins, released a statement on her behalf saying that Ms. Higgins was currently in a hospital “receiving the treatment and support she needs.”
“The last couple of years have been difficult and unrelenting,” the statement said.
In a country where sexual assault trials are usually shrouded in secrecy, the high-profile proceeding put on display the intense personal scrutiny to which accusers in such cases are often subjected, experts said. Ms. Higgins underwent days of fierce cross-examination from defense lawyers who accused her of making up her accusation, even as she said she was certain that Mr. Lehrmann “was physically violating me.”
After the trial was abandoned, Ms. Higgins gave a speech condemning the way she had been treated by the legal system. “I never fully understood how asymmetrical the criminal justice system is, but I do now,” she said, adding that she had felt as if she were the one on trial.
“This is the reality of how complainants in sexual assault cases are treated,” she said. “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.”
Ms. Higgins first went public with her accusation last year, when she appeared on prime-time television to say that she had been sexually assaulted in the defense minister’s office by a colleague after a night of drinking. Her accusation set off a wave of anger at what many female lawmakers have called a toxic and misogynistic culture in Australia’s Parliament.
After the trial began this October, Ms. Higgins described 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.
Soon after entering the defense minister’s office with Mr. Lehrmann, Ms. Higgins said, she blacked out. She later woke up on the couch in the minister’s private suite to find Mr. Lehrmann sexually assaulting her, she said. In a taped interview with the police that was played for the court, she said she had told Mr. Lehrmann no several times. “It wasn’t acknowledged,” she said. “He just kept going.”
Mr. Lehrmann said that there had been no sexual contact and that he had never entered the private suite. When the two arrived at the defense minister’s 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, picked up what he needed for the weekend and called an Uber. Mr. Lehrmann did not testify; his recorded police interview was played in court.
In its cross-examination, the defense suggested to Ms. Higgins a half-dozen times that she had made up the accusation against Mr. Lehrmann out of concern for her job as a parliamentary staff member, after Mr. Lehrmann had been fired for what the defense minister’s office called a “security breach.”
Ms. Higgins admitted that her memory of the night was patchy. The lead defense lawyer, Steven Whybrow, argued that she did not actually remember being sexually assaulted.
She was questioned dozens of times about what the defense described as inconsistencies in her account. One of Mr. Lehrman’s lawyers asked why she had not gone to a doctor soon after the night in question, despite telling others that she would; why she had deleted text messages from her phone; and why she had talked to the news media before sitting down for a formal police interview.
Ms. Higgins repeatedly rejected the proposition that she had invented her accusation, sometimes weeping. “I’m not a monster; I would never do something like that,” she said on one occasion. On another, she said: “He was in my body. I know.”
Julia Quilter, a law professor at the University of Wollongong, said the defense’s tactics invoked many tropes common to sexual assault cases, like the myth of the “true” victim who immediately seeks a medical exam and goes to the police, and who recounts events with perfect consistency in every retelling.
The outcome “draws attention to the fact that these types of matters take incredible tolls on all complainants,” Professor Quilter said. “And it may well discourage people from coming forward and reporting sexual assaults if they think this is what’s going to happen to them.”
Sarah Maddison, a political science professor at the University of Melbourne, called the decision not to seek a retrial a “reminder that the Australian legal system is hostile to women.” She said it would encourage those who have downplayed accusations that sexism and harassment are widespread in the capital, Canberra.
“It will be business as usual in Canberra,” Professor Maddison said. “The ‘boys’ club’ can carry on knowing they won’t be held accountable by our legal system.”
The prosecution of Mr. Lehrmann was in some ways also a trial of Australia’s political system, with a parade of senators, staff members and parliamentary security guards giving evidence.
The trial raised questions about how the conservative Liberal Party had treated Ms. Higgins after her disclosure. Mr. Drumgold, the prosecutor, grilled Liberal senators and staff members about when they had become aware of the accusation and whether they had discouraged Ms. Higgins from filing a police report.
Ms. Higgins said that she was made to feel she would lose her job if she did so, and that the Liberal Party had treated the issue as a political problem with a federal election looming. That claim was vehemently denied by Linda Reynolds, the former defense secretary and Ms. Higgins’s onetime boss, in her testimony.
Another Liberal senator for whom Ms. Higgins had worked, Michaelia Cash, denied that it could have been politically embarrassing or harmful for the party if the allegation became public. “I just don’t understand a political connection to this,” she said.