Prosecutors drop rape charges at Australia’s Parliament building

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The case against a political worker who allegedly raped a colleague at Australia’s Parliament House has been dropped by prosecutors concerned about the mental health of his accuser.

Bruce Lehrmann was tried in October on charges of raping Brittany Higgins in March 2019 in a federal senator’s office in the capital, Canberra. A mistrial was declared for jury misconduct when outside material related to the case was found in the deliberation room.

Lehrmann had pleaded not guilty to one charge of having sex without consent. His retrial, scheduled for next year, will not continue.

The chief prosecutor for the Australian Capital Territory explained his decision at a news conference in Canberra on Friday morning. Shane Drumgold said the material he received from two medical experts convinced him that the “trauma” of a retrial would pose “a significant and unacceptable risk to the life of the applicant”.

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Drumgold noted that if Higgins were retried, she would have to testify a second time about her alleged rape. He said there was “a reasonable prospect” of a conviction, but “the safety of the complainant in a sexual assault matter must be of paramount importance”.

“MS. Higgins has faced a level of personal attack that I have not seen in over 20 years of his work,” he said. “She did this with bravery, grace and dignity and I hope that this will now stop and Ms. Higgins can heal.”

A friend of Higgins told Age newspaper on Friday that she was taken to hospital. Lehrmann’s attorney did not respond to a request for comment.

Higgins testified this fall that she and Lehrmann, then in their mid-20s and working for the ruling Conservative party, had been drinking as part of a larger group on a Friday night and agreed to share a taxi when they left the bar At around 1:45 a.m., Lehrmann had the driver take them to the Parliament building, where they drove to their boss’s office. She said she passed out there and woke up when he raped her.

Lehrmann told police they both went back to finish the job and that they entered the building and then went their separate ways. A security guard testified that she saw Higgins alone and naked on the couch in the senator’s office just after 4 a.m.

Higgins went public with the rape allegation in 2021. It was one of several high-profile sexual assault allegations that have intersected with Australian federal politics and sparked protests and widespread media attention this year. The Australian Broadcasting Corp. published a claim that the country’s then-attorney general, Christian Porter, had decades earlier raped a woman who later died by suicide. Porter denied the allegation.

A review of federal parliament staff found that a third of respondents said they had been sexually harassed at work. About the same percentage said they had been bullied.

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The conservative Liberal Party’s treatment of women in politics was seen as a major factor in their loss of the May election.

Lawmakers in the area where the trial took place plan to discuss changes to the laws needed to allow courtroom recordings to be used as evidence in sexual assault retrials, the Canberra Times reported last month. This would mean that complainants would not have to testify more than once.

“Our laws need to be reformed so that survivors of attacks can find justice without going to court,” said Allegraspender, an independent federal lawmaker posted on Twitter after the charges against Lehrmann were dropped.

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