CANBERRA, AUSTRALIA (AP) – An Australian prosecutor yesterday dropped the rape charge of a woman who was allegedly assaulted in a Parliamentary office after he determined that the stress of the trial would put her life at risk.
Former government staffer Brittany Higgins alleges a more senior colleague, Bruce Lehrmann, raped her in a minister’s office in March 2019.
The Associated Press does not usually identify alleged victims of sexual assault, but Higgins has chosen to identify herself in the media.
Higgins was in a hospital receiving mental health treatment after the past “difficult and unrelenting” two years, her friend Emma Webster said in a media statement.
Director of Public Prosecutions Shane Drumgold said he dropped the case based on medical evidence that a trial could cost 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,” Drumgold told reporters.
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.
Webster said, “While it’s disappointing the trial has ended this way, Brittany’s health and safety must always come first.”
Lehrmann’s lawyers did not immediately comment.
Lehrmann, 27, had pleaded not guilty to a charge of 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 was 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.
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 Higgins chose to attend court in person to testify.
Lehrmann did not give evidence, but claimed through his lawyers that he had no sexual contact with Higgins. A book deal Higgins had signed was offered as motivation for her to lie about being raped.
After the mistrial in October, 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,” a tearful Higgins 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 Lehrmann’s lawyers. Lehrmann exercised his right not to give evidence.