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Jury discharged in trial over alleged rape at Australia’s Parliament

Bruce Lehrmann arrives at the Supreme Court of the Australian Capital Territory in Canberra earlier in October. Lehrmann is charged with raping fellow staffer Brittany Higgins at an office inside the Parliament building in 2019. (Mick Tsikas/AAP Image/AP)
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MELBOURNE, Australia — The trial of a political staffer accused of raping a colleague inside a lawmaker’s office in Australia’s Parliament building has ended with the jury discharged and a retrial scheduled for February.

Bruce Lehrmann, who was born in Texas, is alleged to have assaulted Brittany Higgins in the early hours of March 23, 2019, on a couch in a senator’s office after a night of drinking in Australia’s capital, Canberra.

A 12-day trial ended without a verdict in the Supreme Court of the Australian Capital Territory on Thursday. Chief Justice Lucy McCallum learned a juror had accessed an academic paper about false complaints that was not part of admitted evidence. The jury had deliberated for five days without unanimous agreement.

The trial ensnared two sitting senators for the conservative Liberal Party, Higgins’ former bosses, Sens. Linda Reynolds and Michaelia Cash, who were called to testify. Reynolds had been criticized locally for her response to the rape allegation, which Higgins claims took place in Reynolds’s office.

Higgins made the allegation through two media outlets in February 2021. She made a police complaint around the same time and resigned from her job with the Liberal Party. She believed the party, for whom she worked as a media adviser, was more concerned about the possible political impact of her claim than on her welfare, she said.

“It was very clear I couldn’t proceed [with a police complaint] and maintain my career,” she told the court this month.

The story was among several separate sexual misconduct claims relating to federal politics that caused an outcry in Australia in 2019.

Higgins addressed protesters at Canberra’s iteration of nationwide ‘March4Justice’ rallies for women’s safety, attended by 110,000 according to organizers, the month after she went public.

Shortly after Higgins’s allegation was publicized, stories by the Australian Broadcasting Corp. contained the allegation that then-Attorney General Christian Porter, while at university in 1988, had raped a woman who had subsequently committed suicide. Porter left politics last year and adamantly denies the claim.

Amid a media storm, then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison instructed Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins to conduct a review of the culture for workers at the federal Parliament. The review found one-third of respondents had been sexually harassed and 37 percent had been bullied.

The conservative coalition’s perceived problem with women was frequently attributed as a significant factor in its election loss in May. It received only 30 percent of votes from women, compared with 37 percent from men, according to an exit poll taken by the Australia Institute think tank. The same poll found two-thirds of voters thought the coalition’s treatment of women in politics was one of its biggest weaknesses.

Higgins told police that the night she was raped she shared a taxi with Lehrmann, both of them then staffers for the Liberal Party in their mid-20s, after a Friday night out in Canberra with a larger group, with the intention to go straight home, the jury heard this month.

She was “as drunk as I’d ever been in my life,” she told the court.

Instead, Higgins said, Lehrmann instructed the taxi to go to the Parliament building, where they both worked. She went with him inside and passed out on a couch in the office of her boss, Reynolds, and woke to Lehrmann raping her, she alleged to the court.

A security guard testified she had walked into the office later to find Higgins naked and rolling into the fetal position. Lehrmann had left in a hurry about 20 minutes after the pair were let into the Parliament building, the security guard said.

Lehrmann’s employment was terminated the following month because of two security breaches, including accessing the building late at night.

In Lehrman’s version of events told to police, he and Higgins went to Parliament together at about 1:45 a.m. because he had to pick up his house keys and she also had a task, the court heard. They went into separate rooms and he left alone without seeing her again, he said.

“Obviously I reject that allegation because it simply didn’t happen,” he told police of the sexual assault claim.

Higgins told the court that Reynolds, the senator, knew about the sexual assault allegation. She felt frozen out by her boss because of the “problems I had caused” through her disclosure, she said — which Reynolds denied.

Reynolds knew Higgins was found in a state of undress after arriving late at night with Lehrmann, but no further details, the senator told the court.

“At the time, I truly believed that I and my chief of staff were doing everything we could to support that young woman who I had responsibility for,” she said on the Senate floor last year.

When the senator heard about an incident, she called a meeting with Higgins to talk in the same room in which she was allegedly found naked — Reynolds’s office. The location “seemed really off” and made her “quite panicked,” Higgins told the court. Reynolds apologized.

Reynolds privately called Higgins a “lying cow,” something that was leaked to the Australian newspaper last March, after which Higgins initiated a defamation claim. Reynolds said the comment was in reference to Higgins’s statement that she wasn’t adequately supported. She apologized and settled out of court. Higgins said she donated the settlement to an organization that supports victims of sexual violence.