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Prosecutors drop charge in Australia’s Parliament House rape case

Former political staffer Bruce Lehrmann was accused of raping a colleague inside Australia's Parliament House, a charge that prosecutors have now dropped. (Mick Tsikas/AAP/AP)

The case against a political staffer who allegedly raped a colleague inside Australia’s Parliament House has been ended by prosecutors intent on protecting his accuser’s safety and mental health.

Bruce Lehrmann went to trial in October on the charge of raping Brittany Higgins in March 2019 in a federal senator’s office in the nation’s capital, Canberra. A mistrial due to juror misconduct was declared when outside material related to the case was found in the deliberation room.

Lehrmann had pleaded not guilty to the one charge of sexual intercourse without consent. His retrial, which had been scheduled for next year, will no longer proceed.

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

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

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

“Ms. Higgins has faced a level of personal attack that I’ve not seen in over 20 years of doing this work,” he 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.”

A friend of Higgins told the Age newspaper on Friday that she was hospitalized. The attorney for Lehrmann did not respond to a request for comment.

Higgins testified this fall that she and Lehrmann, who were then in their mid-20s and working for the governing conservative party, had been out drinking on a Friday night as part of a larger group and agreed to share a taxi when they left the bar about 1.45 a.m. Lehrmann had the driver take them to Parliament House, where they went to their boss’s office. She said she passed out there and woke to him raping her.

Lehrmann told police that both had gone back to finish work 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 shortly after 4 a.m. A defense lawyer said she might have undressed herself and passed out, making up the allegation to save face.

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

A review of federal Parliament’s staff found that a third of respondents said they had been sexually harassed on the job. About the same number said they had been bullied.

Women march for justice in Australia as rape claims hit highest levels of office

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

Lawmakers in the territory where the trial took place plan to debate changes needed in statutes to allow courtroom recordings as evidence in sexual assault retrials, the Canberra Times reported last month. Doing so would mean complainants wouldn’t have to testify more than once.

“Our laws must be reformed so that survivors of assault can find justice, without finding themselves on trial,” federal independent lawmaker Allegra Spender posted on Twitter after the charge against Lehrmann was dropped.

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