Prosecutors in Australia have ended high-profile legal action against a former government staffer accused of raping a colleague inside Parliament House, saying a retrial would pose a “significant and unacceptable risk” to the woman’s life.
The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) director of public prosecutions, Shane Drumgold, told reporters Friday that the risk to Brittany Higgins’ mental health must be put ahead of the need for a resolution in the case.
Higgins, a former federal government staffer, alleges she was raped by former colleague Bruce Lehrmann in the office of Australia’s then defense minister in 2019.
Lehrmann pleaded not guilty to sexual intercourse without consent and maintains he has never engaged in intercourse with Higgins, consensual or otherwise.
The charge has now been dropped.
Drumgold said he had received “compelling evidence” from two independent medical experts that the “ongoing trauma associated with this prosecution presents a significant and unacceptable risk” to Higgins’ life.
“The evidence makes it clear that this is not limited to the harm of giving evidence in a witness box,” he said.
The case went to trial in Canberra in October, but the judge ordered a retrial due to jury misconduct. The retrial had been set to take place in February 2023.
However, Drumgold told reporters Friday that a retrial was no longer in the public interest.
“This has left me no option but to file a notice declining to proceed with the retrial of this matter, which I have done this morning. This brings the prosecution to an end,” Drumgold said.
Higgins is currently in hospital, according to a statement from her friend Emma Webster on Friday.
“The last couple of years have been difficult and unrelenting,” Webster stated. “Brittany is extremely grateful for all the support she has received, particularly from our mental health care workers.”
In the original trial, the judge dismissed the 12-member jury deliberating the rape verdict after it was revealed a juror had researched the allegations and taken that information into the jury room.
Higgins alleged Lehrmann had raped her in 2019 after the two shared a taxi to Parliament House following a night out with colleagues in the capital.
Higgins approached police soon after the alleged incident but didn’t make a formal complaint, citing fears that taking the matter further could damage her career.
But in 2021, she spoke to media and the case made headlines, not only because of the location of the alleged attack but due to Higgins’ claims that she had been discouraged from coming forward to avoid political fallout before the 2019 election.
Lehrmann was arrested and charged last year but the trial was delayed, partly due to fears that publicity around the case meant he wouldn’t get a fair hearing.