Prosecutors have dropped charges against Bruce Lehrmann for the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins, saying a retrial would pose an “unnacceptable risk” to her health.
The ACT director of public prosecutions, Shane Drumgold, announced the shock move on Friday morning, exercising his discretion to discontinue proceedings.
Lehrmann had maintained his innocence to allegations that he raped Higgins, a colleague and fellow political staffer, in the office of the then-defence industry minister, Linda Reynolds, in March 2019. He pleaded not guilty to one charge of sexual intercourse without consent, denying that any sexual activity had occurred.
Drumgold said he still believed there was a reasonable prospect of conviction at a second trial.
But he said he had to consider the public interest in proceeding, given a retrial would pose a “significant and unacceptable risk to the life of the complainant”.
“I’ve recently received compelling evidence from two independent medical experts that the ongoing trauma associated with this prosecution represents a significant and unacceptable risk to the life of the complainant,” he said. “The evidence makes it clear that this is not limited to the harm of giving evidence in the witness box.
“While the pursuit of justice is essential for my office and for the community in general, the safety of a complainant in a sexual assault matter must be paramount.”
Higgins’ close friend Emma Webster said Higgins was in hospital and receiving treatment and support.
In a statement, Webster described the past two years as “difficult and unrelenting”.
“While it’s disappointing the trial has ended this way, Brittany’s health and safety must always come first,” she said.
“Brittany is extremely grateful for all the support she has received, particularly from our mental health care workers.”
The decision means the retrial of Lehrmann, expected in February, will not proceed. Guardian Australia has approached his legal team for comment.
Drumgold paid tribute to Higgins, saying she had withstood attacks of a kind he had never seen during his lengthy career in the law.
“During the investigation and trial, as a sexual assault complainant, Ms Higgins has faced a level of personal attack that I have 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.”
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The first trial heard from 29 witnesses over almost three weeks, and the jury took another week for deliberations. It was abandoned after a juror brought in outside research papers on sexual assault.
The chance discovery of one research paper led the ACT chief justice, Lucy McCallum, to declare a mistrial. She had repeatedly told jurors not to bring in outside research.
The first research paper discovered by sheriff’s officers attempted to quantify the prevalence of false complaints of sexual assault. It also included an analysis of the reasons for false complaints and why some are sceptical of true complaints. McCallum said the paper could have been used to influence jurors either way in the case.
A retrial had been planned for February. The ACT typically uses video recordings of a complainant’s first evidence and cross-examination in any retrial. But it had emerged that a legal loophole prevented that in the Lehrmann case, because Higgins had given evidence in-person, and not by remote video link.
The ACT attorney general, Shane Rattenbury, has since moved to reform the law to allow for video recordings to be used in such circumstances. The bill was to be debated in the first sitting of the ACT legislative assembly next year.