The chief prosecutor in the trial of Bruce Lehrmann complained that police officers engaged in “a very clear campaign to pressure” him not to prosecute the alleged rape of Brittany Higgins, saying there was “inappropriate interference” and he felt investigators “clearly aligned with the successful defence of this matter” during the trial.
In a letter sent to the Australian Capital Territory’s police chief in early November, the director of public prosecutions, Shane Drumgold SC, makes a series of extraordinary allegations about police conduct during the politically charged, high-profile case, which suggest a toxic relationship between elements of the two agencies during the investigation and trial.
Drumgold’s letter, obtained by the Guardian through freedom of information laws, alleges Higgins herself felt bullied by investigators. The letter calls for a public inquiry to examine “both political and police conduct” in the case.
Lehrmann pleaded not guilty to one count of sexual intercourse without consent at a trial that collapsed in October due to juror misconduct. He has consistently maintained his innocence and denies any sexual activity took place between himself and Higgins.
Drumgold sent the letter on 1 November, just after the collapse of the trial, telling the territory’s chief police officer, Neil Gaughan, that he held “serious concerns” over “what I perceive as some quite clear investigator interference in the criminal justice process”.
He alleged that “key AFP members have had a strong desire for this matter not to proceed to charge”.
“Then when charges resulted, the [investigators’] interests have clearly aligned with the successful defence of this matter rather than its prosecution,” he wrote to Gaughan.
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“As a corollary however, there has now been over one-and-a-half years of consistent and inappropriate interference by investigators, firstly directed towards my independence with a very clear campaign to pressure me to agree with the investigators’ desire not to charge, then during the conduct of this trial itself, and finally attempting to influence any decision on a retrial.”
Drumgold wrote that he was raising the issue now “to protect the integrity of the pending trial”.
Asked about the letter, a spokesperson for ACT Policing confirmed on Thursday that an “inquiry was underway in relation to this matter”.
“As such it would be inappropriate to provide any further comment in relation to any aspects surrounding this matter including commentary about the letter from the ACT DPP,” the spokesperson said.
Among other things, Drumgold told Gaughan he wanted a public inquiry into the police handling of the case, accused investigators of bullying Higgins, and of direct contact with Lehrmann’s defence team during the trial.
He alleged that, during his first meeting with police about the case in March 2021, investigators had used selective evidence and “loaded characterisations” in an attempt to persuade him to agree with their position, which was that charges should not be laid.
In subsequent meetings in April and June last year, Drumgold alleged that investigators continued to use mischaracterisations, cherrypicked evidence, and inaccurate select summaries of evidence to suggest weaknesses in the case and convince him to support their view that it should not proceed.
During their final meeting in June, police presented him with a brief of evidence and a letter that purported to be a request for his advice on the case. Drumgold said the letter contained “further mischaracterisations and other inaccurate select summaries of evidence” and was used to advance a list of reasons why he should agree with the police position.
“This document contained blatant misrepresentations of evidence such as suggestions that key evidence was deliberately deleted by the complainant, a proposition not supported by the tested evidence at trial, as well as a list of evidence that is clearly inadmissible in trial,” he alleged. “The letter concludes with a further overt attempt to apply pressure to the conclusion of my resulting advice.”
Drumgold disagreed with their position. Police then directed that charges be laid.
Drumgold told the police chief he wanted a public inquiry into the matter. He said such an inquiry should examine “both political and police conduct”.
“I am of the view that at the conclusion of the trial, there should be a public enquiry into both political and police conduct in this matter,” he said.
Drumgold also requested that police cease any involvement in the then-looming retrial, save for their roles as witnesses.
“This includes no further contact with defence or other prosecution witnesses, no contact with the complainant, and prohibiting attendance at court beyond formal evidence if required,” he wrote.
The letter also reveals Drumgold’s concerns that Higgins had felt pressured and bullied by police and had to be insulated from contact with them. He complained that this affected the conduct of the trial.
“The complainant has long expressed concerns that during the investigation stage, she also felt bullied by police, who she felt were pressuring her into discontinuing the complaint,” Drumgold wrote.
“This is an observation corroborated by at least two of her support people. Although this is a matter for her to raise directly with the AFP, it is relevant for our purposes as it impacted the trial process, as she presented as highly anxious in dealing with either the police or by extension, the DPP.”
Higgins then began communicating with police via the victims of crime commissioner, Heidi Yates, according to the letter.
Police then sought to make Yates a witness by asking her “highly unusual” questions in a formal interview, Drumgold alleged.
“On 2 October 2021, I received a letter from yourself, stating that because she was now a witness, the AFP could no longer communicate through her,” he said. “This was a highly unusual step as the complainant was also a witness, yet police still had extensive contact with her until she requested all contact be made through the Victim of Crime Commissioner.”
During the trial, Drumgold complained that police were regularly meeting with Lehrmann’s defence team during breaks in proceedings, and that the defence team had been asking police directly to conduct further investigations into some issues.
Drumgold said prosecutors discovered this when they received an unsolicited email from one of the investigators on 13 October 2022, outlining some additional points to their evidence.
He said that another investigator followed up the email the next day, stating: “I have also attached the email … sent yesterday regarding the … Medical Centre enquiries. The bosses just want to confirm it has been seen and passed onto defence.”
According to Drumgold about 16 minutes later, the sender attempted to recall the email and replace the words “The bosses just want to confirm” with “I’m just checking”.
The letter does not suggest any impropriety from Lehrmann’s defence team.
On Friday, weeks after sending the letter, Drumgold decided against seeking a retrial of Lehrmann, citing concerns about Higgins’ mental health.
In the absence of any conviction, Lehrmann continues to be entitled to the presumption of innocence.
The letter does appear to show the extent to which the relationship between elements of the DPP and ACT Policing, the AFP’s community policing arm in Canberra, have deteriorated due to the case.
A spokesperson for ACT Policing said it was aware that the letter had been released to the Guardian through FOI.
It said it could not comment further, but said:
“ACT Policing will continue to work cooperatively with the Office of DPP to ensure the safety and security of the Canberra community.”
On Saturday, police material was leaked and published in the Australian showing that police held concerns about Higgins’ credibility and her mental health. The article suggested that Drumgold was determined to take the case to trial and made reference to “political interference”, though did not suggest where the interference was coming from.
After the documents were published, Drumgold expressed serious concerns about the leak, which he said was potentially unlawful. It is currently unclear who leaked the material.
The DPP has since faced public criticism and calls to resign, but has been backed by the ACT attorney-general, Shane Rattenbury.
Higgins has also previously complained about police conduct. She requested an internal investigation after sensitive evidence – including her counselling notes – were forwarded to the defence.
She has not yet received the results of that investigation.
Drumgold declined to comment.
• In Australia, support is available at Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, Lifeline on 13 11 14, and at MensLine on 1300 789 978. In the UK, the charity Mind is available on 0300 123 3393 and Childline on 0800 1111. In the US, Mental Health America is available on 800-273-8255