A judge on Thursday dismissed a jury in the high-profile trial of a former government adviser charged with raping a colleague in the Australian parliament building after a juror brought a research paper on sexual assault to the jury room.
Chief Justice Lucy McCallum, Chief Justice of the Australian Capital Territory, said a juror had investigated the case and brought it to the chamber where a panel of 12 had made their verdict.
“I have received evidence that at least one juror had access to investigative material that was not provided to the jury during the trial,” McCallum said.
“There is no question that a juror’s behavior is such as to abort the trial,” she added.
A court official had discovered the investigative paper in the room late Wednesday. The jury had to make its verdict solely on the evidence presented during the 12-day trial.
Former ministerial adviser Bruce Lehrmann, 27, had pleaded not guilty in a minister’s office to the Australian Capital Territory Supreme Court in March 2019 on a charge of unauthorized sexual intercourse in a minister’s office. He faces a possible 12-year prison term if convicted.
His alleged victim, then his 24-year-old junior colleague Brittany Higgins, responded to the news of a mistrial with a devastating attack on the justice system.
“I chose to pronounce it. Speak out against rape, speak out against injustice, speak out and share my experiences with others. I told the truth no matter how uncomfortable or unflattering in court,” a tearful Higgins told reporters outside the court.
“Today’s outcome does not change that truth. But I’ve spoken out, I’ve never quite understood how asymmetric (the) criminal justice system (is), but now I do,” she added.
The Associated Press does not usually identify alleged victims of sexual assault, but Higgins has chosen to identify himself in the media.
She told how she was questioned on the witness stand for days and was forced to hand over her phones, messages, photos and data to Lehrmann’s lawyers. Lehrmann exercised his right not to testify. His lawyers claimed that there had been no sexual contact.
“My life has been scrutinized publicly, open for the world to see. He wasn’t,” Higgins added.
Lehrmann declined to speak to the media when he left the court. He has not been held in custody since he was charged and will remain on bail until February 20, when a new trial can begin.
Prosecutors have yet to decide whether a new trial will go ahead.
Lehrmann’s attorney Steven Whybrow told reporters out of court, “We are disappointed with what happened.”
The jury has deliberated on its verdict since the trial ended last Wednesday.
The jurors sent a message to the judge on Tuesday saying they could not reach a unanimous verdict, but she said they must continue to deliberate.
Higgins has become a household name in Australia since she hit the media last year with her allegations that the former government had treated her rape allegation as a political issue and lacked support for her.
The case sparked nationwide protests as an example of a toxic work culture in Australian politics that has been criticized as hostile to women.
She resigned from her government job in January last year and then made a statement to police about the then two-year-old incident.
Then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison responded in February last year by apologizing to Higgins in parliament for the “horrible things” she had endured in the building.
“The place that should have been a place of safety and contribution turned out to be a nightmare,” Morrison said.
McCallum revealed on Wednesday that defense attorneys focused on this apology when they filed in March to delay or stop the charges on the grounds that Lehrmann was unable to get a fair trial.
Morrison’s apology was “particularly blatant” and had elevated Higgins “to a status she shouldn’t have,” the lawyers argued, adding that she “walks into court with an aura around her.”
McCallum rejected the application in March and published her reasons for that decision on Wednesday.