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Jury discharged in high-profile Australia rape trial due to juror’s external research

<i>Martin Ollman/Getty Images</i><br/>Brittany Higgins leaves court on October 14
Getty Images
Martin Ollman/Getty Images
Brittany Higgins leaves court on October 14

By Hilary Whiteman, CNN

An Australian judge has dismissed a 12-member jury deliberating a high-profile rape verdict after it was revealed a juror conducted research into the allegations and took that information into the jury room.

Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Chief Justice Lucy McCallum said she had no choice but to abort the trial in light of the juror’s behavior and scheduled a new trial for February 20, 2023.

The jury had spent five days deliberating one charge of sexual intercourse without consent against former Liberal Party staffer Bruce Lehrmann, who is accused of raping his then colleague Brittany Higgins in Parliament House in March, 2019.

Lehrmann has denied the charges and said no sexual intercourse happened — consensual or otherwise.

On Thursday, McCallum told the court that during routine cleaning of the juror’s room, a sheriff’s officer accidentally knocked a juror’s document folder onto the floor.

“When the officer picked up the box to replace it on the chair from which it fell, he noticed part of the title page of an academic research paper, the source of which suggested that the topic of the paper might be sexual assault,” McCallum told the court, according to court documents.

The folder was not opened but staff conducted an online search of the article’s title and found it included analysis of the reasons for false sexual assault complaints and skepticism in the face of true ones.

McCallum told the court she’d given at least 17 warnings to the jury not to undertake any research outside evidence presented to the court. The juror was questioned, but their explanation that the information wasn’t used was taken with skepticism, McCallum said.

The judge noted that in New South Wales seeking information about the accused or any matters relevant to the trial would be an offense, but there is no such law in the nation’s capital, where the case was being tried.

“There is no such offense in the Australian Capital Territory. But it is beyond question that the conduct of the juror is such as to abort the trial,” she said on Thursday.

“It should go without saying that this is an unexpected and unfortunate outcome in this trial,” she added.

The 12-member jury retired to consider the verdict last Wednesday after a trial that began on October 3 and lasted almost three weeks.

The jury told McCallum on Tuesday they were unable to reach a unanimous decision, but she sent them back and asked them to try to work through their differences. They were called back on Thursday and dismissed after the juror’s actions were revealed.

Allegations of a rape inside Parliament House became public in early 2021, though the attack was alleged to have taken place in 2019 after a night out in Canberra. Higgins and Lehrmann were among of a group of staffers who were drinking in bars in the capital, before the two took a taxi to Parliament House where Higgins alleged Lehrmann raped her.

Higgins approached police soon after the alleged incident but didn’t make a formal complaint due to 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 — within Parliament House — but due to Higgins’ claims she was discouraged from coming forward to avoid political fallout before the 2019 election, which Morrison’s Liberal-National Coalition won.

Lehrmann was arrested and charged last year but his trial was delayed, partly due to fears that publicity around the case meant he wouldn’t get a fair hearing.

Morrison’s Coalition government is no longer in power after losing a federal election to the Labor Party in May.

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