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Accused rapist loses defamation trial against Australian  TV network

April 15, 2024
Bruce Lehrmann arrives at the Federal Court in Sydney for the ruling in his defamation case on April 15, 2024
Bruce Lehrmann arrives at the Federal Court in Sydney for the ruling in his defamation case on April 15, 2024

BRISBANE — An accused rapist who had sought to clear his name by suing one of Australia’s largest television networks for defamation has lost his case, with a judge finding that, on the balance of probabilities, he committed the crime.

The verdict brings an end to a complex legal case that has captivated the Australian public since 2021, when former political staffer Brittany Higgins accused her colleague Bruce Lehrmann of raping her inside Parliament House after a night of drinking in 2019.

“Mr Lehrmann raped Miss Higgins,” Justice Michael Lee announced toward the end of a lengthy ruling watched by thousands live on YouTube from the Federal Court in Sydney Monday.

Higgins alleged she was raped by a colleague in an exclusive 2021 television interview with the Network Ten’s “The Project” program, which also raised questions about the official response by ministers and political staffers in the aftermath of the alleged assault.

After the interview aired, Lehrmann was charged with sexual intercourse without consent, but the trial was abandoned in 2022 due to juror misconduct and not revived due to fears about Higgins’ mental health.

Without a trial and a means to clear his name, Lehrmann turned to defamation action, claiming that Network Ten and “The Project” presenter Lisa Wilkinson damaged his reputation by providing enough information in the program for him to be identified, though he was not named.

Network Ten and Wilkinson chose to fight the charge, mounting a truth defense, meaning that to win, the network’s lawyers needed to prove that on the balance of probabilities the rape happened.

Lee found Monday that the two had sex that night, but Higgins was so inebriated she couldn’t possibly have given her consent – and that Lehrmann didn’t seek to obtain it.

“I’m satisfied that it is more likely than not that Mr Lehrmann’s state of mind was such that he was so intent upon gratification to be indifferent to Miss Higgins’ consent,” said Lee.

The ruling delivers a devastating blow to Lehrmann’s attempt to clear his name. As Lee put it in his judgement: “Having escaped the lion’s den, Mr Lehrmann made the mistake of going back for his hat.”

Lehrmann has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and CNN has reached out to his barrister for comment on the negative ruling.

To reach his ruling, Lee examined notes, texts, social media messages, emails, hours of audio as well as closed-circuit television footage around the night in question.

He said he found them to be a “far surer guide” as to what happened that night than the testimony of either Lehrmann or Higgins, who he also found to be an “unsatisfactory witness.”

Lee walked through the night in question, referring to footage from a bar in Canberra that showed the pair among a group of colleagues talking animatedly and sharing rounds. Lehrmann repeatedly denied buying drinks, but Lee said he rejected that as the video plainly showed him pulling out a card and paying for a round.

After meticulously studying the video, Lee concluded that Higgins had consumed 11 drinks, and was seen on camera to have stumbled.

Lee said Lehrmann “knew she was drinking excessively.”

Lee also accepted the evidence of a colleague who saw Lehrmann and Higgins engage in a passionate kiss at the bar, though both Lehrmann and Higgins had denied kissing.

Lee found that the pair went back to Parliament House on Lehrmann’s suggestion to drink whiskey, rejecting Lehrmann’s claims that he went there to fetch his house keys and to take notes on a French submarine deal.

“Common sense suggests that it is obvious there was one dominant thought running through the mind of Mr. Lehmann as he was approaching Parliament House and it had nothing to do with French submarine contracts,” Lee said.

Lee didn’t lay blame at the Parliament House security guards for letting them in – saying it would have been difficult to judge how inebriated Higgins was – and raised the question why Lehrmann left alone to get an Uber home after about 40 minutes.

“One would expect a man with any manners, faced with the possibility he was leaving a young woman late at night and accompanied, who he knew had been drinking would check whether she had gone and if not, how she was getting home safely,” Lee said.

Higgins was found with her dress hitched up when checked on by a security guard, who said she looked at her and rolled into the fetal position. Higgins left Parliament House alone after a couple of hours and didn’t immediately file a case with police.

Videos posted by journalists online Monday showed Lehrmann leaving court and declining to answer multiple questions shouted at him by reporters.

In a statement Network Ten described Monday’s ruling as “a triumph for truth.”

“Justice Lee’s judgment is vindication for the courageous Brittany Higgins who gave a voice to women across the nation,” the statement added.

Outside the court, Network Ten journalist Wilkinson told reporters she sincerely hoped the judgment “gives strength to women around the country.” — CNN


April 15, 2024
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