Man stands trial for rape in Australian Parliament House

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — A government staffer described herself “as drunk as she’d ever been in her life” on the night she alleges she was raped inside the Australian Parliament House, a prosecutor told a jury on Tuesday.

In his opening address, prosecutor Shane Drumgold told the jury the level of Brittany Higgins’ intoxication was important because it was relevant to her ability to consent to having sex.

Fellow staffer Bruce Lehrmann, 27, has pleaded not guilty to sexual intercourse without consent and faces a potential maximum sentence of 12 years in prison if convicted .

His trial began in the Australian Capital Territory Supreme Court on Tuesday in the national capital, Canberra, overseen by Chief Justice Lucy McCallum.

Drumgold outlined the prosecution’s version of events and the evidence the jury will hear throughout the case which is expected to run for up to six weeks and hear evidence from three former ministers.

He said on Friday, March 22, 2019, Lehrmann and Higgins, then 24, had been out drinking with colleagues at a Canberra bar, then a nightclub before leaving in a taxi together in the early hours of Saturday morning.

Higgins thought she was on her way home but Lehrmann said he needed to stop by Parliament House to collect some work, Drumgold said.

Lehrmann told guards via the intercom at a building entrance he worked for Defense Industry Minister Linda Reynolds and the pair were picking up documents.

Drumgold told the court the guards who saw the pair into the building observed they were affected by alcohol.

Higgins alleges after they both entered Reynolds’ office, she fell asleep on a couch and woke up to Lehrmann having sex with her.

After Higgins “said ‘no’ half a dozen times,” Lehrmann left the building in an Uber and she fell back asleep, Drumgold said.

Drumgold said she woke up alone in the office later that morning when a guard checked on her. In text messages after the alleged rape, Drumgold said Higgins told a friend she had been “barely lucid” at the time.

“If he (Lehrmann) thought it was O.K. why would he have just left me there?” Higgins asked in the message.

Defense lawyer Steven Whybrow said U.S. writer Mark Twain’s quote “never let the truth get in the way of a good story,” rang true in the case.

Whybrow said there were “massive holes” in the version of events Higgins gave to police. He said while violence against women was an “underreported and under-prosecuted scourge on our society,” the story Higgins had told was not true.

“This verdict in no way affects the conversations and the focus that is being turned to these issues. We have all known for some time these things are real,” he said.

Before the trial began, the judge reminded jurors of the importance of impartiality.

McCallum described the case as a “cause celebre” due to its high profile.

“It is a fundamental requirement that a person accused of a serious criminal offence be tried by an impartial jury,” McCallum told potential jurors.

“I’m asking you to consider your own state of mind (with) the issues that will arise in this case and honestly consider if you can be impartial … and give a true verdict according to the evidence,” she added.

A panel of 16 jurors including four reserves were selected for a trial that is expected to run for between four and six weeks. There are 10 men and six women jurors.

Higgins’ allegation and complaints of a lack of support from within the former conservative government ranks provoked nationwide protests about the treatment of women in politics and prompted former Prime Minister Scott Morrison to offer an apology.

Reynolds has been named as a witness in the trial, along with former ministers Michaelia Cash and Steven Ciobo.

The Associated Press does not usually identify alleged victims of sexual assault, but Higgins has chosen to identify herself in the media.

Morrison’s government lost power at May elections after nine years in office.

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