MELBOURNE, Australia – The high-profile criminal trial of a man accused of sexually abusing a government official in the Australian Parliament building has been postponed after a judge ruled a journalist’s public comments could harm jurors.
The government official, Brittany Higgins, 27, shook the political establishment last year when she said in a prime-time television interview that a colleague attacked her in the defense secretary’s office while she was sleeping after a night of drinking. Her allegations sparked protests across Australia by women demanding changes in a male-dominated political culture in which sexual misconduct has long been tolerated — a bill that experts say contributed to the Conservative government’s impeachment in a federal election last month.
In August, police charged Bruce Lehrmann, then 26, with a count of unauthorized sexual intercourse in the Higgins case. Mr Lehrmann has pleaded not guilty and has maintained that no sexual activity took place during his 2019 meeting with Ms Higgins, who resigned from her government job before making her allegations public.
The case has sparked intense media scrutiny and public comment, including an apology from the then Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, for “the terrible things that have happened”. All the attention has complicated Mr Lehrmann’s lawsuit, as Australian courts are sensitive to anything outside of the legal process that could influence jurors or potential jurors.
Under Australia’s strict criminal prosecution laws, once a person has been charged, journalists are not allowed to publish information that could influence the opinion of jurors, such as details of previous criminal convictions. For the same reason, judges often issue gag orders that temporarily restrict the publication of information related to criminal proceedings. Some legal experts have said such orders reflect a misguided lack of confidence in jurors’ ability to reach a fair conclusion without being influenced by media coverage.
On Tuesday, Lucy McCallum, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the Australian Capital Territory, accepted a request from Mr. Lehrmann agreed to postpone the trial, which was due to begin on Monday, after the journalist’s comments about Ms. Higgins over the weekend.
Lisa Wilkinson, the journalist who conducted the first television interview with Ms. Higgins in 2021, won a prestigious television award on Sunday for the interview. In her acceptance speech, she praised Mrs. Higgins for her courage.
The implied premise of the speech, Chief Justice McCallum said, “was to celebrate the truth of the story she uncovered.” The Chief Justice added that comments about Ms Wilkinson’s award by two radio hosts and on social media blamed Mr Lehrmann. Ms. Wilkinson is expected to appear as a witness in the trial.
“Somewhere in this debate the distinction between an untested accusation and the fact of guilt has been lost,” said the chief justice. She ruled that the trial should be postponed to allow the commentary to fade from memory and not influence the jury. She said that should happen in October.
This was the second time Mr. Lehrmann had tried to postpone the trial over public comment. In March, it applied for a similar order after arguing that Mr Morrison’s apology in parliament “ignored the presumption of innocence”.
Mr Morrison’s office went on to say that the apology broadly related to “the many horrific experiences that Ms Higgins described during her time at Parliament House and the treatment she described while working here.” Chief Justice McCallum declined that request.