Warning: This story contains graphic content
Brittany Higgins was wearing a white dress the night she alleges she was raped, and that simple fact shouldn’t mean much, but in a rape trial, particularly one as notorious as the trial of former Coalition staffer Bruce Lehrmann, it does.
Lehrmann denies the sexual assault charge, and denies he had sex with Higgins at all.
Brittany Higgins pushed back in cross-examination against the suggestion she is lying.Credit:SMH
The white dress was only one aspect of evidence on which Higgins was heavily questioned by Lehrmann’s defence barrister Steven Whybrow this week, in tense exchanges which ended with Higgins pushing back strongly on what he was suggesting – that she was lying.
“Nothing you are saying right now is true whatsoever, and it’s deeply insulting,” she told him firmly.
Forming a major part of the trial’s evidence is the CCTV footage from the evening of the alleged incident, which was played in court.
You can’t miss Higgins as she walks into The Dock bar on the Kingston foreshore at around 7.30pm on the night of March 22, 2019, wearing the white cocktail dress.
She has a sure step, and she stands tall in her black, strappy heels.
She looks like any other young woman in any bar, anywhere in the country, on any Friday night, enjoying her right to enjoy herself.
The footage, which was played to the jury in Lehrmann’s trial this week, shows her sitting down with a group of other 20-somethings, work colleagues mostly. Both young staffers worked for defence industries minister Linda Reynolds.
At about 8.30pm, her alleged rapist joins the group too. She had invited him.
They chat and laugh. He buys her a few of the eleven drinks she will consume over the next four and a half hours.
Watching the footage, as it was played in evidence in courtroom SC3 of the ACT Supreme Court this week, there was a sickening sense of watching fate unfold.
There was no pressing pause on the video – the events of the night would march on, leading to both accused and complainant passing through three levels of security at Parliament House at about 1.30am the next morning.
Higgins wept on the witness stand when she watched the footage of her 24-year-old self passing through security, and being unable to put her shoes back on after she had removed them for the metal detector.
Eventually, the young woman on the CCTV gives up, and walks on, barefoot.
A security guard leads the pair up to the ministerial suite, over the plush blue carpet of level one of the ministerial wing, and swipes them in.
Both of their lives would be changed irretrievably after that point.
There is no CCTV footage from inside the suite, only the competing narratives of complainant and accused, as to what happened there.
Higgins sat on a window ledge for a while. She has no memory of how she got to the couch in the minister’s office, the court heard this week, but the next memory she has is of waking up to her own rape, she said.
Bruce Lehrmann has pleaded not guilty to sexually assaulting Brittany Higgins.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
“Pretty much as soon as I came to, I was crying, because I couldn’t get up,” she told police in a recorded interview played to the jury on the trial’s second day.
“His outside knee had pinned my leg, pushing me open … I was kind of pushed up, and he was on top of me.
“He was hovering above me, he wasn’t looking at me, he was looking over me.”
In the police interview, one of the investigators asked how she felt. “Trapped,” she replied. “Not human.”
After he finished, Higgins said, he got up and looked at her.
“There was a strange moment of just eye contact,” she told police. “I didn’t say anything. He didn’t say anything. He just left the room.”
Here the CCTV footage picks up again.
As it was played in court, it shows Lehrmann leaving the building, about 2.30am.
He waits outside parliament for his Uber and hops in.
Later that morning, Higgins was roused from her sleep by a security guard calling into the office, where she had passed out on the couch.
Higgins spent another few hours in the ministerial suite, she told police, seeking refuge in a windowless back office.
She found a box of Roses chocolates, ate it, threw up and cried.
Eventually, she composed herself and CCTV footage captures her leaving the building at about 10am on Saturday, March 23.
It’s a brilliant Canberra day – the well-tended back lawns of Parliament House are a strong green against the clear autumn sky.
On the following Monday, both young staffers were back at work.
Higgins said she interacted with her alleged rapist in a professional way. The court heard they exchanged work emails, and he bought her a coffee at one point.
“I remember I was trying to overcompensate to make it normal,” Higgins said.
“I was broadly nice to him still … I was still dealing with the shock of it. I just wanted everything to be nice and normal.”
Brittany Higgins worked on the staff of former Coalition defence minister Linda Reynolds at the time of the alleged rape.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
It wasn’t, though, and wouldn’t be again, for either of them.
On the Tuesday after the alleged incident, Lehrmann was sacked summarily for his role in the security breach of their after-hours visit to parliament.
He had previously committed a separate security breach; this was his second strike.
Higgins was treated more sympathetically (although soon, she said, she would begin to feel great political pressure not to go to police, if she wanted to keep her job).
She disclosed her alleged assault to her Chief of Staff, Fiona Brown, she said.
”I said assault, but I didn’t use the word rape,” she told the court on Wednesday. “It was a hard thing for me to say and verbalise … it still is. It makes it real.“
At home, Higgins scrunched up the white dress, put it in a bag under her bed and left it there, she told the court.
“I kept it under my bed in a plastic bag for a good six months, untouched, uncleaned,” she told Crown Prosecutor Shane Drumgold on Thursday.
“I wasn’t sure because of all the party political stuff how I could proceed [with a police complaint] or if I could proceed with it,” Higgins said.
The white dress was “like this weird anchor for me”.
“Once it became clear I couldn’t proceed and keep my job,” she continued, “I very symbolically washed the dress and I wore it once more, and I have never worn it since.”
But in his cross-examination of Higgins, Lehrmann’s defence barrister Steve Whybrow led Higgins into admitting an inconsistency over the dress.
Higgins said she must have been wrong about the timeline – she had actually worn the dress less than two months after the alleged assault, to a Liberal Party dinner in Perth during the 2019 election campaign.
“May I suggest to you,” Whybrow said, “that you weren’t wrong, you were not giving true and correct evidence when you said that.”
“I made a mistake,” Higgins replied.
“I wasn’t trying to do it, I was just wrong.”
There were other inconsistencies in Higgins’ account.
Whybrow led Higgins into admitting she had given incorrect evidence about the timing of a panic attack she said she had in the week following the alleged incident.
Brittany Higgins attended a farewell lunch for the former minister for trade, tourism and investment Steven Ciobo.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
She said she had spent hours in a bathroom dealing with her anxiety on Thursday, April 4.
Actually, she had been at a farewell lunch for her old boss, former MP Steven Ciobo, that day.
Whybrow also showed, via Higgins’ text messages, that she had given incorrect evidence about the reason for her father’s visit to Canberra the weekend following the alleged assault.
In his opening remarks on Tuesday, Whybrow rejected Higgins’ story completely.
“Mark Twain once said, ‘Never let the truth get in the way of a good story’,” he told the jury. “This case is the epitome of that phrase.”
The Australian public, Whybrow said, “has been sold a pup with this story”.
Referring to the zeitgeist of airing stories of sexual misconduct and institutional cover-ups of abuse, he said that “this was a story whose time had come”.
“The genie was out of the bottle and this case was going ahead, irrespective of the real issues.”
Justice Lucy McCallum resided over the trial with calm compassion, pulling Whybrow up, for example, when he continued to refer to Higgins’ “story”, when Higgins had already corrected him by saying, “It’s my experience”.
Brittany Higgins (centre) arrives at the ACT Supreme Court in Canberra on Friday, flanked by her legal team and support worker.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
The jury of six women and four men appeared attentive throughout the evidence.
When Higgins arrived in court on the second day of evidence, the atmosphere in the room changed.
She was well-dressed and held her head high, accompanied to the building by a tight group of supporters, including her partner David Sharaz, her lawyer Leon Zwier and her support worker Heidi Yates.
Higgins wept when she saw some CCTV footage of herself, and during some of her verbal evidence. In the witness box, she sat mere metres away from the jury who will decide her fate, and kept her eyes ahead as they filed out past her at the end of each day’s sitting.
Her accused rapist sat diagonally across from her, on the far side of the courtroom, never looking at her, and never looking at the TV screen when her recorded police interview was played to the court.
He was well-dressed in a navy suit and tie, with the RM Williams boots that Higgins had referred to as part of the Liberal staffer uniform. He had a smart gold watch on his wrist and kept constant notes in his Moleskine notebook, head down.
Between them, the Crown Prosecution and the defence legal teams argued their conflicting accounts, with occasional interruptions from Justice McCallum, when she thought evidence was repetitive, or when she repeatedly reminded Whybrow of the high bar set by the Evidence Act’s provision regarding credibility evidence – that the evidence must “substantially” affect the assessment of the witness’s credibility.
With the jury, she was gentle, reminding them she was there to guide and support them.
As the week drew to a close, defence barrister Whybrow continued in his cross-examination of Higgins. At one point during their tense back-and-forth, he said to her: “Let’s not be cute here.”
She grew visibly angry as she was questioned closely about her text messages, what she disclosed to her boss about the alleged incident, and what she says were white lies she told to get her ex-boyfriend (to whom she had disclosed her alleged assault) off her back about going to a GP.
At one point Higgins grew so agitated she laid her hands on the table in front of her and pushed herself backwards in exasperation.
Eventually, Whybrow came to his point – she was lying about her account, he suggested.
“The reason you didn’t go to a doctor was because you hadn’t had sex with anyone on Friday night, consensual or otherwise,” he said to Higgins.
“That’s not true. That’s not true,” Higgins replied, obviously provoked.
He repeated the suggestion and she said: “I completely disagree with everything you’re saying.”
“I don’t know if you’ve ever gone through a trauma before but confronting it with professionals is a very hard thing to do,” she told the man.
In his opening remarks, Whybrow, who has a background in military law, had told the jury that the issue in this case, “when it is boiled down”, was “the credibility and reliability of Ms Higgins”.
The trial will continue for another five weeks.
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