A former high-ranking officer within ACT Policing said she feared investigators speaking with Bruce Lehrmann’s lawyers during the former Coalition staffer’s rape trial would fuel rumours of police conspiring with defence.
Australian Federal Police acting assistant commissioner Joanne Cameron, who was deputy chief police officer in the territory at the time of the trial, told an inquiry into the abandoned case that while it was legal for defence lawyers to speak to prosecution witnesses, she wanted to ward off mounting criticism of police during the case.
“Top of mind is the perception that police were somehow colluding,” Cameron told the inquiry examining the conduct of authorities involved in the trial.
“I held the concern that, at the very least, whenever these sorts of interactions were occurring, if they become known to others, there would be judgments made, not even knowing what the conversations were about … others would make a judgment unfairly against my officers.”
Lehrmann pleaded not guilty to raping Higgins in the parliamentary office of their then-boss, Liberal senator Linda Reynolds, on March 23, 2019, and has always maintained his innocence. The trial was aborted on October 27 due to juror misconduct and there have been no findings against Lehrmann.
After ACT Director of Public Prosecutions Shane Drumgold, SC, announced he was discontinuing the case against Lehrmann on December 2, the ACT government launched a review into the handling of the case, which was partly spurred by a public breakdown in the relationship between the police and the DPP.
Drumgold said in a written statement to the trial he was concerned police were trying to undermine the trial after seeing them speaking together at court, however defence barrister Steven Whybrow said the interactions were appropriate as there was “no property in a witness”.
Cameron said she was moved to email both Drumgold and her subordinates about her concerns – with which ACT Chief Police Officer Neil Gaughan agreed – after Detective Superintendent Scott Moller, who was leading the team investigating Lehrmann, phoned her to say he had been contacted by Whybrow during the trial.
She said there was a “general tone” against police building in the months before the trial, and suggestions that case material leaked before the trial had come from police.
“It was that sort of an environment I was trying to counter,” she said.
The inquiry into authorities’ handling of the case has heard nearly the entire investigative team believed there was not enough evidence to charge Lehrmann with raping Higgins, contributing to a rift between prosecutors and police.
Earlier, Senior Constable Emma Frizzell, a member of the team involved in the investigation, told the inquiry she was wrong about the threshold for laying charges against a suspect.
“After watching these proceedings for the last week and a half, I would concede I don’t have it right,” Frizzell said.
In her written statement to the inquiry, the officer said she believed a person could only be charged with an offence if the evidence supported a reasonable prospect of conviction.
She said advice from the ACT prosecutors’ office that only a reasonable suspicion of an offence having been committed was required to lay a charge had “complicated” things in recent times.
Asked during the hearing whether police were still confused about the relevant test to charge a suspect, Frizzell replied: “Yes, I would say that there is.”
Drumgold has accused the police of using the wrong test to charge people with sexual assault, of undercharging across sexual assault matters in the ACT, and of holding outdated views regarding the behaviour of victims making allegations of sexual assault.
The inquiry continues.
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