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Top prosecutor takes leave as Lehrmann inquiry continues

ACT Director of Public Prosecutions Shane Drumgold has stood aside and taken leave during an ongoing inquiry into the handling of rape accusations against former Liberal staffer Bruce Lehrmann.

A Federal Court judge says Brittany Higgins was raped by Bruce Lehrmann: AAP/Mick Tsikas. Bruce Lehrmann photo: AAP/Dean Lewins

A Federal Court judge says Brittany Higgins was raped by Bruce Lehrmann: AAP/Mick Tsikas. Bruce Lehrmann photo: AAP/Dean Lewins

The ACT government executive has appointed Anthony Williamson, who was the deputy DPP, to act in the role of the territory’s top prosecutor until June 13.

An ACT government spokeswoman later said Drumgold had asked to take leave.

ACT Attorney-General Shane Rattenbury said Drumgold would be on leave for four weeks and expected him to return in mid-June.

“In terms of the overall office of the director of public prosecutions, it’s business as usual,” he said.

Drumgold has come under pressure following questioning at the independent inquiry into how the ACT justice system handled rape allegations made against Lehrmann by another ex-Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins.

Drumgold last week told the inquiry his team had “closed ranks” against police because they believed officers had lost objectivity in the matter. He has served as DPP since January 2019 and worked at the DPP since 2002.

The charges against Lehrmann, who had denied the allegations, were dropped last year after the trial was aborted due to juror misconduct.

Earlier this week, Lehrmann’s defence lawyer told the inquiry he was concerned that Drumgold had aligned himself with  Higgins rather than remaining objective.

Steven Whybrow said he was concerned by a statement by Drumgold when he announced he would drop the charges against Lehrmann due to fears about the impact a second trial could have on Higgins’ mental health.

In the statement, Drumgold said he still believed there was a “reasonable prospect of conviction”.

“I felt like it was a pejorative stab at Mr Lehrmann, unnecessarily,” Whybrow said on Tuesday.

“I was concerned that he had aligned himself with Ms Higgins.”

But the prosecutor’s lawyer Mark Tedeschi argued his client was entitled to say it because of the high-profile nature of the case, to explain his decision not to proceed with a retrial and ensure the community had faith in the justice system.

Whybrow disagreed and said those words did not need to be included in the statement.

“It’s as valid as his view as to what the jury numbers (to convict) were. In my view, at that point it was moot,” he said.

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Earlier, Whybrow said he got the impression during the trial that the prosecutor was “hostile” towards police.

He said this was due to a combination of things including body language, comments about police skill sets in front of the jury and an observation there was no real communication between the prosecutor and police during the trial.

Whybrow did not think senior police officers resented the prosecutor in the case, but some were not happy with elements of the trial.

“I don’t know about the word ‘resentment’ but (ACT Police detective inspector Marcus Boorman) was unhappy with various aspects of the trial,” he said.

“I don’t mean that (police) were loving and kind … my impression was that it was Mr Drumgold who was hostile towards the police.”

The defence lawyer also indicated to police someone other than Drumgold should decide whether there should be a retrial.

Whybrow said the first time he became aware of suggestions territory police were “undercharging” when it came to sexual assault matters was while reading inquiry submissions.

Yet Mr Tedeschi said he would submit to the inquiry that police had a “bizarre” approach to whether Mr Lehrmann should have been charged in the first place.

“We want to prove that it’s true that (police) did have this attitude to sex cases generally and that (the Lehrmann case) was a classic example of it,” he said.

“Had it not been for all the publicity, had it not been that the alleged offence occurred in Parliament House, this matter would have been dealt with like the other … matters that have been, in effect, just ignored by the police.”

The inquiry, led by former Queensland solicitor-general Walter Sofronoff, is examining the actions of ACT police, prosecutors and a victim support service during the investigation and trial.

It was established after accusations by police and prosecutors about each other’s conduct during the case.

-with AAP

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