Brittany Higgins’ parents have given emotional testimony at the Bruce Lehrmann defamation trial about how their “vivacious” daughter dramatically changed and became “withdrawn” and unrecognisable after she was allegedly raped.
The court also heard from two federal agents who took Higgins’ statement on 1 April 2019 who said Higgins gave a detailed account of the alleged assault, including that it was “vaginal penile sex” and there was the “smell of sex” when she woke up.
Lehrmann brought the defamation case against Network Ten and journalist Lisa Wilkinson over an interview with Higgins on Ten’s The Project in which she alleged she was raped by a Liberal staffer in Parliament House in March 2019. Network Ten and Wilkinson are defending the case.
Her mother, Kelly Higgins, said her daughter had travelled, studied and volunteered and had achieved so much. Higgins said she was “loving life” before she went to Canberra in late 2018.
But in late March, early April of 2019, after initially enjoying her work in Parliament House, she became “extremely detached” and her communication with her mother dropped off.
“Brittany became very withdrawn,” Kelly said.
“She wasn’t communicating as frequently. She seemed extremely detached. She didn’t have joy and enthusiasm when you communicated with her.”
Her father, Matthew Higgins, said he barely recognised his daughter when he visited her in Canberra shortly after the alleged rape, although Brittany did not disclose what had happened to him at that time.
“She was absolutely quiet, quiet and withdrawn,” Matthew said. “So I couldn’t recognise my daughter. She was like, usually she’s like really positive, happy, vivacious sort of a young girl always trying to do stuff and was smart.”
Kelly said Brittany eventually disclosed the alleged rape to her at a restaurant on the Gold Coast in November 2019. Her first question to her daughter was “why nobody called an ambulance and got her to a hospital”.
“She said she didn’t want to talk about it any more,” Kelly said. “I of course, I had just been told a mother’s worst nightmare.”
Lehrmann has denied raping Higgins and pleaded not guilty to a charge of sexual intercourse without consent. His criminal trial was abandoned due to juror misconduct and the second did not proceed due to prosecutors’ fears for Higgins’ mental health.
Steven Whybrow SC for Bruce Lehrmann suggested during cross examination that the conversation in which Brittany Higgins disclosed her rape “did not occur”. Kelly said that was incorrect.
Matthew said he did not watch The Project when it went to air on 15 February 2015. He said he remembers the police visiting him to take a statement but can’t remember what day it was.
He was visibly emotional and he struggled to remember dates, prompting Justice Michael Lee to intervene in the cross-examination by Whybrow. Lee sent Matthew outside and asked Whybrow to curtail the cross-examination.
“Mr Higgins is one, pretty emotional and secondly, I don’t think he’s holding himself out as a particularly precise historian of events,” Lee said.
Before he intervened, Matthew had responded in a frustrated tone to a suggestion by Whybrow that he wasn’t telling him the truth about how often he saw Brittany in Canberra.
The federal agents gave their accounts of taking Higgins’ statement in the basement of Parliament House, at times reading from their contemporaneous notes.
Australian federal police officer Rebecca Cleaves told the court Higgins said in the interview that she remembered waking up on the ministerial suite on the couch.
“And literally Bruce was on top of her participating in non-consensual sex,” Cleaves said.
“And she remembers saying ‘no’ or ‘don’t’. And the next thing [she] remembers after that is waking up in the morning alone.”
Cleaves said Higgins woke up with the “smell of sex” and “vomit stains all down dress”.
Cleaves also told the court Lehrmann apparently lied to his boss, chief of staff Fiona Brown, about having a new job at Asio.
Cleaves said after she interviewed Higgins, she spoke to Brown about the termination of Lehrmann from Reynolds’ office.
Brown told her that Lehrmann had been terminated and handed his pass in but had refused to come back into the office when directed.
Cleaves said: “She said he was getting a job with Asio and name-dropped. So the chief of staff [Brown] called Asio and spoke to a person whom she knew. Confirmed he was not going to work there and … this person had never heard of him.”
Federal agent Katie Thelning said in her testimony that Higgins told them the alleged assault was non-consensual “vaginal penile sex”.
She said Higgins told her she felt “grossed out” as she said she could smell what had happened. She said she told her that she went into the minister’s office and was sick, Thelning told the court.
A former defence liaison officer who worked in Senator Reynolds’ office, Christopher Payne, gave evidence that Higgins gave him an “extremely confronting” answer when he asked her if he could ask her a “very direct question”.
Payne said: “And she said, ‘Sure, go for it’. And I remember that those were the exact words [that] were said: ‘go for it’. And I said ‘did he rape you?’ And her response was ‘I could not have consented it would have been like fucking a log’.”
Payne said her words were “extremely confronting”. “So they stuck with me,” Payne said.
The trial continues on Tuesday.
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