Bruce Lehrmann inquiry: Senior officer held serious concerns about perceptions of collusion with defence

A senior ACT police officer has told an inquiry into the prosecution of Bruce Lehrmann for rape that she held serious concerns that there were perceptions her officers were colluding with lawyers for Lehrmann’s defence.

AFP acting assistant commissioner, Joanne Cameron, was a commander in charge of ACT policing investigations when Lehrmann faced trial last year over allegations he raped his former colleague Brittany Higgins in parliament house in 2019.

Lehrmann’s trial was abandoned because of juror misconduct, and there are no findings against him. He pleaded not guilty and denies the allegations. A planned retrial was discontinued over serious concerns for Higgins’s health.

On Friday, Cameron told the inquiry into the justice system’s handling of the case she had been concerned a number of interactions between investigating police and defence counsel were feeding “conspiratorial ideas” of collusion.

The inquiry has previously heard senior police investigating Higgins’s allegations against Lehrmann were in contact with defence counsel by phone and in person in the lead-up to, and during, the trial.

In the witness box on Friday, Cameron told the inquiry she grew increasingly concerned about “these perceptions that were being built that these sorts of interactions were somehow an attempt to collude with defence”.

The director of public prosecutions who prosecuted Lehrmann, Shane Drumgold, raised concerns about the police officers who were potential witnesses in the trial being directly contacted by lawyers for Lehrmann’s defence.

Drumgold told the inquiry: “I had never previously seen engagement between police and the defence team as I had in this case.” In earlier correspondence with the ACT’s chief of police, Drumgold said he felt investigators were “clearly aligned with the successful defence of this matter”.

After Lehrmann’s defence counsel directly contacted an investigating officer by phone during the trial, Cameron raised the situation with the chief of police for the ACT, calling it “inappropriate”. She also ordered her subordinate officers not to communicate with the defence.

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She wrote in an email to the DPP: “I hold a view that such approaches are at the very least inappropriate from the perspective of effecting (sic) the prosecution of the matter and an attempt to influence the giving of any future evidence by my members, and even the sheer fact of the perception generated by the fact that defence counsel and police are communication, is not acceptable.

“I have advised my staff that all potential, currently nominated or otherwise, witnesses avoid any communication with defence counsel prior to the giving of their evidence in court or, preferably, until the conclusion of the matter at court generally.”

In an email to police officers, Cameron said the “perceptions” that contact with defence counsel created was “probably the most concerning factor here, given the history and sensitivity of this case”.

“But really it stands true on any matter at court. It is never really appropriate for this to occur – in my opinion.”

On Friday, Cameron told the inquiry she was anxious to combat a public perception that police were aligned with Lehrmann’s defence.

“I was trying to counter [the perception], through the avoidance of interactions between police officers and the defence, [so] that these perceptions and these conspiratorial ideas would not be fed.”

AFP commander Michael Chew, giving evidence on Friday afternoon, said he believed the case against Lehrmann was “very weak” but investigators charged Lehrmann acting on the advice of the DPP.

“My personal belief was there was insufficient evidence, or a very weak case to go forward for prosecution,” he said.

However, under cross-examination, Chew agreed that the evidence gathered by investigators met the statutory threshold for prosecution.

The inquiry, before former Queensland solicitor general Walter Sofronoff, continues.