Two rugby players cleared of rape following nine-week trial

Ireland rugby internationals Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding have been acquitted of rape after a nine-week trial.

The pair had always denied raping the same woman at a house in south Belfast in June 2016.

Jackson, 26, from Oakleigh Park in Belfast, was also found not guilty of sexual assault.

The jury of eight men and three women at Belfast Crown Court returned its unanimous verdict after deliberating for a total of three hours and 45 minutes.

Not guilty verdicts were also returned for two other men charged in connection with the alleged attack.

Blane McIlroy, 26, who was accused of exposure, and Rory Harrison, 25, who was accused of perverting the course of justice and withholding information, were also acquitted.

Solicitor Joe McVeigh said Jackson was leaving the court as he had entered it almost 10 weeks ago – “an innocent man”.

The lawyer said the decision to prosecute Jackson was driven by his status as “a famous sportsman”, and that Jackson’s main priority now is to return to the rugby pitch to represent his province and country.

In a statement read by his solicitor Paul Dougan, Olding said: “I want to acknowledge publicly that though I committed no criminal offence on the evening of the 28th of June 2016, I regret deeply the events of that evening.

“I want to acknowledge that the complainant came to court and gave evidence about her perception of those events.

“I am sorry for the hurt that was caused to the complainant. It was never my intention to cause any upset to anyone on that night.

“I don’t agree with her perception of events, and I maintain that everything that happened that evening was consensual.”

Jackson’s solicitor Mr McVeigh also referred to “vile commentary” on social media, which he said “polluted the sphere of public discourse and raised real concerns about the integrity of the trial process”.

He said: “To that end we want to thank the learned trial Judge Patricia Smyth for her management of this trial in the face of an onslaught of toxic contempt, particularly on Twitter.

“Several days of this trial were lost due to problems thrown up by the intrusive infection of the process by social media.

“All the lawyers have been distracted by having to man the barriers against the flood of misinformed, misconceived and malicious content on the internet, particularly during the last phase of this trial, and worryingly even at the hands of public servants who should have known better.

“There’s no reason to believe that this problem will not worsen. To that end, we invite the office of the Lord Chief Justice, the Attorney General, and the Public Prosecution Service, to enter into fresh discussions with us to look at more robust mechanisms that can strike an effective balance between everyone’s rights, but that properly secure the integrity of our criminal justice system.”

Marianne O’Kane, assistant director and head of the Public Prosecution Service’s serious crime unit, said it was “ultimately right” that the case had been brought to trial.

Ms O’Kane paid tribute to the “courage and determination of the complainant and her family”.

She added that she hoped media coverage, which she described as “unprecedented”, would help the public better understand the criminal justice system.

She urged victims of crime to come forward on the assurance “that you will be treated with sensitivity and respect throughout”.

There were emotional scenes outside the courtroom as family and friends of the accused hugged and kissed each other.

All four defendants consistently denied all of the charges against them.

The incident was alleged to have happened during an after-party at Jackson’s home in south Belfast on June 28, 2016.

The woman told the court she was attacked after going upstairs to retrieve a clutch bag, having decided to leave the party because the “mood changed”.

The woman claimed Jackson had followed her into the bedroom, pushed her onto the bed pulled down her trousers and pants, then penetrated her vagina with his penis from behind.

She further alleged Stuart Olding walked into the room and forced her to perform oral sex.

Paddy Jackson consistently denied having intercourse with the woman. Stuart Olding said the oral sex had been consensual.

The court sat on weekdays, but in an unusual step to make up lost time, a special Saturday sitting was held.

On week two, jurors were taken by bus to see the layout of Paddy Jackson’s home at Oakleigh Park.

All other proceedings have taken place inside courtroom number 12, one of the biggest in the Laganside complex.

The 100-seat public gallery has been packed to capacity on almost all of the 40-plus days.

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2018, All Rights Reserved. Picture (c) Niall Carson / PA Wire.