High tension in court as defendants awaited verdict in rape trial

The judge warned she would clear the court if there was any reaction from members of the public when verdicts were returned.

It was a difficult task and people must "have respect", the court was told.

And, so as the eight person jury panel filed in one by one, you could have heard a pin drop should one have fallen in the packed courtroom.

Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding, Blane McIlroy and Rory Harrison sat side by side in the glass dock in the middle of court 12, just as they had done for the duration of the nine-week trial.

As always, they were impeccably turned out. Jackson in a grey suit and open neck dark shirt while his co-defendants were dressed in dark suits, white shirts and ties.

In contrast to their appearance on arrival at Belfast Crown Court on Wednesday morning, they seemed relaxed, flashing brief smiles and offering a quick word to each other before they heard their fate.

The deep intakes of breath were perhaps the only indicator their confident demeanour could be concealing nerves.

Blane McIlroy rubbed his eyes and sipped on water and at one point Olding appeared to whisper: "You alright?"

Paddy Jackson sat head tilted to one side, staring ahead, while Rory Harrison was also impassive.

The men were told to stand and as each rose to their feet they clasped their hands in front of their bodies - as if lined up for pre-kick-off anthem rendition.

The time was almost 12.30pm and it seemed everyone in court was holding their breath.

A few seconds later and the tense atmosphere had lifted.

The jury had reached unanimous decisions on all six charges after three hours and 45 minutes' deliberation, the court was told.

The men barely flinched as not guilty verdicts were returned for each individual and each charge separately.

Minutes later, the scenes outside the court room were of jubilation.

The defendants, their friends and families, who had attended every day of the trial and listened to every piece of graphic evidence, wept with relief and hugged each other.

Others made excited phone calls to relay the not guilty verdicts to those unable to get a place in the 100-seat capacity public gallery.

Words such as "we did it," "well done", "that's it" and "it's over" echoed through the fourth floor corridor.

Someone even ran and jumped into Blane McIlroy's arms.

Outside the court an enormous crowd had also gathered.

It not only included media from across Ireland and beyond but onlookers and office workers keen for a glimpse of the famous sportsmen during their lunch break.

First to exit was Blane McIlroy who walked out, head held high.

He was accompanied by legal representatives and his mother, who had walked him in and out of court every day of the trial.

He said nothing to the media.

Jackson was next, and he walked out to a small ripple of applause from some members of the public.

There was a media scrum as reporters and cameramen jostled for position to hear him thank the judge.

"I'd just like to thank the judge and the jury for giving me a fair trial, my parents for being here every day, as well as my brother and sisters," he said.

Jackson also thanked his barristers and solicitors, but added: "Out of respect for my employers I've nothing further to comment."

Meanwhile, an impassioned speech was made by his defence solicitor Joe McVeigh.

"Paddy leaves court for the last time today as he entered almost 10 weeks ago - an innocent man," the solicitor said.

"The prosecution made much of the perceived privileged position provided by virtue of Paddy being an international rugby player.

"We say that it was this very status as a famous sportsman that drove the decision to prosecute in the first place."

The high profile trial is among the longest rape trials ever heard in Belfast.

It generated an unprecedented level of coverage on both sides of the border and a massive amount of debate on social media, particularly
on Twitter.

Mr McVeigh hit out against the "intrusive infection" that social media had on the legal process.

"There's no reason to believe that this problem will not worsen," he added. "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.

"As for Paddy, his main priority now is to return to work, that means getting back on the rugby pitch, and representing his province and his country."

Rory Harrison left the court as he had arrived every day -- alone and without a word. His family, who had supported him in court, walked out a short time later.

Stuart Olding walked out accompanied by his solicitor.

Paul Dougan read out a statement written by Olding, in which he expressed regret about the events of June 2016.

"I want to acknowledge publicly that though I committed no criminal offence on the evening of June 28 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."

Meanwhile, discharging the jury and excusing them from jury service for life, Judge Smyth said the case had been among the most difficult heard in the city.

She said: "May I take the opportunity to thank you for the enormous commitment that you have given to us.

"I have no doubt that it has been at great personal cost to all of you.

"This has probably been the most difficult trial that any jury in Northern Ireland has ever been asked to adjudicate on."

The high-profile trial opened on January 30, and every day the rugby players and their supporters walked through the bank of photographers in rain, hail and snow.

As they left for the last time, as free men, the sun finally shone.

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