Rugby star cleared of rape thanks judge and jury for fair trial
Ireland rugby internationals Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding have been acquitted of rape.
They were found not guilty after a nine week trial at Belfast Crown Court.
Speaking afterwards Jackson, who was also acquitted of sexual assault, thanked the judge and jury for giving him a fair trial.
In a statement read by his solicitor, team mate Stuart Olding expressed regret about the events of the night in question, even though he had not committed any criminal offence.
Both men stated a desire to get back playing rugby for Ireland and Ulster as soon as possible.
The high profile trial was one of the longest ever heard in Belfast and generated an unprecedented level of attention across Ireland.
Police and prosecutors have defended their handling of the case in the wake of scathing criticism from Jackson's legal team who suggested the decision to press ahead was driven by his celebrity status.
According to the PSNI the complainant was upset and disappointed with the outcome of the trial but did not regret reporting the matter.
The rugby players had consistently denied raping the same woman during an after party at Jackson's home in the early hours of June 28, 2016.
The jury of eight men and three women returned its unanimous verdict after deliberating for a total of three hours and 45 minutes.
Two other men charged in connection with the alleged attack were also found not guilty.
Blane McIlroy, 26, was acquitted of exposure while Rory Harrison, 25, was found not guilty of perverting the course of justice and withholding information.
In brief comments outside the court, Jackson, who was flanked by family and friends, said: "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."
Jackson also thanked his barristers and solicitors.
But he added: "Out of respect for my employers I've nothing further to comment."
Defence 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 had been 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
Meanwhile, 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."
Meanwhile, 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".
Detective Chief Superintendent Paula Hilman, head of the public protection branch at the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), said: "This case has provoked much comment and debate, while we respect today's verdict it should not deter victims of serious sexual crime from contacting police.
"As police officers our role is to keep people safe. Anyone can be the victim of sexual crime regardless of age, background, status or gender.
"There is no room in society for tolerance of sexual crime. We understand how difficult it can be for someone to report a rape, but let me assure you today that if you choose to speak to police, you will be listened to, respected, treated sensitively, have your report thoroughly investigated, and you will be signposted to support services such as Nexus and Victim Support among others."
Detective Chief Inspector Zoe McKee, senior investigating officer in the case, said: "There are no winners here. This case was unprecedented.
"It was a case that has never been heard before - the complexity, the volume, the scale - and I think we cannot compare like for like in terms of cases, so I would encourage everybody who wants to make a report to police to come forward in the knowledge that you will be treated sensitively and with respect and your allegation in the court will be taken very seriously."
There were emotional scenes outside the courtroom as family and friends of the accused hugged and kissed each other.
All four defendants always denied all of the charges against them.
The woman told the court she was attacked in a bedroom at Jackson's house in June 2016.
She alleged Jackson had followed her, pushed her onto the bed pulled down her trousers and raped her.
She further alleged Stuart Olding walked into the room and forced her to perform oral sex.
Her evidence was heard over the course of eight separate days. She was screened from the court and her testimony was relayed on a large screen.
All four defendants gave evidence on their own behalf.
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 took 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 of the trial.
Thanking the 11-person jury panel and discharging them for life, Judge Patricia Smyth said: "This has probably been the most difficult trial that any jury in Northern Ireland has ever been asked to adjudicate on."