The four accused in the rape trial of Ireland and Ulster players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding have been acquitted of all charges at Laganside Crown Court in Belfast.
Following three hours and 45 minutes of deliberations and eight weeks of evidence, the jury of eight men and three women returned unanimous not guilty verdicts on all counts. There were muted cries of happiness from the public galleries as the verdicts were read out.
Judge Patricia Smyth told all the defendants, except Mr Olding, that they had been acquitted on all charges and were free to leave the dock. Outside court the men embraced their families and legal teams.
Brendan Kelly QC, for Mr Jackson, said there may be an application for his client’s legal costs.
Following the verdicts, the judge told the jury it must deal with the remaining count of vaginal rape against Mr Olding. She described this as a technicality and instructed the jury to enter a not guilty verdict as the prosecution had declined to enter any evidence.
The forewoman then announced a final not guilty verdict and Judge Smyth told Mr Olding he was also free to leave the dock.
She then addressed the jury and thanked them for their “time and the enormous commitment.”
“I know it has been at great personal cost to all of you,” she said.
“This has probably been the most difficult trial that any jury in Northern Ireland has had to sit on.”
Finally she warned them they are forbidden from discussing their deliberations with anyone.
In the afternoon Judge Smyth heard an application from several media organisations, including The Irish Times, seeking permission to report details heard in the case in the absence of the jury.
Judge Smyth said the matter was too important to consider at such short notice and scheduled a full hearing date for April 25th. She ordered the restrictions on reporting remain in place until then.
She did lift a reporting restriction on the fact that Mr Olding applied for and received legal aid during week six of the trial.
Mr Jackson and Mr Olding were accused of raping a 19-year-old Belfast student at the same time in Mr Jackson’s bedroom during a party. Their friend Blane McIlroy was accused of entering the room naked and asking the woman for sex.
A fourth man, Rory Harrison, was accused of covering up the alleged rape by misleading police and withholding information during the investigation.
Mr Jackson consistently denied having intercourse with the woman. Stuart Olding said the oral sex had been consensual.
The court heard that a witness, Dara Florence, walked in and Jackson had asked Ms Florence if she would like to join in. Some time later it was alleged Blane McIlroy arrived at the door naked and holding his penis. It was at this point, the woman said her fight instincts kicked in and she fled.
Mr McIlroy denied exposure and told the court that consensual sexual activity took place with the woman.
The trial heard how Rory Harrison dropped the woman home in a taxi shortly after 5am. He sent her a text saying: “Keep your chin up you wonderful young woman.”
In further communications the next day the woman told Mr Harrison that what had happened “was not consensual”. He said he did not believe it. He was initially treated as a witness but was later charged with perverting the course of justice and withholding information. He was found not guilty.
Mr Jackson and Mr Olding were arrested two days after the incident on June 30th, 2016. They answered all questions during interviews but when they were re-interviewed in October they made no comment, on legal advice.
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.
Mr Jackson (26), of Oakleigh Park, Belfast pleaded not guilty to rape and sexual assault in the early hours of June 28th, 2016 at a party in his house. Mr Olding (25), of Ardenlee Street, Belfast, denied one count of rape on the same occasion. Both men contended the activity was consensual.
Mr McIlroy (26), of Royal Lodge Road, Ballydollaghan, Belfast, pleaded not guilty to one count of exposure while Mr Harrison (25), from Manse Road, Belfast, pleaded not guilty to perverting the course of justice and withholding information relating to the incident.