Belfast trial: Stifled sobs in court as players acquitted
Families exchange jubilant embraces after verdicts, writes Nicola Anderson
There was almost a ferocity to Judge Patricia Smyth's words as she addressed the public gallery directly.
"This is a very difficult task for the foreman of the jury. Have respect for that," she said.
If there was "any reaction" from anyone in court she would stop the proceedings and the public gallery would be cleared and they would not be permitted in, she told them.
"It is a very difficult task for the foreman here," she repeated sharply.
An intense and choking silence seized the room. It seemed as though people scarcely dared to breathe.
In a trial of such unprecedented length and complexity, nobody had been expecting the verdict to come so soon.
Until Cliff, the courtroom security man, came briskly along the sluggish row of people sitting in the corridor, nodding his head with a grim jerk that conveyed certainty. It was in.
Three hours and 45 minutes after beginning deliberations, the panel of eight men and three women had reached its decision.
Stuart Olding and Rory Harrison were the first to take their seats in the glass-walled dock, followed by Paddy Jackson.
"Easy, easy," warned Cliff as the public stumbled up the steps amid their haste to take their seats.
Mr Jackson's parents took their usual seats in the front row of the public gallery, but on receiving confirmation that it was the verdict rather than jury questions, they rearranged themselves - Mr Jackson's mother sitting beside her daughter Kerry in the second row, and taking her arm.
Agitation was writ large on her face and she was visibly trembling.
She dabbed away a tear with what looked like a piece torn from a roll of blue catering kitchen paper.
Mr Olding grimaced as he waited, while Blane McIlroy rubbed his face wearily with both hands.
Mr Jackson and Mr Olding exchanged a brief word as they waited, Mr Jackson's right foot resting on the wall of the dock.
"It's taken four hours," his mother whispered loudly, her eyes wide with anxiety.
The jury keeper emerged, to stand stiffly outside the jury room until her charges were ready to emerge.
It was 12.25pm when Judge Smyth took her seat with a sharp word of warning for the public. Then the jury filed in and took their seats.
"I have received a note to say you have reached a unanimous verdict - is that correct?" the judge asked the foreman, who indicated that this was so.
The four defendants rose to their feet and stood there, all but Mr Harrison had their arms crossed before them.
The judge asked if this was for all six counts on the indictment, and again the foreman said yes.
In a voice that shook with anxiety, she replied "not guilty" to each count, going down the sheet starting with Mr Jackson's charge of rape.
A stifled sob of emotion came from the families with each confirmation, and relief crossed the faces of the four young men.
"Easy, folks, easy," warned Cliff, again.
Two young women in the gallery rose quietly to their feet and left the room.
We wondered if they were friends of the young woman at the centre of this trial, who, since she ceased giving evidence at the very start of these proceedings, has been sitting every day in a witness room off courtroom 12, observing the events on a screen.
The court heard there was no reason why the men may not be discharged, and then Brendan Kelly QC for Mr Jackson said his client would be making an application for costs but that this needed to be prepared.
Then the judge addressed them directly: "Mr Jackson, Mr Olding, Mr McIlroy and Mr Harrison, the jury has found you not guilty and that means you are free to leave the dock."
Mr Jackson's father rose with determination to greet his son at the top of the room.
Then the families tumbled out onto the corridor to exchange jubilant embraces.
Amid the commotion, Mr Jackson alerted one of the security guards and pointed to a young girl with a fur-trimmed parka on the sidelines.
"You were videoing that," the security guard accused her sternly, taking her aside.
Then it was back into the courtroom for Mr Olding, who sat in the dock alone, as they dealt with a technicality - the charge of vaginal rape that had been dropped at Christmas.
It did not take long.
As the detectives involved in this trial took their seats in the courtroom, the families gazed across at them.
Discharging the jurors from jury service for life, the judge told the panel that this was "probably the most difficult trial on which any jury in Northern Ireland has ever been asked to adjudicate".
Outside the court, as a massive bank of cameras and microphones awaited, Mr McIlroy and his parents were first to leave, without a word.
Stern-faced, Mr Jackson made a short statement outside the court.
"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.
His legal representative Joe McVeigh spoke about the "heavy price" his client had paid, "personally, professionally and financially".
He spoke about the "vile commentary" on social media - and said Mr Jackson's priority now lies with "getting back on the rugby pitch".
Mr Olding's approach was different.
He stood beside his solicitor, who read a statement on his behalf.
He said that he was sorry for the hurt caused to the complainant.
"It was never my intention to cause any upset to anyone on that night," he said - before adding that he did not agree with her "perception of events" and maintains that everything that happened was consensual.
At a Police Service of Northern Ireland press conference, Detective Chief Superintendent Paula Hilman was asked how the complainant was, and her voice shook momentarily as she said she was "upset and disappointed" with the verdict.
During the trial the complainant had said she had no regrets about coming forward.
Was that still the case? "Yes I can confirm that is the case," said Chief Inspector Zoe McKee, firmly.