Paddy Jackson's legal team: 'His status as a famous sportsman drove decision to prosecute'
- All four defendants in the Belfast rape trial have been found not guilty on all charges
- 'Paddy and his parents have paid a heavy price, personally, professionally and financially'
- IRFU say that Jackson and Olding 'continue to be relieved of duties'
IRELAND and Ulster rugby star Paddy Jackon's status as well-known sportsman was behind the decision to charge him with two counts of rape and sexual assault, his legal team has claimed.
The 26-year-old from Oakleigh Park in Belfast and his teammate Stuart Olding (25) from Ardenlee Street in the city were today both cleared of raping the same woman after a night out in June 2016. Mr Jackson was also cleared of a further charge of sexual assault.
However, his legal team - in an excoriating statement read outside the courtroom - has questioned the police investigation into the case, and claimed that Mr Jackson's status was behind the decision to pursue a prosecution.
Jackson's solicitor Joe McVeigh said: "We've this to say on behalf of our client Patrick Jackson. We're grateful to the jury for reaching what was a common sense verdict of not guilty on all counts.
"Paddy has been consistent in his denials and in his account. Consistency had never been a feature of the complainant's evidence, long before she entered the witness box.
"So these acquittals should come as no surprise to anyone.
"Paddy leaves court for the last time today as he entered almost 10 weeks ago - an innocent man.
"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.
"Much has been said in the course of this trial by way of criticism of the police investigation.
"We've little to add to what's already been said, but it's our belief that the investigation has been characterised by the turning of a blind eye to inadequacies in the evidence of the complainant combined with very apparent investigative bias.
"Paddy and his parents have paid a heavy price - personally, professionally and financially.
"This price was paid despite the fact that he has never been anything other than entirely innocent."
However, the North's Public Prosecution Service has defended its decision to bring a prosecution against the four men.
Marianne O'Kane, Public Prosecution Service Assistant Director and Head of the PPS's Serious Crime Unit, said that the evidence in the case was "subjected to a very through and careful examination by a team of experienced lawyers" before they concluded that "the test for prosecution was met", in line with its code for prosecutors.
"This meant that there was both sufficient evidence to provide a reasonable prospect of conviction and it was in the public interest to prosecute.
"This case was properly brought before the courts and overcame a number of legal challenges", she said.
Mr McVeigh also questioned the role of social media during the case, which lasted for nine weeks.
"On the face of it, this robust assertion of its independence by the jury embodied in these acquittals, for all four men, may suggest that the trial process is in good health," Mr McVeigh said.
"That is not the case. Vile commentary expressed on social media going well beyond fair comment has polluted the sphere of public discourse and raised real concerns about the integrity of the trial process.
"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.
"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."
However, the IRFU has said that returning to the pitch won't happen in the immediate future.
"To respect the judicial proceedings, the IRFU and Ulster Rugby postponed any internal review of the matter with the players, until the proceedings concluded," it said in a statement released shortly after the verdict was read out.
"IRFU and Ulster Rugby officials will review the matter, in line with existing procedures for all contracted players. A Review Committee, made up of senior representatives of the IRFU and Ulster Rugby, has been appointed and will conclude its review as soon as practicable.
"The players will continue to be relieved of all duties while the Review Committee is in process and determining its findings."
Not guilty verdicts were also returned for two other men charged in connection with the alleged attack.
Blane McIlroy (26) was found not guilty of exposure while Rory Harrison (25) was found acquitted of perverting the course of justice and withholding information.