Thursday 14 November 2019

'She seemed fine - there were no signs to me she was in any distress'

A series of text and WhatsApp messages in the trial of two rugby players accused of rape were heard last week, writes Ashleigh McDonald

From left to right, Ireland and Ulster player Paddy Jackson, 26, his team-mate Stuart Olding, 24, and third defendant Blane McIlroy, 26
From left to right, Ireland and Ulster player Paddy Jackson, 26, his team-mate Stuart Olding, 24, and third defendant Blane McIlroy, 26
Rory Harrison. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Ashleigh McDonald

The trial involving two Irish rugby players accused of rape enters its sixth week tomorrow, when the start of the case for the defence will be heard.

Last week, the jury heard transcripts of police interviews with all four men facing charges arising from the alleged incident in June 2016, as well as from senior police officers who investigated the case.

Evidence was also presented in the form of text and WhatsApp messages sent between the defendants in the hours after the incident.

The trial ended for the week last Thursday, with Toby Hedworth QC telling the judge and jury at Belfast Crown Court: "That is the case on behalf of the prosecution."

Before being discharged for the weekend, the jury was told the trial was about to enter the "next stage".

Judge Patricia Smyth told them: "The defendants have an option to give evidence if they wish, or call witnesses on their behalf."

Rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were arrested on Thursday, June 30, 2016 - two days after a then 19-year-old woman claimed she was raped by Mr Jackson while being forced to perform oral sex on his teammate Mr Olding.

The men have denied the charges, claiming any sexual activity in the bedroom of Mr Jackson's south Belfast home following a night's clubbing in a VIP bar in the city centre was consensual. Mr Jackson is also facing, and denies, a charge of sexual assault.

Appearing alongside Mr Jackson (26) and Mr Olding (24) are Blane McIlory (26), who denies a charge of exposure, and Rory Harrison (25), who denies withholding information and perverting the course of justice.

At the start of last week, a juror was discharged on medical grounds, bringing the number of jurors to eight men and three women.

The jurors heard audio of police interviews conducted with Mr Olding. He attended Musgrave Park PSNI station in the centre of Belfast on the evening of June 30, where he was charged with rape.

While in custody, he handed over his house keys, which officers then used to enter and search his house for the clothes he had been wearing two evenings before.

His QC, Frank O'Donoghue, told the court Mr Olding was completely unaware this search was happening. Officers did retrieve some items of clothing, but not those worn on the night - a navy shirt, black jeans, black boxers and brown shoes.

During his interview, Mr Olding told officers from the Rape Crime Unit his version of events. He confirmed he attended the party at his friend Mr Jackson's house, and in the early hours, after walking into Mr Jackson's bedroom, he alleged he saw the woman straddling Mr Jackson. He also alleged she beckoned him to stay, and performed oral sex on him.

Telling Mr Olding "her version of events is entirely different to that", a police officer then revealed the allegations which the complainant had made against him.

Mr Olding rejected suggestions he penetrated her with his penis and said he "didn't see Paddy do that either".

When asked if he remembered pulling her head towards him and putting his penis in her mouth, Mr Olding told police: "I don't recall that happening at all". And when asked by the officer "what made you believe she was consenting to oral sex?", Mr Olding replied: "She was doing it and I wasn't forcing her to do it". Just before his final interview ended, Mr Olding again denied forcing her head to his penis, and denied putting any pressure on her.

The interview ended with his solicitor Joe Rice telling police: "You can tell from his attitude that he categorically denies any involvement of any kind in these allegations".

When she gave evidence at the start of the trial, the woman at the centre of the case claimed that during the incident, Blane McIlroy came into the bedroom naked and with his penis in his hand.

She alleged he thrust his groin at her and acted aggressively by trying to stop her leaving the bedroom. He was arrested the same night as Mr Olding and Mr Jackson, and audio recordings of his police interview were played to the court.

Mr McIlroy told police that after going upstairs and looking for somewhere to sleep, he walked into Mr Jackson's room, where he saw Mr Jackson and the girl naked on the bed.

He said Mr Jackson asked him in "for a chat", and that he sat on the edge of the bed and said, "what have you two been up to? Did you have a good night?"

When asked how the woman seemed, Mr McIlroy told the officer: "She seemed fine. There were no signs to me she was in any kind of distress or discomfort." He also described her as "giddy" and "not embarrassed".

Mr McIlroy claimed that as she lay on the bed, she instigated sexual activity with him, and that Mr Jackson was "still fooling around with her" but it stopped as neither of them had a condom. Mr McIlroy also claimed he left the room to try and find a condom, and when he got back to the bedroom, she was getting dressed.

When asked again about her demeanour, Mr McIlroy said he heard her say "this isn't really me. I usually don't have one-night stands. This isn't like me". He added that she "seemed fine" and that "she was not crying or distressed".

The jury heard he expressed shock when Rory Harrison called him to tell him Mr Jackson and Mr Olding had been taken in for questioning. When asked if Mr Harrison told him for what, Mr McIlory replied: "He said 'a girl from Monday night might have cried rape' is what he said."

And when he was asked by an officer "did that girl behave in any way as to suggest she didn't want this to happen?", Mr McIlroy replied: "No. She never once said 'stop' or 'I don't want to do this'". He also said "she didn't push us away".

Mr McIlroy also claimed that earlier at the party, before the girl went upstairs, she tried to kiss him, but he was interested in another woman at the party.

Mr Harrison was initially treated simply as a witness in the case, and a statement was taken from him in the days after the incident. However, as the case developed, police became suspicious, and Mr Harrison was arrested on suspicion of perverting the course of justice in October 2016.

Transcripts of three interviews conducted with Mr Harrison were read to the court, and the jury heard the accused deny concealing information and lying in a bid to protect his friends.

At the start of the interviews, an officer told Mr Harrison "police are not happy with some aspects of the statement you made" earlier in the year.

He was questioned about the comment he made to Mr McIlroy about a woman crying rape. When asked why, out of all the charges, he speculated his friends would be accused of rape, he said: "I don't even recall saying that to him".

When pressed, Mr Harrison said he "guessed" as it involved "high-profile sports stars" and he had seen similar cases in the news.

He was also asked about a message the complainant sent him hours after he left her home in a taxi. In the message, the woman told Mr Harrison: "I know you must be mates with those guys but I don't like them. And what happened was not consensual which is why I was so upset".

When asked why he didn't tell police about this text when he was being treated as a witness, Mr Harrison said he didn't know what had happened in the bedroom and didn't want to speculate. He also said he was never asked about contact between himself and the woman, adding "if I had been asked, I would have answered that fully".

Accused by police of providing officers with a "sanitised version" and "trying to help your friends by omitting crucial information", Mr Harrison denied this.

He also denied police suggestions there was a "deliberate act" on his part that, once she disclosed to him that she had been raped, he collected his friends that lunchtime and "provided them with an opportunity to corroborate their stories".

Much of the evidence in the trial has consisted of 'mobile traffic' such as text messages and WhatsApp conversations.

The jury was informed of other mobile traffic on the morning and afternoon of Tuesday, June 28.

While the complainant was telling one friend "so I got raped by 3 Ulster f*****g scum", and saying she was not going to go to the police because "they'll say it was consensual... I was up for it, stupid little girl now regretting it", the men she has accused of attacking her were involved in a WhatsApp conversation.

In this group chat, Mr Olding said: "We are all top shaggers". Mr Jackson said: "There was a lot of spitroast going on last night, lads" - with Mr Olding likening what happened to "like a merry-go-round at a carnival".

In a separate WhatsApp conversation with another friend, when Mr Olding was asked at 10.10am - just hours after the alleged incident - "how was she?", Mr Olding answered at 10.57am "she was very very loose".

It also emerged that Mr McIlroy had posted a picture on a WhatsApp group called 'The Juicers' which depicted him and three girls who had attended the party at Mr Jackson's.

The image depicts Mr McIlroy and the three women either sitting on his knee or next to him. He captioned the image, 'Love Belfast Sluts'. At 2.47pm that day, he sent another WhatsApp message to a friend which said: "Pumped a bird with Jacko on Monday. Roasted her".

At around the same time, the now 21-year-old complainant told a friend in a message that she had been raped. When asked if she had tried to stop it happening, she replied: "Of course I did but they were too strong".

She wrote: "Paddy Jackson and some blond guy and then a third tried to get involved. Honestly. No. I was bleeding and they wouldn't stop".

When asked if she would go to police, she replied, "no, it would be my word against theirs. Ulster Rugby will vouch for their good character and I'll look like a stupid little girl".

Also presented to the court was an exchange of text messages between Mr Harrison and Mr McIlory while Mr Olding and Mr Jackson were in the police station.

When he heard that the pair were being questioned, Mr McIlroy texted Mr Harrison: "This is ridiculous. Surely this is all going to get dropped".

Mr Harrison told Mr McIlroy he understood allegations had been made but he was unclear as to the content of the claims. He also said the complainant was "making life very difficult for the lads".

In another message to Mr McIlroy, Mr Harrison said it would "hopefully just [be] thrown out - just a silly girl who has done something and then regretted it".

The Crown brought its case to a close by calling the investigating officer to the witness stand. Under cross-examination by Mr O'Donoghue QC, the officer admitted there were "significant inconsistencies" between what the complainant told a doctor and what she "ultimately" told police.

The detective constable, from the PSNI's Rape Crime Unit, also admitted there were "obvious questions" that could have been put to the complainant during her 'Achieving Best Evidence' interview conducted two days after the incident - but said these specific types of interviews were more about getting a complainant's account rather than "pushing".

The officer was also asked about "inconsistencies" in the account the woman gave to a doctor at the Rowan sexual assault referral centre in Antrim. The jury has already heard that the then 19-year-old told the doctor she was vaginally raped by two men - with no mention of forced oral sex.

Mr O'Donoghue asked the officer if, after receiving the doctor's report, "you must have said to yourself 'What in God's name is this?'", the police officer said she wouldn't have used those words.

She did, however, agree there were inconsistencies between what the woman told the doctor and what she told police - but later explained that in sexual assault cases, this was not uncommon and could be due to a number of reasons, including trauma.

After a week of evidence, Judge Smyth thanked the jury for their diligence and warned: "Please be very careful not to discuss the evidence or issues with anyone".

Sunday Independent

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