'The test was met' - Public Prosecution Service defends decision to prosecute Jackson and Olding
THE NORTH'S Public Prosecution Service has defended its decision to prosecute Ulster and Ireland rugby internationals Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding and their friends Blane McIlroy and Rory Harrison.
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.
Paddy Jackson and team-mate Stuart Olding had always denied raping the same woman at a house in south Belfast in June 2016.
Mr Jackson was also found not guilty of sexual assault, a charge he also denied.
The jury of eight men and three women at Belfast Crown Court returned its unanimous verdict after deliberating for a total of three hours and 45 minutes.
The foreman answered "yes" when asked by a court clerk if the 11-member panel had reached a verdict on which they were all agreed.
"It was ultimately right that the matter was placed before a jury to make their deliberations".
Ms O'Kane paid tribute to the work of the PSNI in what she described as a "complex case".
"We are grateful for the strong working partnership with an expert and professional investigation team".
Ms O'Kane said there had been extensive media coverage of this case, sometimes at a level which was unprecedented in recent times.
"I hope that this has helped the public to better understand the criminal justice system and the trial process. I also hope that there will be a continuing conversation about societal attitudes in relation to sexual offences", she said.
However, the role of the Public Prosecution Service has been heavily criticised by Paddy Jackson's legal team.
Jackson's solicitor Joe McVeigh said: "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."
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.
Ms O'Kane thanked the jury for its "dedicated service" over the last nine weeks and thanked them for their "conscientious consideration" of the evidence.
She said the PPS "respected" the verdict that they have reached.
Finally, she urged anyone who has been a victim of any offence to come forward and "be assured you will be treated with sensitivity and respect throughout".