IRELAND Ulster rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding have been found not guilty by a jury of raping a young student at a house party two years ago.
Mr Jackson (26) was also found not guilty of sexually assaulting the then 19-year-old woman.
The rugby players' close friend Blane McIlroy (26) has been found not guilty of exposure.
A second friend, Rory Harrison (25), has been found not guilty of perverting the course of justice and withholding information.
After three hours and 45 minutes of deliberation, the jury of eight men and three women returned to courtroom No 12 shortly after noon and told the judge they had reached a unanimous verdict on all counts.
There were emotional scenes outside the courtroom as family and friends of the accused hugged and kissed each other.
Paddy Jackson thanked his legal team outside the courtroom before his solicitor, Joe McVeigh, read a detailed statement, which included criticism of the police investigation and also much of the commentary of the trial on social media.
"Paddy and his parents have paid a heavy price, personally, professionally and financially," Mr McVeigh said.
"This was paid despite the fact that he has never been anything other than entirely innocent."
He referred to "vile commentary expressed on social media" which he said "has polluted this sphere of public discourse and raised real concerns about the integrity of the trial process".
The priority for his client, Paddy Jackson, now is to return to work, he added. "That means getting back on the rugby pitch," Mr McVeigh said.
The IRFU and Ulster Rugby have issued a statement following the verdict, saying that Mr Jackson and Mr Olding will continue to be "relieved of their duties" as a review is conducted.
"We wish to acknowledge that this has undoubtedly been a difficult and extremely traumatic time for all involved," it read.
"To respect the judicial proceedings, the IRFU and Ulster Rugby postponed any internal review of the matter with the players, until the proceedings concluded.
"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."
Blane McIlroy has also left the courtroom but declined to speak to the waiting media.
Earlier, the men’s families were in the public gallery for the verdict.
Three defendants - Mr Jackson, Mr McIlroy and Mr Harrison - were permitted to leave the dock first.
Judge Smyth said: "The jury has found you not guilty. You are free to leave the dock."
A short time later the court was told that no evidence had been offered by prosecutors on a charge of vaginal rape against Stuart Olding.
Judge Smyth directed the jury to find him not guilty.
Allowing Olding to go free, the judge said: "Mr Olding the jury has found you not guilty of this count also and you are now free to leave the dock."
Thanking the jurors, Ms Smyth said they would be exempt from jury service for life.
"This has probably been the most difficult trial that any jury in Northern Ireland has ever been asked to adjudicate on."
The high-profile trial was originally scheduled for five weeks but lasted for nine weeks at Belfast Crown Court.
In total, 30 witnesses gave evidence including the four defendants and the complainant whose testimony was heard over eight separate days, and verdicts were returned on day 42.
The court heard from 10 police officers, two doctors, a forensic scientist and a taxi driver who had driven the complainant home on the night in question.
When the trial opened on January 30, a total of 12 jurors were sworn in - nine men and three women.
But about halfway through the panel was reduced to 11 after one juror was discharged because of illness.
The men had all denied the charges, with Jackson and Olding (25) claiming the sexual activity was consensual.
Jackson had claimed the woman appeared to be “enjoying” it.
The men all gave evidence in the trial, which started in January and has gone on for the last nine weeks.
It was the defence case that the woman made a false allegation of rape because she regretted getting involved in consensual group sex and feared she may have been filmed and the images would appear on social media.
The prosecution case was that Jackson pushed the woman down on his bed and vaginally raped and digitally penetrated her.
It was alleged that Olding walked into the bedroom, the woman said "please no, not him as well" and she was forced to perform a sex act on him.
McIlroy allegedly then walked into the room, naked and holding his penis. The woman gave evidence that she decided it wasn't going to happen again and she jumped off the bed and ran out of the room.
The woman described McIlroy as “the nastiest” due to his “aggressive stance”.
The prosecution also alleged that Harrison, in a misguided sense of loyalty to his friends, “tried to cover up or manage” the young woman, who he brought home in a taxi.
After deliberating for three hours and 45 minutes, the jury returned with not guilty verdicts for all four men.
In his evidence during the nine week trial, Jackson said he and the student kissed "passionately" on the bed until she pulled away and asked if he knew her name.
"I didn't know her name. It was a bit embarrassing at the time. I got up and went downstairs. I wanted to be back in the party."
When they went downstairs, Jackson said the woman ran her fingers down his arm. He believed she was flirting with him and was her way of saying she had “moved on from upstairs”.
Jackson said they went back upstairs and began to kiss.
"We were both kissing each other. It got a bit more passionate. When I was lying on the bed (she) was on top of me. She started to bite my lower lip. It was playful but pretty hard."
Jackson claimed the woman then performed oral sex on him.
He alleged Olding walked into the room and she performed oral sex on his friend, while he touched her with his hands.
He said there was no penile intercourse because he could not find a condom.
Asked if he forced the woman to engage in sexual activity, Jackson replied: "No. I wouldn't do that."
He later claimed: "She was enjoying it."
Olding also insisted, in his evidence, he did not force the woman in any way.
“If I thought that [she had not consented], nothing would have happened. Nothing would have started and nothing would have continued”, he said.
He claimed that when he walked into Jackson’s bedroom he saw Paddy and the woman “kissing on the bed”.
He stood at the door and turned to leave.
He claimed the young woman turned around and held out her hand, as an invitation to stay.
“I did stay”, he told the jury.
Olding closed the door and walked to the far side of the bed, and started kissing the student, who was on the bed. He claimed she then performed a consensual sex act on him.
In his evidence, McIlroy said he walked in on Jackson and the student in bed together. He claimed she turned to him, kissed him and performed a sex act on him, though this evidence was disputed by Jackson.
In cross examination, prosecution lawyer Toby Hedworth QC put it to McIlroy that his version of what happened was "preposterous”
Mr McIlroy replied: "I've told the truth from the word go."
Meanwhile, Harrison denied he “tried to cover up or manage” the woman, telling the jury “Patrick Jackson is the last person in the world who would rape someone. I thought that she’d done something and regretted it.”
The friends had also rejected suggestions they met at a Soul Food cafe the next day to "concoct a lying account of what happened", with their lawyers saying a small, busy restaurant was the last place a group of well-known men would go if they were making up a story.
Asked why he didn't tell Jackson when they met at Soul Food about a text he'd received from the woman, telling him "what happened last night was not consensual", Harrison replied: "Because I didn't believe it and I did not want to worry him about something that I'd no faith was true."
In her evidence, the woman said she had gone to Ollie’s nightclub with her friends. She drank a large glass and a half of wine and "about three double vodkas".
She then went to an after party in Jackson’s home and they went upstairs and had a consensual kiss.
However, he tried to undo her trousers and she told him she wasn't interested so they went back downstairs.
After a while, she decided to leave. She had left her clutch bag upstairs and went up to get it.
The next thing she said she remembered was Jackson at the foot of the bed.
You might think you would "kick and fight and scream but it doesn't work that way," she told the court, adding: "You literally freeze."
Asked if Jackson said anything to her, she shook her head, saying "no".
"Nothing about me was physically telling him to keep going," she said.
"He already knew I didn't want this to happen and he kept going."
She said the next thing she recalled was the door opening and Olding walked into the room.
"My heart just sank. I knew what was going to happen," she claimed.
She alleged she looked into Jackson's eyes and said, "please not him as well."
She claimed Olding then forced her to give him oral sex.
She wept as she told the court of being further assaulted by Jackson, claiming she had tried to make him stop.
The door opened again and she saw McIlroy, who was standing there "completely naked, holding his penis in his hands".
"I thought this is not happening again," she told the court, and she got off the bed and grabbed her clothes.
She claimed McIlroy said: "You f*****d the other guys, why not me?" and said his whole stance was "aggressive."
"At that point my fight instincts kicked in. There was not a chance it was going to happen again," she said.
"I remember shouting at him 'how many times does it take to say no before it sinks in?'" she said.
She ran downstairs and out of the house - but had to return because she had forgotten her phone and could not get home without it because she needed to ring a taxi.
Running away from the house again, the front door opened and Harrison came out. She panicked initially but then realised he was asking if she was ok.
"I obviously wasn't ok. I was crying a lot. I don't know if he knew what had happened but he would've seen the blood on my trousers," she said.
Harrison then bought the young woman home, and later text her "keep your chin up, you wonderful young woman".
The court heard the woman attended the Rowan Clinic, a sexual assault referral centre at Antrim Area Hospital, where she was examined by Dr Philip Lavery.
In his evidence, he said the woman had presented with genital injuries.
There was a laceration to the woman’s “vaginal wall” which could have been caused by a “penis, a finger or an object.”
It was not possible to determine what exactly had caused the injuries or whether they resulted from consensual activity, the jury was told.
“It doesn’t help to decide on consensuality of possible intercourse,” Dr Philip Lavery said of his examination.
He said the woman was “co-operative but tearful” and reported being vaginally raped by two men, neither of whom used a condom. No threats or violence was used, she told the doctor.
In her summing up to the jury, Judge Smyth had described Dara Florence as a “key witness”.
Ms Florence told the jury she was “100pc” positive she had witnessed Jackson having penetrative sex with the alleged victim, and that she turned to a friend, outside the room and said "oh my God, I've just seen a threesome".
She also said that from what she could see the woman was not distressed.