The acquittal of two international rugby players of rape has prompted an outpouring of online support for their alleged victim, under the hashtag
Paddy Jackson, 26, and Stuart Olding, 25, both from Belfast, were accused of rape by a woman who joined them on a night out in June 2016. They denied the charges, with Jackson denying a further charge of sexual assault.
The trial, which was described byJudge Patricia Smith as “the most difficult ... that any jury in Northern Ireland has ever been asked to adjudicate on”, unfolded over nine weeks and ended on Wednesday.
Smith told the jury before their deliberations that she would only accept a unanimous verdict, with all jurors required to be in agreement.
Minutes after the not guilty verdicts were announced, people began showing support for the victim, who cannot be named for legal reasons, and criticising the lengthy and often harrowing trial.
Rallies in solidarity with the alleged victim are planned in Limerick and Dublin on Thursday.
A Rape Crisis Network Ireland spokeswoman said the “protracted” case and its coverage had a “profound impact”.
She added: “The verdict notwithstanding, we want to acknowledge and respond to the impact on everyone who has followed this trail in the media but particularly for survivors.
“This has been a protracted sexual crime case with considerable public attention stretching almost daily over almost two months.
“We want to say very clearly today to survivors of sexual crime that when you need us or are ready to talk about what happened to you we in Rape Crisis will be there for you, we believe you, and we will support you.”
Detective Chief Superintendent Paula Hilman, head of the public protection branch at the Police Service of Northern Ireland, said: “This has been a difficult time for all those involved in this trial. We have faith and trust in the legal system and respect the verdict.
“I would like to pay tribute to the young woman who had the resolve and confidence to come forward and put her faith in police and the criminal justice process.”
She added that the alleged victim had been named on social media, in contravention of her legal right to lifetime anonymity. The officer said the force would investigate any naming of the woman.
Detective Chief Inspector Zoe McKee, senior investigating officer in the case, said the complainant is “upset and disappointed” at the verdict.
She added: “We do not want the decision in today’s verdict to deter victims from coming forward. And I think it’s very, very important. There are no winners here. This case was unprecedented.
“It was a case that has never been heard before – the complexity, the volume, the scale – and I think we cannot compare like for like in terms of cases, so I would encourage everybody who wants to make a report to police to come forward in the knowledge that you will be treated sensitively and with respect and your allegation in the court will be taken very seriously.”
The rape was alleged to have happened during an afterparty at Jackson’s home in south Belfast in June 28, 2016.
The woman told the court she was attacked after going upstairs to retrieve a handbag, having decided to leave the party because the “mood changed”.
The woman claimed Jackson had followed her into the bedroom, pushed her onto the bed pulled down her trousers and pants, then penetrated her.
She further alleged Olding walked into the room and forced her to perform oral sex.
Jackson and Olding were arrested two days after the alleged attack. They answered all questions during interviews but when they were re-interviewed in October they made no comment, on legal advice.
During the trial, jurors heard the content of group WhatsApp messages in which Olding and Jackson boasted about having sex.
Olding described a woman he had sex with as “very, very loose” and said he and his friends were “all top shaggers”.
Brendan Kelly QC, who defended Jackson in court, told jurors his client had character references that described him as “placid” and a “likeable lad with no self importance”.
Speaking outside Belfast Crown Court after the acquittal, Jackson said: “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.”
Jackson also thanked his barristers and solicitors. “Out of respect for my employers I’ve nothing further to comment,” he said.
Jackson’s lawyer, Joe McVeigh, hit out at what he called “the flood of misinformed, misconceived and malicious content on the internet” about the trial, adding the judge had faced an “onslaught of toxic contempt, particularly on Twitter”.
In a statement, the Irish Rugby Football Union and Ulster Rugby said Jackson and Olding would not return to the rugby pitch while an internal review took place.
They said: “We wish to acknowledge that this has undoubtedly been a difficult and extremely traumatic time for all involved.
“To respect the judicial proceedings, the IRFU and Ulster Rugby postponed any internal review of the matter with the players, until the proceedings concluded.
Following the verdict, many people announced they would be donating to rape crisis centres in Northern Ireland.
One Twitter user, Eric Flanagan, tweeted: “After the Belfast verdict, I’ve donated to Galway Rape Crisis Centre. Urge anyone else that is angry to do so too. Find your local branch via http://www.rapecrisishelp.ie/find-a-service/”.