Rape trial: Lawyers demand action over 'toxic onslaught' on social media
LAWYERS for Ulster and Ireland rugby player Paddy Jackson have hit out at "vile commentary" and "toxic onslaught" posted on social media throughout the trial, calling for robust action to deal with online remarks surrounding court cases.
Solicitor Joe McVeigh made the comments at the end of a 42-day trial which saw his client and all other defendants acquitted of all charges.
In the words of Judge Patricia Smyth, the case was "probably the most difficult trial that any jury in Northern Ireland has ever been asked to adjudicate on".
Before a packed public gallery at Belfast Crown Court, the jury of 11 people returned its unanimous verdict after deliberating for almost four hours on the events at Paddy Jackson's house on June 28 2016.
All of the defendants had denied the charges against them and argued that any sexual activity had been consensual.
As the verdicts were due to be read, Judge Smyth warned those in the 100-seat public gallery - which was filled on most days during the trial - not to display any emotion or react or she would order the gallery to be cleared.
Mr Jackson was acquitted of rape and sexual assault, with his fellow Ulster and Ireland colleague Stuart Olding cleared of rape.
The jury also acquitted Blane McIlroy of exposure, while the fourth defendant, Rory Harrison, was found not guilty of perverting the course of justice and withholding information.
Shows of emotion were left to outside the court, as family and friends of the defendants hugged and kissed each other.
With Mr Jackson at his side, Mr McVeigh told the waiting press that "vile commentary expressed on social media...have polluted the sphere of public discourse and raise real concerns about the integrity of the trial process."
"All the lawyers have been distracted by having to man the barriers against a flood of misinformed, misconceived and malicious content on the internet," the solicitor added.
Mr Jackson's solicitor also said that he was unhappy at the police investigation and claimed his client's high profile had driven the decision to prosecute.
"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 the very apparent investigative bias."
Both the PSNI and the PPS defended their handling of the case.
PPS Assistant Director, Marianne O'Kane, said: "The evidence received in this case was subjected to a very thorough and careful examination by a team of experienced lawyers including senior counsel.
"It was ultimately right that the matter was placed before a jury to make their determination," added Ms O'Kane.
Detective Chief Superintendent Paula Hilman said that a "dedicated and specialised team of police officers and staff" had worked "diligently on the case".
"We carry out all investigations regardless of background or status," she said.
"This case has provoked much comment and debate. While we respect today’s verdict it should not deter victims of serious sexual crime from contacting police," she said.
Ms Hilman said police had seen a rise in reports of rape during the trial, compared to the January/February period last year.
Detective Chief Inspector Zoe McKee, who led the investigation, said the woman had been left "upset and disappointed" by the verdict, but stood by her decision to press charges.
Police also confirmed they are investigating instances where the woman had been named on social media and warned that anyone doing so would face action.
In a statement read by his solicitor Paul Dougan, Mr Olding said he was "sorry for the hurt that was caused to the complainant" and "regrets deeply the events of that evening".
"It was never my intention to cause any upset to anyone on that night. I don't agree with her perception of events, and I maintain that everything that happened that evening was consensual," he said.
Paddy Jackson's solicitor said his client's main priority was "to return to his work and that means getting back on to the rugby pitch representing his province and his country".
However, that will not happen immediately for either Mr Jackson or Mr Olding.
In a joint statement, Ulster Rugby and Irish Rugby Football Union said that an internal review will take place.
"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," the statement said.
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