Wales footballer Ched Evans overwhelmed with relief after being cleared of rape
Wales international footballer Ched Evans has said he is "overwhelmed with relief" after being acquitted of rape following a retrial.
The Chesterfield striker, 27, was originally convicted of raping a 19-year-old woman in a Premier Inn near Rhyl, North Wales, in May 2011.
He served half of a five-year prison sentence before being released but there was a public outcry when he attempted to return to professional football.
Mr Evans joined League One club Chesterfield FC after the Court of Appeal quashed his conviction and ordered a retrial earlier this year.
A jury of seven women and five men found Mr Evans not guilty following three hours of deliberations after the eight-day trial at Cardiff Crown Court.
Mr Evans wept and hugged his fiancee Natasha Massey, who has stood by him throughout his ordeal, as he left the dock in court room five.
The couple stood together with supporters as Mr Evans's solicitor Shaun Draycott read a statement outside court.
"In the early hours of 30th May 2011 an incident occurred in North Wales that was to change my life and the lives of others forever," the statement said.
"That incident did not involve the commission of a criminal offence and today I am overwhelmed with relief that the jury agreed.
"I would like to thank my legal team, Judy Khan QC and David Emanuel of Garden Court Chambers London and Shaun Draycott of Draycott Browne Solicitors for their tireless efforts upon my behalf.
"Thanks go, too, to my friends and family; most notably my fiancee Natasha who chose, perhaps incredibly, to support me in my darkest hour.
"Whilst my innocence has now been established, I wish to make it clear that I wholeheartedly apologise to anyone who might have been affected by the events of the night in question."
During the trial, jurors heard new evidence from two men who had sex with the complainant around May 2011.
In March this year, the striker's lawyers told a new hearing before the Court of Appeal that the accounts had not been available at his trial and that undermined the safety of his conviction.
Both of the men gave account of the woman's sexual preferences that were similar to the description Evans gave, supporting his assertion that she was consenting.
A complainant's sexual history is not usually put before a jury in trials involving such offences.
But Evans's legal team sought permission under Section 41 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act to question the complainant about the accounts.
Appeal judges Lady Justice Hallett, Mr Justice Flaux and Sir David Maddison allowed the appeal but ordered a retrial.
Lady Justice Hallett said: "It may well be a rare case in which it will be appropriate to indulge in this kind of forensic examination of sexual behaviour with others.
"In our judgement this is potentially such a rare case. "
During evidence, one of the men gave evidence that the complainant had "shocked him" while having sex while drunk.
He told the jury he first met the woman through Facebook and they had a "purely sexual" relationship.
Two days before the woman had sex with Mr Evans, she sent him a series of text messages while on a night out, including one stating: "I want to tear you apart".
The man, who cannot be named, said: "She turned to me and said, 'are you going to rip my clothes off?'.
"I was very shocked with the words - she was expecting sex to happen as soon as we got into the house.
"It was a bit of a shock as to how much more confident she was."
A second man who had sex with the complainant said she had woken up the following morning claiming she could not remember what had happened.
"I was surprised because I did not think she was that drunk," he said. "She seemed capable of making decisions."
At the end of her summing up, High Court judge Mrs Justice Nicola Davies told the jury to consider the evidence of both men, who cannot be named.
"What significance, if any, is there in the evidence of the men?" she told the jury.
"The evidence given by each man is that he separately had a consensual sexual relationship with the complainant.
"There's no evidence that either man was prompted by or has sought any monetary reward for the evidence and information which they have given.
"In each case the sex with the complainant took place around the time of the events of the Premier Inn.
"You may wish to consider the similarities of each man's account of the sexual behaviour of the complainant by taking the lead, the positions she moved into and the word she used when she was having consensual sex with each of these men.
"You may wish to consider any similarities in the account which this defendant has given when he said he had consensual sex with her - an account which he gave from the outset to the police at a time when he was told by the police that the complainant said she remembered nothing of the encounter."
Giving his evidence-in-chief at the retrial, 13-cap Wales international Mr Evans insisted the sex had been consensual.
The jury heard Mr Evans had been on a night out in Rhyl on May 29 2011 with friends including fellow footballer Clayton McDonald.
At 2.30am the following morning, the pair went to The Godfather, a kebab shop, and ate food there.
CCTV images show the complainant falling over inside the kebab shop, with Mr Evans pointing and walking past her.
Later, Mr McDonald and the woman took a taxi to the Premier Inn near Rhyl, which had been booked earlier by Mr Evans.
During the taxi journey, Mr McDonald texted Mr Evans to tell him he had "got a bird".
Mr Evans, along with his younger brother Ryan Roberts and friend Jack Higgins, then took a taxi to the hotel.
The striker obtained a room key from reception and walked to room 14 to find Mr McDonald and the woman having sex.
Mr Roberts and Mr Higgins walked to the window of the room and used a mobile phone to film inside.
After Mr Evans opened the door, Mr McDonald asked the woman: "Can my mate join in," and she replied: "Yes," the jury heard.
Mr McDonald stood up and Mr Evans, aged 22 at the time, performed a sex act on the woman before having sex with her.
"She was making noises like she was enjoying herself," Mr Evans said.
He insisted the woman had not been drunker than himself or Mr McDonald.
Mr McDonald left the room and left the hotel through reception, with Mr Evans walking out via a fire exit door minutes later.
When asked why he stopped having sex, Evans told the jury that being alone with the woman made him realise he was cheating on Miss Massey.
"When I pulled away she grabbed the corner of the quilt over herself, looked over at me and huffed," he said.
"I started to get dressed."
During cross-examination, Mr Evans confirmed he had had unprotected sex with the woman and did not know her name at the time.
"Looking back, I am ashamed. On reflection I should not have behaved that way," he told the jury.
The prosecution said the woman awoke hours later, alone and confused in the hotel room with no recollection of what had happened.
Mr McDonald and Mr Evans had walked to his family home nearby. They were arrested in Cheshire on May 31.
Following a trial in April 2012, a jury at Caernarfon Crown Court acquitted Mr McDonald of rape but convicted Mr Evans.
Chesterfield chief executive Chris Turner welcomed the acquittal of Mr Evans.
"We are naturally delighted with the outcome, especially for Ched, his family and friends," Mr Turner said.
"We can now all move forward and focus on football."
Following Mr Evans's conviction, a website was set up and a £50,000 reward was offered for information that could help his case.
It can now be reported that Miss Massey sent two Facebook messages to a prosecution witness following the initial trial.
The messages were sent to Gavin Burrough, a night receptionist at the Premier Inn when Mr Evans and Mr McDonald had sex with the woman.
Mr Burrough described the woman as being extremely drunk as she arrived at the hotel with Mr McDonald.
In a police statement, he described the complainant asking Mr McDonald as they entered the hotel: "You're not going to leave me here, are you?"
He saw Mr Evans arrive at the hotel about 15 minutes later. The striker asked for a key for room 14 and produced his driving licence as proof of identity.
The receptionist went to check on the room and, from the corridor, heard sex noises and a man asking for a sexual act.
In May 2013, a year after Mr Evans's conviction, Miss Massey sent two messages to Mr Burrough on Facebook.
Prosecuting, Simon Medland QC told the court during legal argument: "The first of these messages draws to Mr Burrough's attention her claim that this defendant was then wrongly locked up in prison for a crime that never happened."
"'We are appealing for new information and there's a £50,000 reward for any new evidence. Do you know anything that could help Ched? X'."
Mr Burrough did not respond to the message, with Miss Massey sending another at 9am the following day.
Mr Medland said the message read: "'Ok, I see you have chosen to ignore me. I understand you want to put it all behind you but if you can deal with the fact that you know Ched is innocent and he is spending the next 17 months in prison and you can just sit back and let that happen then so be it. I'm literally begging. If you know anything please help me. X'."
In a statement to the court, Mr Burrough said he believed the messages to mean: "I receive £50,000 to provide information that Ched Evans is innocent."
However, he said he could not provide any further information, as what he had said to the jury during the first trial was the truth.
Mr Medland told the court: ''It's akin to a bribe. There is no direct evidence of bribery.
''This is an attempt to induce Mr Burrough to change his evidence so it supported the case of the defendant.''
Representing Mr Evans, Ms Khan argued the messages were drafted and sent when her client was in prison.
"There's no evidence that they were sent at his behest," she added.
"If one reads the messages themselves there's nothing in them that goes beyond the actions of the desperate girlfriend, desperate to seek the clearing of her boyfriend's name."
The trial judge, Mrs Justice Nicola Davies, agreed with the defence and ruled the messages should not be put before the jury.
Superintendent Jo Williams, of North Wales Police, said: "We acknowledge the decision of the jury."
She added that they were aware that the complainant had been named on social media and that it is a criminal offence under Section Five of the Sexual Offences Amendments Act to do so.
"An investigation is ongoing into the naming. People need to be aware that they could find themselves being arrested and prosecuted. This was done previously, people were prosecuted and heavily fined."