Rugby rape trial defence failed to get trial stopped over post by Naomi Long
The Alliance Party last night defended leader Naomi Long for a tweet she sent that risked collapsing the high-profile rape trial of rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding.
Frank O'Donoghue QC had said the case was "on a knife-edge" at the time of Mrs Long's tweet, which he said was "the straw that has broken the camel's back in this case". But after considering the application, Judge Patricia Smyth rejected the move.
In a statement, Alliance said: "We are always conscious of our responsibilities when making any comment related to live court proceedings and exercise great care to avoid any remarks which could be construed as prejudicial.
"The tweets related to a comment from a counsel's closing address regarding class and not evidence before the court, so were entirely unrelated to and made no reference or inference whatsoever to the guilt or innocence of those on trial.
"Legal contentions alleging prejudice in the context of various remarks on social media were put before the trial judge and after careful consideration she rejected those arguments, a view reinforced by the Attorney General."
Mr Jackson (26) and Mr Olding (25) were unanimously acquitted of rape by a jury of eight men and three women.
Mr Jackson was found not guilty of a further charge of sexual assault.
Two other men were cleared of lesser charges connected to the incident in June 2016.
In a tweet posted on March 22 - five days before the jury was sent out - Mrs Long criticised language used by Mr O'Donoghue in his closing speech, in which he made reference to "middle class girls" who were downstairs in Mr Jackson's house at the time of the incident in June 2016.
She wrote: "I genuinely have no words for how atrocious this statement is. Middle class girls? What? Because 'working class girls' wouldn't care/don't matter/think rape is normal? What is the implication of that comment even meant to be? Appalling at every level."
Mr O'Donoghue told the judge: "I certainly never said anything about persons, middle class girls, being less tolerant of rape than anyone else or working class girls being more tolerant of rape or anything like it. Nor, in my opinion, in the context within which the comment was passed, could any fair right-minded person have formed the conclusion that I was saying or inferring any such thing."
In his application to have the jury discharged on March 26 - the day before it was to begin its deliberations - Mr O'Donoghue said the politician had more than 29,600 followers on Twitter, and that her comment had received 277 'likes' and was retweeted 36 times. He said: "I was frankly aghast to find that Ms Naomi Long had taken it upon herself, notwithstanding that she has had no involvement in this case, has never attended the trial and has no obvious connection to this trial, to tweet an opinion to her followers about the appropriateness of my use of language during the course of my speech."
He argued that Mrs Long had an "extraordinarily high profile in Belfast", adding that her tweet had "plainly sought to influence her readers and listeners" about the meaning of his closing remarks.
Mr O'Donoghue said her post had the capacity to reflect badly on his client and created a substantial risk of prejudicing or impeding proceedings if it was related to the jury.
"I do not know if her comments have been seen or relayed to any member of the jury in any way," he said.
"Nor do I consider that it would be appropriate to enquire of individual members of the jury if that were so, as to do so would be to attract their attention to the comments or to invite them to investigate.
"However, given her profile as a leader of a mainstream political party, a Belfast MLA, the fact that she is a woman speaking about male attitudes to rape in the context of this trial means that there is a reasonable prospect that her views will have been received by one or more than one member of the jury... in our view, the line has now been crossed."
He added: "Regrettably, I am compelled to apply to the court that this jury shall be discharged."
However, prosecution barrister Toby Hedworth described the row as a "storm in a teacup" and said he was confident the jury would have followed repeated instructions from Judge Smyth to avoid social media through the course of the trial.
Turning down the application, the judge said: "It is recognised that jurors are capable of following instructions and I have no reason to think they have not followed every instruction, nor do I have any reason to believe they have any knowledge of the tweet. I am not satisfied that there is a real risk of prejudice to this jury and I refuse the application."
An official request was made to have the tweet removed from the internet.