Belfast Telegraph

Rugby rape trial: Heart-stopping moment when verdicts arrived

Olding smiled, McIlroy blinked and bit his lip, the other two gave heavy sighs

By Claire O'Boyle

The call rang out loud and clear across the crowded canteen - all parties back to Courtroom 12. After a trial lasting nine weeks, it had all come down to this.

And suddenly, from nervous chatter, there was nothing.

Silence for a second as every pair of eyes in the room flicked away from phones and friends, then scraping chairs and panicked instructions. Upstairs, now. Grab my bag. Leave it. Forget the coffee.

In the hour or so beforehand the canteen - the room that sees it all at Laganside Courthouse - had been split in two.

On one side of a wooden divide sat the legal teams. Suited and booted, wigs in hand, they seemed weary and nervous waiting for news over cups of tea and plates of cold chips.

On the other side, reporters, court staff and various others.

In the midst of the lunchtime congregation were the four men and their families, the people - along with the complainant and her family - whose lives have been turned upside down through the course of this trial, one of the most high-profile ever conducted in Northern Ireland.

Moments before the announcement came the men - Paddy Jackson, Stuart Olding, Blane McIlroy and Rory Harrison - had been doing their best to look calm.

Mr Jackson and Mr McIlroy sat with friends, their chairs pushed back and legs crossed. But their eyes were darting back and forth and their faces were strained. As they have been, increasingly, for weeks.

By the door sat Mr Olding, flanked as always by his loyal family as he wolfed down the last of his fried egg.

He looked pale with nerves - lining his stomach, perhaps, for what was to come.

All the while Mr Harrison was pacing. The facial expression that's grown so familiar to everyone who has followed the case since it started back in January was fixed. Eyes front. Jaw set.

The call rang out a few minutes before 12.30pm and within minutes the foyer of the courthouse was filled with people. Somehow, almost by instinct, the group split in half.

The young and fit dashed for the stairs.

Mr McIlroy's mother put most people to shame as she doubled-stepped her way to the fourth floor, nudging reporters out of the way so she didn't miss a thing. Others waited for the lift. The public gallery was packed.

In fact, by the time the jury arrived to deliver its verdicts the stewards of the court had been told to lock the door because there wasn't room for a single other soul.

On the instructions of Judge Patricia Smyth, the four men in the dock got to their feet, rubbing sweaty hands on their trousers, looking first to the floor then up and ahead to the fates that awaited.

The foreperson stood up too, and looked grave as the moment came to deliver the findings. And when it happened, it was quick. Not guilty, came verdict one. Paddy Jackson was not guilty of rape.

Not guilty again. Paddy Jackson, not guilty of sexual assault.

And to Stuart Olding, not guilty once again. This time, not guilty of forcing a woman to perform oral sex on him without her consent. Then Blane McIlroy, not guilty of exposure. Two more counts on the indictment to come - for Rory Harrison. And standing fourth in line in the dock, he must have felt that moment would never come. But it did and he was not guilty of perverting the course of justice. Not guilty of withholding information, either.

Mr Olding smiled, flushed and nervous. Mr McIlroy blinked and bit his lip. The other two breathed heavy sighs of relief.

Then outside the courtroom in the familiar corridor of the fourth floor of the courthouse, when the men joined their families and friends and the legal teams they've grown close to over the last weeks and months, the tears flowed freely.

Mothers, aunties and little sisters wept, fathers and grandas stood back and wiped their eyes. Stoney-faced barristers who have strutted their way around the courthouse for more than 40 days, stood with glistening eyes. Some sneaked to the toilets to wipe their tears.

Mr Jackson hugged Brendan Kelly QC and Mr Kelly took the sportsman's tearful mother away for a quiet, reflective moment as the nervous excitement bubbled on.

And striding high above the crowd came an unfamiliar sight - Mr Harrison's youthful, smiling face.

Relief and a wide, shy smile made him look younger. Like his age of 25. But the young men's big day wasn't over yet, and outside a crowd of hundreds awaited.

Walking out into the blinding Belfast sunshine from the dullness of the court was startling. And to see all those people waiting silhouetted against the sun in the wide pavements across from the Waterfront Hall must have seemed surreal.

The Press was there, of course, but they'd be expecting that. It was the hundreds of others there too, the people on their lunch breaks, the men, women and teenagers who had made their way to the city centre to see the rugby stars cleared of rape that must have been a lot to take in.

The beeping horns and slowing traffic. The people leaning out of office windows to get an eyeful of the action.

First out to face them was Mr McIlroy, accompanied as he has been through the whole process by his mother.

He walked, hands in pockets, straight out and away. The cameras clicked and he made his exit, quiet and controlled, stage left.

Next was Mr Jackson. People cheered and clapped, voicing their support for the innocent man.

He stopped with his solicitor to provide a statement to the media, and his legal representative took the moment to lay into the police and the PPS for letting the case get so far.

He reminded the crowd and the clicking cameras of the huge and toxic role social media had played throughout the trial. Then Jackson, his family and his lawyer, were gone.

Next out was Mr Harrison. As always, he emerged from the court alone, taking the pressure on his own two shoulders. His family followed behind.

Finally, it was Mr Olding's turn.

With a lawyer and his brother at his side he faced the cameras, although it was his solicitor who spoke on his behalf.

Expressing his regret about the events at the centre of the case that has rocked the country, the sportsman took the chance to address the young woman involved, who was aged 19 at the time. He didn't agree with her perception of events, he said, but he was sorry for the hurt that was caused, and said it was never his intention to cause any upset to anyone.

Belfast Telegraph

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