Ulster rape trial restrictions lifted; Blood stain airbrushed from photo of bed

Update 10pm: Some blood staining had to be airbrushed from a photo of Paddy Jackson's bedclothes before it was shown to the jury in his rape trial.

That is just one of the things that can now be reported after an order preventing the publication or broadcast of legal arguments was lifted today.

It has been two weeks since Mr Jackson and his Ireland and Ulster rugby teammate Stuart Olding were acquitted of raping a woman in June 2016.

One of two blood stains found on Mr Jackson’s bed sheets belonged to a “non-related person” and it was airbrushed from a photo shown to the jurors for fear it would prejudice the entire trial.

Other issues brought up during legal argument included the judge’s tone during her charge, a short video of a “spit roast” sent by Rory Harrison to Stuart Olding, the exact location of a semen stain belonging to Mr. Olding on the woman’s trousers and a tweet posted by the leader of the Alliance Party Naomi Long towards the end of the trial.

Earlier: Reporting restrictions in rugby 'rape' trial lifted with agreement of acquitted men

Update 5.20pm: Reporting restrictions surrounding the rape trial of two Ireland rugby internationals have been lifted.

Lawyers representing four men involved in the high-profile case told a brief hearing at Belfast Crown Court they had no objections.

Judge Patricia Smyth said: "The only order that I need to make is that the prohibitions are now discharged. I make that order forthwith.

The other prohibitions will fall away by statute.

A number of media outlets had challenged the reporting restrictions which barred publication of any legal argument or applications made in the absence of the jury.

Such restrictions usually fall away when a trial concludes because the risk of prejudicing a jury no longer exists.

But when the trial concluded two weeks ago Judge Smyth indicated they would remain in place.

Paddy Jackson, 26, and his Ireland and Ulster teammate Stuart Olding, 25, were unanimously acquitted of raping the same woman after a nine-week trial at Belfast Crown Court last month.

Jackson was also found not guilty of sexual assault.

The players' friends Blane Mcllroy, 26, and Rory Harrison, 25, were also unanimously acquitted of lesser charges connected to the alleged incident in June 2016.

McIlroy was found not guilty of exposure while Harrison was found not guilty of perverting the course of justice and withholding information.

Gerry Simpson QC, representing a number of print and broadcast news organisations, said: "Our application is that there is no longer any prohibition in reporting any matter which occurred in open court."

Frank O'Donoghue QC, representing Olding said: "The defendants are all now in a position to consent to the application."

Solicitor Pat Kelly, representing McIlroy, added: "We are not opposing."

Judge Smyth added: "Everyone is in agreement that the application should be lifted."

Meanwhile, restrictions preventing publication of the identity of a number of witnesses linked to the complainant remain in place at this stage.

Mr Simpson said he intended to take instruction on whether or not this would be challenged.

Earlier: Former MP's tweet and appearance of Rory Best nearly collapsed Ulster rugby rape trial

Update 4.40pm: A former MP's tweet threatened to collapse the rape trial of two Ireland rugby players just before the jury went out, it can now be revealed.

Proceedings were dramatically delayed and the court cleared as the remark by Naomi Long, leader of the cross community Alliance Party and now an MLA, was discussed at Belfast Crown Court.

Launching a legal bid to have the jury discharged, Frank O'Donoghue QC, representing Stuart Olding, who was acquitted of rape, said the trial was on a "knife edge".

The lawyer said: "This is the straw that has broken the camel's back in this case."

The revelations are only being made public after reporting restrictions were lifted by Judge Patricia Smyth at Belfast Crown Court on Wednesday.

Ireland and Ulster fly-half Paddy Jackson, 26, and team mate Stuart Olding, 25, were unanimously acquitted of rape by a jury which deliberated for three hours and 45 minutes having heard all the evidence in a nine-week trial.

Jackson was also found not guilty of sexual assault.

Both men had strenuously denied all allegations against them.

The court heard Ms Long had been critical of comments in Mr O'Donoghue's closing speech in which he described "middle class girls" who were in the house at the time of the alleged rape.

Ms Long posted on Twitter:

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.

The comment was re-tweeted 36 times and received 277 likes, the court was told.

Naomi Long, centre.

It was posted at a crucial point in the marathon trial after all of the evidence had been heard and as Judge Patricia Smyth was issuing her legal direction to jurors on day 40 of the 42 day case.

Mr O'Donoghue argued the post risked prejudicing the administration of justice and had the capacity to reflect adversely on Olding.

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."

The lawyer further suggested that as leader of Northern Ireland's "third largest political party" Ms Long was someone of "extraordinary high profile" and influence.

He said: "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.

"I do not know anything about the members of the jury. Further, in purely numerical terms, Alliance has approximately 10% of the vote in NI.

"It is the third largest party in Belfast. It is reasonable to assume, therefore, that at least one member of the jury may be inclined to vote Alliance or to see Naomi Long and her party as someone whose opinions carry weight and influence.

"In our view, the line has now been crossed.

"This Court has an obligation to ensure that an accused person receives a fair trial. The Court has done its utmost to discharge that obligation.

The trial is on a knife edge. The jury is just about to go out to consider its verdicts. The timing of Ms Long's opinion on social media could not be more unfortunate, to put it mildly.

The lawyer called for the jury to be dismissed.

He said: "Unsurprisingly, Mr Olding has formed the view, as indeed has his legal team, that Ms Long's intervention is such as to create a substantial risk of prejudice.

"That this cannot be cured. And that, regrettably, this jury shall now have to be stood down and discharged.

"Regrettably, I am compelled to apply to the Court that this jury shall be discharged."

Meanwhile, prosecutor Toby Hedworth QC described the Twitter furore as a "storm in a teacup".

He said the defence barrister had chosen his words carefully and expressed confidence the jury would have heeded warnings to steer clear of social media.

After some consideration Judge Patricia Smyth rejected the application.

She said: "This jury has been repeatedly warned from the outset not to look at any press reports. They have also been told not to look at social media and in particular not to look at Twitter.

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.

Ms Smyth added: "I am not satisfied that there is a real risk of prejudice to this jury and I refuse the application."

However an official request was made to have the tweet taken down.

A social media frenzy sparked by the attendance of Rory Best also threatened to undermine the rape trial just days after it began.

Twitter went into overdrive when pictures emerged of the Ireland rugby captain walking into Belfast's Laganside Court as his team geared up for the Six Nations campaign.

Jurors were told he had attended the hearing on instruction from senior counsel.

But during legal argument in the absence of the jury, barristers suggested interest in the case had reached "fever pitch", particularly on social media platforms.

There was even a campaign #notmycaptain, the court was told.

Rory Best attending the trial.

Frank O'Donoghue QC, representing Stuart Olding, said: "He (Mr Best) attended in court to hear the evidence of the complainant.

"He was filmed coming into the courthouse.

"It has provoked what can only be described as a ferocious debate about his appearance or attendance.

"This is a public court and any member of the public can attend this court at any time.

It is extremely important that the public should know that there is a presumption of innocence which some may feel has been lost.

Mr Best was among a number of well-known sports figures suggested as potential character witnesses.

Former Ulster star Ruan Pienaar, who is now based in France, BBC sports commentator Jim Neely and professional MMA fighter Leah McCourt were also put forward.

However none appeared and no evidence was offered on their behalf during the nine-week trial.

During the legal arguments, Mr O'Donoghue expressed concern that the fallout could dissuade people from giving evidence and could interfere with the administration of justice.

He also informed the judge of an intention to make an application to restrain the press.

Everyone should be free to attend court without fear of "ridicule", the lawyer said.

"As a consequence I have taken the view there is now a very real risk that those who may wish to give character evidence in this case will either be dissuaded from doing so because the risk of challenge they may face.

"At a time convenient, I intend to bring an application under the Contempt of Court Act to restrain the press from publishing or broadcasting the identity of any person who wishes to attend this trial to hear any evidence."

In the end, press coverage was not restricted.

Day 40 was to become one of the most dramatic days in courtroom number 12 of the Laganside complex.

A second application to have the jury discharged was made a short time later when Jackson's defence team raised issues about the judge's pace, tone and delivery of her legal direction.

Brendan Kelly QC said he made the complaint with a "heavy heart" and "on instruction".

"I have to make the application," he said.

Rejecting the criticism, Judge Smyth said she had made changes to the wording of her direction at the request of legal teams and was being "scrupulously careful" to make the case.

She said: "I am studiously anxious to ensure that the points are made."

Two other men were also acquitted of lesser charges connected to the alleged incident in June 2016.

Blane McIlroy, 26, was found not guilty of exposure while Rory Harrison, 25, was acquitted of perverting the course of justice and withholding information.

Several media outlets took legal action to overturn reporting restrictions which prevented the publication of legal argument made in the absence of the jury.

Restrictions usually fall away when a case concludes because a jury can no longer be prejudiced.

The high-profile trial generated an unprecedented level of public attention.

In a statement outside the court, Jackson's defence solicitor Joe McVeigh called for a crackdown on social media comment during criminal proceedings.

He said several days had been lost due to problems thrown up by the "intrusive infection of the process" by social media.

The case has also renewed the debate on whether defendants in rape trials should also be entitled to anonymity, with their names only being revealed if they are convicted.

In a statement, an Alliance Party spokesman 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."

Earlier: Judge lifts reporting restrictions in Ulster rape trial; 'Spitroast' video not shown to jury

Update 3.37pm:Jurors at the rape trial of two Ireland rugby internationals were not told about a pornographic video exchange hours after the alleged attack.

The clip showing a so-called "spitroast" was sent from Rory Harrison to Stuart Olding two hours after they ate lunch at a Belfast cafe on June 28, 2016.

But after legal argument Judge Patricia Smyth ruled the footage of two men and a woman, not connected to the case, having consensual group sex should not be shown to the court.

"At this stage the prejudicial effect of evidence outweighs the probative value," the judge said.

Details of the video can only be made public after reporting restrictions on the case were lifted.

The issue was raised about half way through the nine-week trial.

A defence barrister for Paddy Jackson also cautioned if the clip was admitted his team may have to scour the internet for other clips of group sex.

Brendan Kelly QC said: "We would be forced to explore whatever we could to adduce other incidents of group sex which involved three or more people where there is no penile penetration. That's a perfectly proper line of inquiry if that particular video goes before the jury at this stage."

Ireland and Ulster players Paddy Jackson, 26, and Stuart Olding, 25, were unanimously acquitted of rape by a jury which deliberated for three hours and 45 minutes.

Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding

Jackson was also found not guilty of sexual assault.

Blane McIlroy, 26, was found not guilty of exposure and Rory Harrison, 25, was acquitted on perverting the course of justice and withholding information.

Prosecutors had wanted the video to be included as evidence of a conspiracy to concoct a cover story in the event of a complaint being made by the woman at the centre of the case.

Toby Hedworth QC said: "The significance of this video is that it is sent by Mr Harrison to Mr Olding just over two hours after all four defendants have met up that lunchtime at Soul Food."

Later he added: "The video, we submit, provides evidence of what they had been discussing otherwise it is a remarkable coincidence.

"We submit this is highly relevant in respect of the overall case as it was being discussed by all four defendants as to what occurred earlier that same morning, and when one considers in particular Mr Olding's difficulty apparently knowing what Mr Jackson had been doing and Mr Harrison claiming not to know what had occurred upstairs.

"There are two sides as to how Mr Harrison was playing this game in the aftermath.

"It is important that the jury see what Mr Harrison was doing that morning.

"Was he being concerned genuinely, or was he enjoying with his friends what had gone on after their discussion about it at the Soul Food restaurant?

"It is highly relevant to this case as a whole but it is particularly relevant to Messrs Olding and Harrison."

Objections from defence legal teams included argument that the video could amount to prejudicial bad character evidence.

Frank O'Donoghue QC, representing Olding, said there was "no evidence" his client had opened the video.

The lawyer added: "It was not a video of the actual events of the previous evening.

"The probative value of adding this material is negligible to the free standing prosecution case against Mr Olding."

Gavan Duffy QC, representing Harrison, argued there was "no evidence" of any conspiracy and he suggested the prosecution was making an "outrageous speculative connection".

He asked: "What's the relevance?"

Meanwhile, Mr Kelly QC said the sole issue in the case was consent.

"Although I have not seen it, the fact that one co-defendant sent the other co-defendant not jointly charged, a video of consensual act is probative of what?"

After overnight consideration, the judge ruled the video should not be admitted because it may have an adverse effect on proceedings, was irrelevant and could be prejudicial.

PA


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