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Laughter, jeers and scoffs from public gallery at woman were shocking

There was a free-for-all atmosphere in Belfast court as harrowing evidence was being heard, writes Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson ·

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Rory Harrison, Stuart Olding, Paddy Jackson and Blane McIlroy were cleared of the charges in a Belfast court

The young woman in the witness box was asked by the barrister: “How did you feel being back at Paddy Jackson’s house?”

“Pretty neutral, actually,” she replied evenly – as scornful laughter rang out in the public gallery.

VIDEO: Paddy Jackson makes statement after being found not guilty by a jury of raping a young student at a house party two years ago

In contrast with the atmosphere of almost monastic austerity in the closed courtroom of an in-camera rape trial in the Republic, the free-for-all atmosphere that prevailed in the Belfast rape trial was frankly shocking.

Partially responsible for this was the internal structure at Laganside.

In a regular open courtroom setting, anyone who laughed or interjected before a judge would instantly be turfed out.

Here, however, due to the thick glass walls boxing off the public gallery from the main well of the courtroom – with another glass box constituting the dock sitting squarely between the public and the lawyers – it meant that the sound from the general seating area was considerably muffled.

VIDEO: 'Though I committed no criminal offence I deeply regret the events of that evening' - Stuart Olding

This led, at times, to a scant regard for etiquette – as well as for common decency. Some people appeared to think they were at a stage production where they could react freely and openly to what was being said before them.

At least three-quarters of the public gallery seemed to be in support of the defendants.

And although the judge appeared to be completely unaware of any disturbance, it was still grossly disquietening to hear their comments on the evidence, barely concealed in a half whisper.

Naturally, it was worst when the young woman herself was in the witness box.

A blue curtain drawn around her, she was visible on screen, and she wept as she described her version of events that night.

From their seats in the glass-walled dock, the four defendants gazed intently at her on the screen. Dressed in a jumper and light coloured chinos, Paddy Jackson had a large notebook on his knee in which he wrote copiously throughout the morning.

From having been relatively full the previous day, the public seating area was heaving.

At several points of her testimony, there were jeers and scoffs from family members of the accused. “Choking on her lies,” said an older woman amid satisfaction at one stage.

Regardless of the eventual verdict, this was intolerable behaviour and added greatly to the toxic environment that prevailed over the eight-and-a-half weeks.

On the woman’s seventh day in the witness box, the tense atmosphere heightened considerably as she was cross-examined by Blane McIlroy’s barrister, Arthur Harvey, who suggested that rather than rape, she had engaged in consensual sex.

“Your memory is frayed and ragged throughout this whole incident, from the beginning of the evening to the end of the evening, isn’t that right?” he said.

“I wouldn’t use the words fractured or frayed, but yes, they are slightly hazy,” she replied. “There are moments that I can’t remember. No one remembers exact moments from a night out.

“You can’t be expected to remember each thing you have done.”

Suggesting her memory was “clouded by drink or an unwillingness to acknowledge what happened”, Mr Harvey accused her of “moving from truth to untruth, or falsehood and self-delusion”.

“Are you calling me deluded?” she asked him tensely.

Mr Harvey said: “If you called out for help or assistance, it would have been heard by the three girls downstairs.”

As she started to reply by saying, “That’s not how you react when you have been raped”, the barrister interrupted and queried why she was using the term “You” instead of “I”.

“Mr Harvey, I am not going to argue with you about grammar,” she said. “You are not going to put words in my mouth, thank you very much.”

During the medical evidence which revealed bruising and an internal 1cm bleeding laceration, six men walked out during a general discussion of the parts of the female anatomy.

It appeared that while it might not be intolerable to listen to the complainant give details of what she maintained was a rape, the detailed explanation of the female genitalia provoked an inexplicable squeamishness.

Spectators unconnected with the trial settled comfortably into the same seats in courtroom 12 from early on in the trial. Amongst them was a retired teacher, commuting daily from a Border town for the sheer entertainment value.

Rape trial day-trippers were another unsavoury feature of this trial.

On one occasion, an elderly couple had come up to Belfast for the day and visited the Titanic Experience before popping into the Laganside Courts for a casual look, excited to see this hotly discussed spectacle with their own eyes.

Given the sensitivity of the issue at hand, it was highly distasteful.

Tension and worry amongst the families of the defendants only truly became apparent during the closing statements. At one stage, Rory Harrison’s mother wept, her head on the shoulder of a relative.

The jury sat, taking copious notes at the instruction of Brendan Kelly QC for Paddy Jackson, as he told them that this was not a case of morals or sympathy.

“Don’t be distracted by the fact that we all have daughters and all are fathers,” he urged them.

“Try this case devoid of sympathy because your oath was to try it on evidence and the law says you must ignore those sentiments.”

On the day of the verdict, one regular attendee chose to sit out the wait while working on a long swathe of crochet.

The trial also saw another dimension that was entirely unexpected.

On the second day of the trial, where the young girl took the stand to begin her testimony, the public gallery was attended by a presence that provoked a storm of controversy.

Ireland rugby captain Rory Best took his seat to observe her, along with two well known Ulster players.

Best subsequently explained his presence at a post-match press conference in Paris, saying he was “on the record as a character witness”.

“We sign out on Tuesday night, Wednesday is our day off, so technically we don’t need permission to do stuff on our own time,” he said.

“The reason I was there, it’s on the record I’ve been called as a character witness.

“I was advised it was important to attend, so I got both sides of the story,” he added.

But his presence – on this day of all days, as the girl began her account – was seen by many commentators as controversial.

An issue in the trial generally was that despite the anonymity of the young girl at the centre of this case, it was possible for anyone to walk in off the street, view the victim on screen, hear her name being spoken openly and leave – disseminating this information widely to others.

Why this is problematic particularly in the social media age became instantly apparent. The PSNI have subsequently questioned two individuals who named the woman on social media.

A photograph falsely purporting to be the woman was also widely distributed on online messaging services, such as WhatsApp.

In the aftermath of the verdict, emotions have run high, with consequences both bizarre and unprecedented.

On Thursday, the jury foreperson was referred to the Attorney General’s office by the Lord Chief Justice after they posted a series of remarks relating to the trial in the comments section of a website on Wednesday night.

This juror could face arrest and a contempt of court charge over the comments. It is understood that the comments made by the juror related to the female complainant at the centre of the trial and matters relating to the police investigation.

The fallout from this unprecedented trial shows no sign of abating and will live long in the minds of many.

Irish Independent

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Rory Harrison, Stuart Olding, Paddy Jackson and Blane McIlroy were cleared of the charges in a Belfast court