Paddy Jackson's lawyer says there was a "very apparent investigative bias" against his client
Northern Ireland's Public Prosecution Service has insisted it was in the public interest to prosecute the four men at the centre of the Belfast rape trial.
Ireland and Ulster international rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were this afternoon acquitted of raping the same woman in June 2016.
Mr Jackson was also found not guilty of sexual assault.
Their friend Blane McIlory was acquitted of one count of exposure while another friend Rory Harrison was acquitted of perverting the course of justice and withholding information.
Following the verdict, Mr Jackson's solicitor Joe McVeigh lashed out at the PSNI, the public prosecutor and the complainant over the prosecution.
He said the decision to prosecute the four men was driven by Mr Jackson's "status as a famous sportsman."
"It is our belief that the [police] investigation has been characterised by the turning of a blind eye to inaccuracies in the evidence of the complainant combined with very apparent investigative bias," he said.
"Paddy and his parents have paid a heavy price - personally, professionally and financially.
"This price was paid despite the fact that he has never been anything other than entirely innocent."
VIDEO: Paddy Jackson speaks to media with his solicitor after his acquittal. His barrister Brendan Kelly QC can be seen listening in the background. pic.twitter.com/pZAS7htl0t— Frank Greaney (@FrankGreaney) March 28, 2018
However, Marianne O'Kane, head of the Northern Ireland Public Prosecution Service's Serious Crime Unit said it was in the public interest to prosecute the four men.
She said the evidence in the case was "subjected to a very thorough and careful examination by a team of experienced lawyers" who concluded that there was "sufficient evidence to provide a reasonable prospect of conviction and it was in the public interest to prosecute."
"It was ultimately right that the matter was placed before a jury to make their determination," she said.
She took the opportunity to thank the jury for "conscientious consideration of the evidence" adding that "we respect the verdict that they have reached."
The North’s Public Prosecution Service says it was in the public interest to prosecute in the Jackson/Olding case. It has praised the ‘courage and determination’ of the complainant. pic.twitter.com/lqOg3EZPuL— Stephanie Grogan (@StephGrogan3) March 28, 2018
Ms O'Kane urged anyone who has been a victim of an offence to come forward, adding "be assured that you will be treated with sensitivity and respect throughout."
"Most importantly I want to take a moment to recognise the courage and determination of the complainant and her family throughout these proceedings," she said.
"There has been extensive media coverage of this case - sometimes at a level that has been unprecedented in recent times.
"I hope that this has helped the public to better understand the criminal justice system and the trial process.
"I also hope that there will be a continuing conversation about societal attitudes in relation to sexual offences."
The PSNI has defended its handling of the Jackson/Olding/McIlroy/Harrison case. Here is some of what they had to say. pic.twitter.com/aYb1Y2a0pX— Stephanie Grogan (@StephGrogan3) March 28, 2018
In a statement this afternoon, PSNI Detective Chief Superintendent Paula Hilman said the police service has "faith and trust in the legal system" adding that is respects the verdict handed down by the jury.
“I would like to pay tribute to the young woman who had the resolve and confidence to come forward and put her faith in police and the criminal justice process," she said.
She said her legal right to anonymity had been breached on social media - and warned that "breach of this entitlement is and will be investigated."
"This case has provoked much comment and debate. While we respect today’s verdict it should not deter victims of serious sexual crime from contacting police," she said.
"As police officers our role is to keep people safe. Anyone can be the victim of sexual crime regardless of age, background, status or gender."
She noted that there is "no room in society for tolerance of sexual crime."
"We understand how difficult it can be for someone to report a rape, but let me assure you today that if you choose to speak to police, you will be listened to, respected, treated sensitively [and] have your report thoroughly investigated," she said.
“We will continue to work hard to improve outcomes for offences of rape and sexual assault.
"Our message is clear, please continue to report.”
Mr McVeigh said the discourse on social media surrounding the trial had "polluted the sphere of public discourse and raised real concerns about the integrity of the trial process."
He said there is no reason to believe that the problem will not worsen and called for a fresh examination of "more robust mechanisms that can strike an effective balance between everyone's rights and properly secure the integrity of our criminal justice system."
He said Mr Jackson's priority was now to get back on the rugby pitch representing his province and his country.
If you have been affected by anything mentioned in this article you can contact the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre National 24-Hour helpline on 1800-77-88-88