Ireland rugby internationals Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were found not guilty on Wednesday of raping a woman at a party in 2016.
After an eight-week trial that the judge said had been made extremely difficult for the jury by intense media coverage, the men walked free but remain suspended from playing until the Irish rugby union completes its own review.
Jackson was also acquitted of a separate charge of sexual assault. Two other men who faced charges in connection with the incident were also found not guilty.
Neither of the players, who between them have represented their country 29 times, have played for their club, Ulster, or at national level, since they were charged last July.
Some people cried in the public gallery when the unanimous verdict was read out after the jury had deliberated for three hours and 45 minutes.
The rugby players hugged their families outside the courtroom where a defence lawyer said the trial should never have happened.
“The prosecution made much of a perceived privilege position provided by virtue of Paddy being an international rugby player. We say that it was his status as a famous sportsman that drove the decision to prosecute in the first place,” Jackson’s solicitor, Joe McVeigh, said outside the court.
“Paddy and his parents have paid a heavy price personally, professionally and financially. This price was paid despite the fact he is and has never been anything other than entirely innocent.”
Jackson, 26, and Olding, 25, were accused of raping the woman in Jackson’s home in the early hours of June 28, 2016.
Prosecutors told the trial that Olding entered the bedroom while Jackson was raping the woman and joined in.
Under cross-examination, Jackson repeatedly denied he had forced the woman and that she had followed him to his bedroom on two separate occasions for consensual sexual activity.
She was one of several women who had come to his house after meeting the men in a Belfast nightclub a day after they had returned from Ireland’s tour of South Africa, he told the court.
Olding told the court he had been “in complete control” of his actions despite a day of heavy drinking and that he was “100 percent sure” that what had happened had been consensual.
The trial received widespread media coverage across both Ireland and Northern Ireland, where rugby is one of the few sports where players from both sides of the border represent one national team.
Jackson’s lawyer said that “vile commentary” on social media throughout the trial went well beyond fair comment and raised concerns about the integrity of the trial process.