Date rape acquittal stokes row: 'A person who is drunk, and because she is drunk consents to an act which she would not when sober, still consents'

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THE DEBATE about what constitutes sexual consent was refuelled yesterday after an Old Bailey jury cleared a graduate of raping a fellow student after a Christmas party last year. The argument on 'date rape' was also further polarised.

Yesterday's verdict was welcomed by supporters of the accused, Austen Donnellan, but dismissed by women's groups as a 'backlash' against women. Siwan Hayward, founder of the No Means No campaign, said: 'Women don't lie about rape.'

But Earl Russell, a history professor at King's College London and Mr Donnellan's tutor, believed his student 'understood that no means no'. Later on BBC 2's Newsnight he added: 'No means no, but (there might be) mitigating circumstances. It does make a difference in my book how far a woman leads a man on before saying 'no'.'

The verdict was reached after the jury of nine women and two men had deliberated for more than an hour. Afterwards, Michael Fisher, Mr Donnellan's solicitor, said: 'It is an extremely difficult area where all sorts of mistakes are made. But he was adamant he wanted to be publicly cleared.'

During the seven-day trial, the court heard how Mr Donnellan, a history student, fearing expulsion by a disciplinary committee of King's College, called in the police to investigate. In an attempt to settle the matter internally, the college attempted to cut a deal with Mr Donnellan, whereby if he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and left, the original complaint would be withdrawn.

Hearing the verdict in court, Mr Donnellan's mother, Irene, who did not know about the trial until she read reports in the newspapers last week, wept with relief. Outside, she said: 'I knew he was innocent. I knew all along that he would be coming home with me tonight.'

The student had alleged that she awoke from a drunken stupor to find Mr Donnellan, 21, having oral sex and then intercourse with her. Rhyddian Willis, for the prosecution, said that she was like a 'rag doll', unconscious and in no state to give consent.

But Mr Donnellan had always protested his innocence, saying that he felt as though he was 'being picked up'. 'This was not a dead piece of meat I was having sex with. This idea that she was in a drunken stupor was a lie. I think she was very aware of what was happening. If she was not aware, I would not have proceeded with sex.'

Summing up, Judge Geoffrey Grigson said: 'A person who is drunk, and because she is drunk consents to an act which she would not when sober, still consents. Drunken consent is enough. But a woman who is so drunk that she has no understanding of what is happening cannot consent.'

During a testimony lasting four hours, Mr Donnellan had described how the woman had grabbed him by his T-shirt, pulled him on to her bed and repeatedly begged him to have sexual intercourse with her.

Later in the night, he awoke to find the woman stroking his back and body. He responded by undoing her night shirt and climbing on top of her. But when Mr Donnellan saw her eyes close and her head turn to one side, he assumed she had gone back to sleep. Moments later, she sat up, said 'I can't believe you just tried to screw me,' and walked out of the room. Mr Donnellan left a few minutes later.

Mr Donnellan described how the couple had kissed at the party, so passionately that at one point they fell to the floor. The woman had earlier drunk what one witness called a 'lethal cocktail' of cider, vodka and Drambuie. Mr Donnellan said he escorted her outside to get some fresh air and seeing that she was in no fit state to return to the party, carried her back to the room in a university hall of residence.

The court also heard how Mr Donnellan and the woman had become close friends over the previous 18 months. Despite kissing him passionately on several occasions, the woman rejected his offer of a relationship, preferring a series of one-night stands with other men, the sexual details of which she relayed to Mr Donnellan.

The woman admitted she had been so drunk that night that she did not remember leaving the party or going home. In cross-examination, she denied ever consenting to sex, but pressed by Michel Massih, for the defence, conceded that she could not remember anything. During legal argument in the absence of the jury, Judge Grigson asked counsel: 'If she cannot be sure it was rape, how can the jury?'

(Photograph omitted)

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