Shades of grey in rape case: The case raised questions on whether one man's behaviour or student conduct was on trial

IT HAS been difficult at times during the past week to know exactly what has been on trial at the Old Bailey - the behaviour of an individual on a particular night, or the conduct of student social life in general?

Austen Donnellan, who graduated in history from King's College, London, was yesterday cleared of raping a fellow student after a drunken Christmas party last year. What appeared to grip (and disturb) many observers was the apparent familiarity of the scenario - an end of term party, barrel-loads of drink and events that all sides might bitterly regret the next day.

Mr Donnellan had to recount graphically the details of a night, which, regardless of any allegation of rape, he would probably rather have forgotten. His mother, Irene, was in tears as she listened.

In the rather clinical confines of the Central Criminal Court, the behaviour hardly bore rational scrutiny. But then as the trial judge pointed out during legal argument: 'Rational is not a word used to describe many of the circumstances surrounding this case.'

How helpful was it to introduce to this world rich with shades of grey, an expert witness brimming with black and white? Robin Moffat, a forensic examiner with the Metropolitan Police who was called to explain the behavioural effects of alcohol, said: 'It staggers me that students, highly sensible people with high intellects, should do this (mix drinks). It's unbelievable.'

To guide the jurors in their assessment, Rhyddian Willis, for the prosecution, presented a man driven by an obsession for a woman he loved, the woman who had refused several requests for a relationship. The same woman who would relate details of the sexual encounters she had enjoyed with other men, but had denied him. Miss Willis called it a case of 'unrequited love', in which Mr Donnellan took advantage of a drunken stupor to indulge his passion.

Michel Massih, for the defence, painted the woman as the willing partner. A woman who after being hurt by a long- term relationship in her first year had resolved to stick to the comparative safety of one- night stands. A woman who admitted to getting drunk, losing her inhibitions and then regretting it the next day. A woman who asked her friends not to let her go home with Mr Donnellan because she did not trust herself.

What Judge Geoffrey Grigson charged the jury with establishing about a world, which will always have difficulty in sustaining close examination, was whether the woman had granted Mr Donnellan consent to have sexual intercourse with her.

'A considerable amount of alcohol can lead people to behave in a way that they would not otherwise do, that they come to regret and are loathe to admit. 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,' he said.

Mr Massih concluded: 'The Crown would like you to have Victorian values, and for him to be seen as some angel superman - when a woman pleads with him to have sex with her he says, 'No, dear'. Is that what 1993 England is all about? A young woman can get paralytically drunk and have sex with a man, as is her right to do so. Is the man to end up in a criminal trial? That simply cannot be right.'