Wales international footballer Ched Evans was found not guilty of rape by a jury at Cardiff Crown Court on Friday following a retrial.
Evans, who plays for English third-tier club Chesterfield, was accused of raping a 19-year-old woman in a hotel room near Rhyl, north Wales, in May 2011.
The 27-year-old was previously found guilty of rape, but the jury was told that the Court of Appeal had quashed the conviction and ordered a retrial.
The verdict, which the jury reached in just three hours after being asked to consider the evidence by trial judge Mrs Justice Nicola Davies earlier on Friday, ended Evans’s five-year fight to clear his name.
“Mr Evans you are discharged and you can leave the dock,” Davies told Evans as she brought the eight-day trial to a close.
Evans was seen crying and hugging partner Natasha Massey, who has been behind him ever since he was first convicted, after the verdict was announced.
Following his acquittal Evans, with Massey alongside him, stood on the steps of the court as a statement was read out on his behalf by his solicitor Shaun Draycott.
“In the early hours of 30th May 2011 an incident occurred in North Wales that was to change my life and the lives of others for ever,” the statement said.
“That incident did not involve the commission of a criminal offence and today I am overwhelmed with relief that the jury agreed.”
The statement then saw Evans thank his legal team before adding: “Thanks go, too, to my friends and family; most notably my fiancee, Natasha, who chose, perhaps incredibly, to support me in my darkest hour.
“Whilst my innocence has now been established, I wish to make it clear that I wholeheartedly apologise to anyone who might have been affected by the events of the night in question.”
Evans and Massey then left without making any further comment or answering questions from waiting reporters.
Chesterfield, the club Evans joined in pre-season, issued a separate statement of their own saying they welcomed the verdict, with chief executive Chris Turner adding: “We are naturally delighted with the outcome, especially for Ched, his family and friends. We can now all move forward and focus on football.”
From the start, Evans insisted he was innocent of rape.
Evans said he walked into a hotel room where fellow footballer Clayton McDonald was having sex with the woman, adding McDonald then asked her if he could join in, to which she replied: “Yes.”
Prosecutors, however, alleged that the complainant was too drunk to consent.
Evans and Massey are still in a relationship. They plan to marry and have a nine-month-old son.
Then playing for Sheffield United, Evans was initially found guilty of rape in April 2012 and sentenced to five years in prison amid a widespread debate in Britain about the morals of footballers and the sport’s attitude towards women.
In October 2014, Evans was released after serving half his sentence. The following month saw Sheffield United face a public backlash after the club said they would let Evans train with them.
Sheffield-born Jessica Ennis-Hill, the 2012 Olympic heptathlon champion, responded by asking for her name to be removed from a stand at United’s Bramall Lane ground, while television sports presenter Charlie Webster quit as a club patron.
Third-tier Oldham then pulled out of a move to sign Evans following another public outcry.
Meanwhile the complainant, despite being granted anonymity, was subjected to a hate campaign on social media after her identity was made public.
In October last year, Evans’s case was referred to the Court of Appeal on the basis of new information and he subsequently won an appeal against the original conviction before being sent for a retrial.
Prior to the retrial, Evans signed a one-year contract with Chesterfield, Oldham’s divisional rivals, and in June he scored in his first game in four years during a 3-0 friendly win against Ilkeston.