Four people accused of criminal damage after pulling down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston have been found not guilty by a jury.
Sage Willoughby, 22, Jake Skuse, 33, Milo Ponsford, 26, and Rhian Graham, 30, faced charges after they were seen in CCTV participating in the removal of the statue, which took place during a Black Lives Matter protest in Bristol in June 2020.
Following a trial which lasted more than a fortnight, the group - dubbed the ‘Colston four’ - have now been cleared of criminal damage.
What were the ‘Coltson four’ accused of doing?
The four took part in a Black Lives Matter protest in June 2020, which saw a large crowd of protesters take to the streets of Bristol.
During the protest, a large crowd gathered around a plinth which held a statue of 1th century slave trader Edward Coltson and began to attempt to remove the statue.
Sage Willoughby, Milo Ponsford and Rhian Graham were all seen on CCTV passing ropes around the structure, which would then be used to pull the statue from its position.
Once it was down, the statue was then thrown into the nearby harbour at Pero’s Bridge, with final defendant, Jake Skuse, accused of orchestrating the plan to do so.
It was estimated that the damage to the statue totaled £3,750, with a bill of £350 for damage to the railings of Pero’s Bridge.
Despite there being a large crowd involved with the act, the four were identified and were charged with criminal damage.
They all admitted that they had taken part in the toppling of the statue but claimed that their actions were not criminal due to the fact that the presence of the statue itself was a “hate crime” against the people of Bristol.
What happened in court?
The ‘Colston four’ were taken to trial at Bristol Crown Court, despite the case being able to be heard in a magistrates court.
During the trial, historian and author Professor David Olusoga provided expert evidence for the defence, while Bristol Lord Mayor Cleo Lake also backed the group’s actions.
After a three hour deliberation, the jury found them all four not guilty of criminal damage.
As the verdict was read aloud, there were loud cheers from the public gallery, which was packed with supporters for the protesters.
What has been the reaction to the verdict?
The ‘Colston four’ were overjoyed with their verdicts, with Rhian Graham stating that they were “overwhelmed” by the decision.
Outside of court, she said: “I’m just so overwhelmed, because it never felt like we’ve got we’d get here. We just want to say thank you to so many people because we have never been alone in this journey, we have been so supported and we are such a small part of this really.
“There were so many people that day, and so many people reverberating across the world in response to it.”
Ms Graham’s representative, Blinne Ni Ghralaigh, said: “This case demonstrates the fundamental importance of trial by jury.
“That is because juries represent the collective sense of justice of the community.
“In this case, they determined that a conviction for the removal of this statue – that glorified a slave trader involved in the enslavement of over 84,000 black men, women and children as a ‘most virtuous and wise’ man – would not be proportionate.”
Raj Chada, who represented Jake Skuse, said: “The truth is that the defendants should never have been prosecuted.
“It is shameful that Bristol City Council did not take down the statue of slaver Edward Colston that had caused such offence to people in Bristol, and equally shameful that they then supported the prosecution of these defendants.”
Judge Peter Blair QC questioned whether an application made by Mr Ponford’s lawyer to reimburse the group’s legal fees was appropriate due to the high profile nature of the case and backing which the group had received.
Supporters had gathered outside the trail as it was ongoing, with Bristol artist Banksy also creating a limited edition t-shirt for the group, with money from the sale of the t-shirts going towards their legal fees.
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