The Attorney General is considering referring the Edward Colston statue case – which saw four people cleared of criminal damage after the monument was torn down – to the Court of Appeal so the law can be ‘clarified for future cases’.
Suella Braverman said the verdict is causing ‘confusion’ and she is ‘carefully considering’ whether to use powers which allow her to seek a review so senior judges have the chance to make clear what the legal implications of the case are.
Rhian Graham, 30, Milo Ponsford, 26, Sage Willoughby, 22, and Jake Skuse, 33, were prosecuted for pulling the statue down during a Black Lives Matter protest on June 7 2020 in Bristol while a huge crowd was present.
The prosecution had said it was ‘irrelevant’ who Colston was and the case was one of straightforward criminal damage, but the defendants were acquitted by a jury at the city’s Crown Court on Wednesday.
The verdict prompted a debate about the criminal justice system after the ‘Colston Four’ opted to stand trial in front of a jury and did not deny involvement in the incident, instead claiming the presence of the statue was a hate crime and it was therefore not an offence to remove it.
Tory MP Tom Hunt had said the verdict ‘feels like a vandals’ charter’, adding: ‘This sets a dangerous precedent. The idea that political extremists can remove any statue they like and not be punished… where does it end?’
But Nazir Afzal, a former chief crown prosecutor for the North West, said a jury verdict does not set a precedent, adding on Twitter: ‘You cannot appeal or have a retrial. I can think of 100s of jury verdicts that I didn’t agree with, based on the evidence – but the jury system is the best we have.’
The acquittal cannot be overturned and the defendants cannot be retried without fresh evidence, but Section 36 of the Criminal Justice Act 1972 allows the Attorney General, following a submission from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), to ask a higher court to clarify a point of law.
It is not a means to change the outcome of an individual case.
Left to right: Sage Willoughby, Jake Skuse, Milo Ponsford and Rhian Graham outside Bristol Crown Court after they were cleared of criminal damage for pulling down a statue of slave trader Edward Colston
Suella Braverman said the verdict is causing ‘confusion’ and she is ‘carefully considering’ whether to use powers which allow her to seek a review so senior judges have the chance to ‘clarify the law for future cases’
Ms Braverman, MP for Fareham, said on Twitter: ‘Trial by jury is an important guardian of liberty and must not be undermined. However, the decision in the Colston statue case is causing confusion.
‘Without affecting the result of this case, as Attorney General I am able to refer matters to the Court of Appeal so that senior judges have the opportunity to clarify the law for future cases. I am carefully considering whether to do so.’
Human Rights lawyer Shoaib M Khan said he was ‘not sure’ what Suella Braverman meant, adding: ‘Is the law of criminal damage unclear to the Attorney General? What ‘clarity’ do you want from the Court of Appeal?
‘Or are people who didn’t like the slave trader’s statue being removed just desperate for a court to say the jury was wrong?’
A CPS spokesman said: ‘The decision to charge was made following detailed consideration of the evidence in accordance with our legal test.
‘We are considering the outcome of the case but, under the law, the prosecution cannot appeal against a jury acquittal.’
During the trial, Judge Peter Blair QC told jurors they must decide the case on the basis of the evidence they had heard, after raising concerns in their absence that undue pressure was being placed on them by excessive rhetoric from defence barristers.
Protesters throwing a statue of Edward Colston into Bristol harbour during a Black Lives Matter protest in June 2020
Ms Braverman said on Twitter: ‘Trial by jury is an important guardian of liberty and must not be undermined. However, the decision in the Colston statue case is causing confusion’
He also warned members of the defendants’ many supporters about their behaviour in court.
A petition calling for a retrial, claiming the acquittal set a ‘dangerous precedent that endangers all of our national heritage’, has so far attracted more than 5,000 signatures.
The concerns were echoed by some Tory MPs but others, and several lawyers, dismissed claims that the verdict set a legal precedent which could give rise to other public monuments being defaced.
After the verdict, Prime Minister Boris Johnson people should not ‘go around seeking retrospectively to change our history’ but added: ‘I don’t want to comment on that particular judgment – it’s a matter for the court.’
Former justice secretary Robert Buckland defended the jury system, despite describing the verdict in the Colston case as ‘perverse’.
The destruction was a defining moment in protests that followed the murder of black suspect George Floyd by a white police officer in the US.
Responding to the jury’s verdict, Tory MP Peter Bone said: ‘I’m not privy to what was said in court, but if somebody topples a statue or any other structure that is criminal damage and one would expect people to be punished for doing that.’
He insisted: ‘It’s a dangerous state of affairs which could now give licence to people elsewhere in the country to go around pulling statues down.’
Mr Bone said: ‘It’s a very strange decision. I hope the Government will do everything in its power to make sure there’s no room for people to commit criminal damage on the basis of some woke objective or other.’
Sage Willoughby, Jake Skuse, Milo Ponsford and Rhian Graham celebrate after receiving a not guilty verdict at Bristol Crown Court, on January 5
Another Tory MP, Lee Anderson, stressed: ‘I have never heard anything like it. Criminal damage is criminal damage regardless of who is represented by a statue.
‘We live in a democracy and if people are offended by a statue then they should use the local democratic process to have them removed and not mindless thuggish behaviour.’
The campaign group Save Our Statues tweeted: ‘Colston statue accused defy justice. Verdict not only gives the green light to political vandalism, but also legitimises the divisive identity politics it helped succour.’
During the trial the activists did not deny their actions but argued that they were justified because the statue was so offensive.
Mr Ponsford told jurors: ‘I thought that a statue that celebrates a figure such as Colston was disgraceful and offensive to the people of Bristol.’
Miss Graham, who is the half-sister of Rag’n’Bone Man singer Rory Graham, added that she acted out of ‘allyship and solidarity’ with people of colour.
Liam Walker QC, representing Mr Willoughby, said: ‘Each of these defendants were on the right side of history and, I submit, they were also on the right side of the law.
‘Colston’s deeds may be historical but…the continued veneration of him in a vibrant multicultural city was an act of abuse.’
But the prosecution insisted that the fact Colston, who died in 1721, was a slave trader was ‘wholly irrelevant’.
William Hughes QC, for the Crown, said the case was about the ‘rule of law’ and the ‘cold hard facts’.
Judge Peter Blair QC told jurors to disregard political rhetoric, and to try the case purely on the evidence in front of them.
Sage Willoughby celebrates after receiving a not guilty verdict at Bristol Crown Court, on January 05
After being cleared, the Colston Four stood outside court alongside protesters carrying banners boasting ‘We toppled Colston’.
Three wore T-shirts designed by Bristol street artist Banksy featuring a stencil of the toppled statue’s plinth.
Mr Willoughby let fly an expletive-laden rant outside court, as he justified the group’s actions.
‘We didn’t change history, they were whitewashing history by calling him a f***ing virtuous man, sorry to swear, we didn’t change history, we rectified history,’ he said.
He added: ‘This is a victory for Bristol, this is a victory for racial equality and it’s a victory for anybody who wants to be on the right side of history.’
Mr Skuse, wearing black baseball cap, said the verdict was ‘for once the right decision,’ and thanked graffiti artist Banksy for designing limited edition t-shirts which they wore outside court.
Mr Ponsford issued a ‘big thank you’ to jurors for ‘being on the right side of history’.
‘It’s felt just out of reach for a long time, I’ve always felt hopeful but had to remain grounded in that it could have gone either way, but here we are. Just thank you, thank you so much for sitting and listening,’ said Ms Graham.
Edward Colston: Merchant and slave trader who was once seen as Bristol’s greatest son
Edward Colston was integral in the Royal African Company, which had complete control of Britain’s slave trade
Edward Colston was born to a wealthy merchant family in Bristol, 1636.
After working as an apprentice at a livery company he began to explore the shipping industry and started up his own business.
He later joined the Royal African Company and rose up the ranks to Deputy Governor.
The Company had complete control of Britain’s slave trade, as well as its gold and Ivory business, with Africa and the forts on the coast of west Africa.
During his tenure at the Company his ships transported around 80,000 slaves from Africa to the Caribbean and America.
Around 20,000 of them, including around 3,000 or more children, died during the journeys.
Colston’s brother Thomas supplied the glass beads that were used to buy the slaves.
Colston became the Tory MP for Bristol in 1710 but stood only for one term, due to old age and ill health.
He used a lot of his wealth, accrued from his extensive slave trading, to build schools and almshouses in his home city.
A statue was erected in his honour as well as other buildings named after him, including Colston Hall.
However, after years of protests by campaigners and boycotts by artists the venue recently agreed to remove all reference of the trader.
On a statue commemorating Colston in Bristol, a plaque read: ‘Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city.’
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 sparked by the death of George Floyd in the US, the statue of Colston overlooking the harbour was torn down.
Source: Daily Mail UK