How the ‘Colston Four’ were found not guilty

Conservative MP calls for appeal after protesters cleared of criminal damage charges

The Colston Four celebrate the verdict outside court
The Colston Four celebrating the verdict outside court
(Image credit: Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images)

​A cabinet minister has said the UK risks descending into “mob rule” after four people charged with criminal damage for pulling down a statue of a slave trader during anti-racism protests in Bristol were found not guilty.

The statue of Edward Colston, a 17th-century slave trader, was pulled from its plinth during a protest on 7 June 2020 before being dragged to Bristol harbour and thrown into the River Avon. The bronze statue was later retrieved and put on display in the city’s M Shed museum.

The toppling “became a seminal moment” in the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020, said The Times. The event was mentioned at the funeral of George Floyd, whose murder sparked anti-racism demonstrations across the world that year.

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Sage Willoughby, Rhian Graham, Milo Ponsford and Jake Skuse, who became known as the “Colston Four”, were cleared of their charges in Bristol Crown Court this week. On 5 January, the jury returned a majority verdict in two hours and 57 minutes.

But Transport Secretary Grant Shapps was among the Conservative MPs who disagreed with the verdict, saying “we can’t have mob rule as the way forward”.

The trial

Before the Christmas break, the court was shown video footage of Colston’s statue being pulled down in which Ponsford is seen jumping on to the toppled statue. Skuse was also seen among the crowd who rolled the fallen figure to the harbour. The court also heard that the estimated cost of the damage was at least £4,000.

The defence argued that for some years Bristolians had petitioned for the statue to be removed, with Ponsford describing it as a “massive offence” to the city’s true character.

Cleo Lake, the former Lord Mayor of Bristol, gave evidence in support of the defendants, describing Colston as “the CEO of enslavement” and talking of her “great sense of relief” when the statue came down, the Bristol Post reported.

In his closing remarks Liam Walker, Willoughby’s barrister, said the jury’s verdict would “reverberate around the world”, urging the 12 jurors to fall on “the right side of history”.

Prosecutor William Hughes QC told the jury that this was not a case of “politics or emotions” but “cold, hard facts”, Bristol 24/7 reported.

Judge Peter Blair QC urged jurors to focus on the defendants’ accounts of the events, and to try the case on the evidence they had heard and not the “alleged wider impact of the removal of the statue”, said The Times.

Blair has since said that jurors might have felt “undue pressure” because of the “rhetoric from defence barristers”, the newspaper added. The judge “expressed concern that claims about the impact the jury’s decision would have on the world stage would place an additional burden on their shoulders”.

Before Christmas, there had been concern that the jurors may have been exposed to news coverage that could influence their decision. Right-wing news channel GB News was “accused of prejudicing the trial” after publishing opinion pieces that criticised the defendants as the court proceedings were ongoing, said The Guardian.

An article and video by presenter Mercy Muroki in which she described the defendants as “white hippies crippled by white guilt” led to the court summoning the news outlet to a hearing on 23 December.

After assessing the potential impact of the material on the jurors’ forthcoming verdict, Judge Blair ultimately did not pursue a contempt of court charge.

The reaction

There were “screams and cheers of joy” outside the court as the four were acquitted on Wednesday, said the BBC, but “others were not so impressed” by the verdict.

Conservative MP John Hayes told MailOnline: “Clearly, the wrong decision has been made here.” And his fellow Tory Robert Buckland QC, the former justice secretary, called the verdict “perverse” and said it should be appealed “to help provide clarity to future courts faced with highly charged political cases”, said The Times.

Speaking on BBC Breakfast, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said Britain is not a country where “destroying public property can ever be acceptable”.

Shapps said that members of the public wanting to make changes in the public realm should “get yourself elected”, speaking on LBC Radio. “We can’t have mob rule as the way forward”, he added.

The Telegraph reported that the Colston Four “could have their case reviewed under moves being examined by ministers”. The Attorney General Suella Braverman can ask the Court of Appeal to examine whether the law was correctly applied “to avoid setting a dangerous precedent for future cases”.

But others celebrated the verdict. Historian and broadcaster Professor David Olusoga, who stood as a witness for the defence in the case, wrote in The Guardian that “the global shift of consciousness that inspired the toppling of Colston” will be “strengthened by this verdict”.

However, experts have indicated that Olusoga being called as a witness in the trial “could also be used as the basis for an appeal”, said The Times. Edward Henry QC described Olusoga’s expert evidence as having a “harrowing impact”, but noted that “HHJ Blair QC could have excluded” the evidence from the case.

“That he did not reveals courage, good sense and a wider appreciation of what his trial meant to the city he serves,” Henry added.

Addressing MPs yesterday, Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg defended the jury system as one of the “greatest monuments” of the UK, adding: “We must take the rough with the smooth.”

Henry said he could “wholeheartedly agree” with the Conservative MP about juries, adding: “It serves no purpose expressing any views on the actions of the Colston four, unless one was present in court.”

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Julia O'Driscoll is the engagement editor. She covers UK and world news, as well as writing lifestyle and travel features. She regularly appears on “The Week Unwrapped” podcast, and hosted The Week's short-form documentary podcast, “The Overview”. Julia was previously the content and social media editor at sustainability consultancy Eco-Age, where she interviewed prominent voices in sustainable fashion and climate movements. She has a master's in liberal arts from Bristol University, and spent a year studying at Charles University in Prague.