The Colston Four argued that what they had done was justified because honouring a slave trader in a multi-cultural city like Bristol was offensive, reports ITV News Correspondent Dan Rivers
Four people accused of pulling down a controversial statue of slave trader Edward Colston have been found not guilty of criminal damage.
Rhian Graham (30), Milo Ponsford (26), Sage Willoughby (22) and Jake Skuse (33) were all charged with criminal damage.
They chose to have the case heard by a jury at Bristol Crown Court, even though it could have been dealt with by a magistrate, and were today (January 5) acquitted.
The 'Colston Four' react to the not guilty verdict outside Bristol Crown Court
The bronze memorial to the 17th century slave merchant was pulled down during a Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest on June 7 last year, before being dumped in Bristol Harbour.
The four defendants laughed with relief as the verdicts were returned and hugged the many supporters that were waiting outside of court when they were released from the dock.
In a statement following the verdict, 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.”
During the trial, Bristol Crown Court heard Mr Skuse admitted rolling the statue towards Pero’s Bridge and throwing it in the harbour.
When asked if he thought he was damaging the statue, he said: “It didn’t even enter my head. It was a piece of trash on the floor when I turned up."
'The debate will be ramped up' in places like Newcastle and Oxford where there are statues of Lord Armstrong and Cecil Rhodes - Dan Rivers explains the importance of the verdict in Bristol
There were loud cheers from the packed public gallery after the not guilty verdicts were returned.
Blinne Ni Ghralaigh, for Rhian Graham, responded to the jury's decision: “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.”
'An act of love'
Ms Graham admitted going to the protest with a rope in her bag, and helping to pull the statue down, but denied the damage done was criminal.
During the trial Mr Ponsford agreed he had been among those pulling the rope around the statue and called its removal "a victory".
Mr Willoughby, a carpenter who knew Ponsford and Graham through working in the same unit of workshops told Bristol Crown Court he been signing petitions to have the statue removed since he was 11 years old.
He said: “That was not an act of violence, that was an act of love for my fellow man.”
During the trial, Bristol Crown Court heard Colston was involved in the enslavement and transportation of over 80,000 people, of which almost 10,000 were children. An estimated 19,000 died on ships bound for the Caribbean and the Americas.
There had been campaigns in Bristol to have the statue removed dating back to the 1920s, the court heard.
An estimated £3,750 of damage was done to the statue – including removing its staff and a coat tail – and £350 of damage was caused to the railings of Pero’s Bridge, the jury was told.
Tom Wainwright, for Mr Ponsford, raised the question of costs being repaid to the defendants following their acquittal but Judge Peter Blair QC questioned whether such an application was appropriate in light of the high-profile support the defendants have received.
Artist Banksy designed a limited edition t-shirt to support the four during the trial, pledging the funds raised to their cause.