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In this weeks UK news, we read that the Colston Four were acquitted. For those unaware, these were four individuals who played an active role during BLM protests, in pulling down and dumping in the water a prominent and contentious statue of someone who had profited from the slave trade on Bristol, UK. They were charged with criminal damage and acquitted.

I'm not interested in the rights and wrongs of the case, and personally, it was a monstrous statue and unfit as a landmark. But in law, that's irrelevant.

The legal situation is that clearly, unauthorised damage to third party property occurred, clearly there was ample evidence these people either did it, or aided and abetted it, or knew or should have known it was likely if they roped the statue or brought rope and gave it to others, or were reckless to the fact.

Right or wrongly, the CPS decided that prosecution was in the public interest and I don't recall that being specifically the angle it was defended upon.

In such a situation, I'm intrigued, short of jury nullification, how a trial could end in acquittal (however deservedly). What legal arguments were made, that mattered at all, and that a judge wouldn't rightly direct to be irrelevant and should be ignored?

I've read the blow-by-blow account of trial proceedings, and I'm still at a loss to understand what happened.

We can never know what went on in a jury room, but perhaps someone can shed light on what legal premises and theories could even be relevant to acquittal (as opposed to mitigation), in this very specific controversial case.

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    "The legal situation is that clearly, criminal damage occurred" - clearly, damage occurred, but for it to be criminal damage there has to be no lawful excuse (as pointed out in craw's answer). That the act itself occurred is undisputed, but the crime is more than the act. Saying "clearly, criminal damage occurred" makes it look like you are saying they did something criminal and should have been found guilty, though from context I do not think that is what you intended to say.
    – kaya3
    Jan 7 at 11:21
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    "I'm still at a loss to understand what happened" - Jury nullification is what happened.
    – Richard
    Jan 7 at 12:13
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    The Secret Barrister goes into more detail on this question, and related issues. Jan 7 at 12:29
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    @Richard I live in Bristol, and a lot of people there would have a lot of sympathy with the defence's arguments set out by the Secret Barrister, especially: The display was abusive (no need for threats - abuse is enough) to a lot of local people; The people of Bristol (owners) wanted it down; It's more valuable (to the people of the city) now than it was. More than enough for reasonable doubt among most of my - admittedly biased - sample of Bristol residents and a similarly lefty-liberal bubble elsewhere in the country.
    – Chris H
    Jan 7 at 14:03
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    @Richard Bristolians also have a long tradition of feeling that anything that puts the Home Secretaries nose out of joint (And Patel is a particularly unloved example of the species) should probably be embraced. Getting a conviction for chucking that thing in the dock here would be possible, but you would have to get really, really lucky with the jury. Juries do not always follow the law, feelings often trump facts, and nullification is the right of a Jury.
    – Dan Mills
    Jan 7 at 17:13

4 Answers 4

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In order to prove criminal damage, the prosecutors had to show that the four individuals

  1. Destroyed or damaged property [= the statue]
  2. The property belonged to another [= Bristol City Council]
  3. They intended to do so, or were reckless as to whether that would happen
  4. They had no lawful excuse

They evidently failed to convince the jury of the combination of these facts. (Some members of the jury may have thought differently about different ones, or they may have applied their own idiosyncratic reasoning.) For their part, the defence contested (1) and (4) by specific arguments.

Against damage to the statue, they argued that it had increased in value by virtue of its participation in a historic event. They also advanced some novel arguments that they were attempting to prevent a crime - either the public display of indecent matter or of a visible representation which is threatening or abusive. For this defence, it doesn't matter whether that was actually a crime, just whether the defendants honestly held the belief that it was, and that they were using what they believed to be reasonable force to prevent the crime. They also invoked a specific lawful excuse mentioned in the relevant Act, that each of them

believed that the person or persons whom he believed to be entitled to consent to the destruction of or damage to the property in question had so consented, or would have so consented to it if he or they had known of the destruction or damage and its circumstances.

The argument was that they honestly believed that the statue belonged to the people of Bristol as a collective, and that the people of Bristol would generally be in favour of their actions.

Finally, the defence made a human rights claim on the basis of free expression, saying that their conviction would be a disproportionate interference with those rights. This is about weighing up the public interest in property rights and public safety on the one hand, and the defendants' right to act in accordance with their conscience on a matter important to them.

The judge allowed all these defences to be made, and it was the prosecution's job to make the jury sure that the elements of the offence were proved, despite whatever the defence made out. There was some specific guidance given to the jury to help them understand the nature of the arguments and what had to be proved, and ultimately it was up to them to consider everything privately and come up with their answer.

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    I remember that bit about gifted to the people of the city, it makes more sense now. Thank you.
    – Stilez
    Jan 6 at 23:39
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    Out of interest, why is it salient in alleged criminal damage, if value may have been increased? The essence of the offence is damage, and damage doesn't stop being damage by a claim that you changed the other party's property into a different form with more value, as a freebie. It's not for anyone else to say, for example, maybe the city didn't want a valuable BLM-modified statue but an original one, even if less valuable, and they lost that. If I tear up your book and put art worth £100 glued to it, surely thats not mitigation - your book is actually damaged, not "improved"? So why salient?
    – Stilez
    Jan 7 at 21:17
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    @Acccumulation The force must be reasonable but that is not the test for the belief. See the appeal in R v Williams. The belief being unreasonable may lead the jury to conclude that it also not honestly held, but that's not inevitable.
    – craw
    Jan 8 at 10:27
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    We might get a clearer idea which of these 4 or 5 defences was most crucial if we had access to the full text of the judge's summing up. Jan 8 at 22:36
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    ... and, as if by magic, said full text appears. Jan 9 at 12:36
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This isn't a direct answer to the question, but there is a point which is highly relevant to it and of which you may possibly not be aware. This is that in English law a jury does not need a "legal" reason to acquit a defendant and it may acquit for any reason it pleases. For example, even if the judge advises the jury that there is no defence and that a guilty verdict is the only legally supportable verdict that they may return, the jury may still return a not guilty verdict against this explicit advice from the judge. This famously happened in 1985 at Clive Ponting's trial for allegedly breaching the Official Secrets Act.

It is legal "culture" - and it is relevant here that barristers and solicitors in England are officers of the court - that a barrister or solicitor may not inform a jury that it possesses this right. A defendant acting for himself, however, is not subject to the rules of the Bar or of the Law Society and is not an officer of the court either, and he is perfectly free to give this information to the jury in court if he wishes. This is why in 1991 Michael Randle and Pat Pottle sacked their lawyers at an advanced stage of their trial for assisting in George Blake's escape from prison in 1966: namely, once they started to act "in person", which is to say as their own representatives, then they were able to tell the jury that no matter what the judge had just said, or indeed anything he might say about any matter whatsoever, the members of a jury have an absolute right in English law to acquit defendants for any reason they choose, and they are not required to state what their reason is. They told the jury they had this right. The jury then acquitted them.

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    You're describing nullification, which is what I mentioned in the question: "I'm intrigued, short of jury nullification, how a trial could end in acquittal"
    – Stilez
    Jan 7 at 17:03
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    I have heard of a case where, when clearing up the jury room after the trial, a paper was found. Written on it was the following: "We members of the jury find that : 1. The Judge is a bastard, 2. He wants a conviction, 3. Therefore we acquit". Juries can acquit for any reason and the reason does NOT have to be supported by the law or the evidence.
    – Dan Mills
    Jan 7 at 17:16
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    Further to "Juries can acquit for any reason" there's also the fact that in English & Welsh law, nobody else can ever know why a jury chose to acquit. Members of a jury are forbidden by law from disclosing to anyone what was discussed or why decisions were made. Jan 9 at 10:57
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The defense barristers made two key arguments:

  1. The defendants' acts were necessary to prevent the commission of a crime, namely a violation of section five of the Public Order Act, or the Indecent Displays Act.
  2. A conviction for criminal damage would have violated Articles 9, 10 and 11 of the Human Rights Act 1998.
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    For clarity, an s.5 based defence would be that "A person is guilty of an offence if he/she...displays any...visible representation which is....abusive within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused distress thereby" or that the statue was, in legal terms, believed to be "indecent matter publicly displayed" , and the action was to prevent either/both of those offences taking place/continuing? If so, that makes sense, thank you.
    – Stilez
    Jan 6 at 23:36
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    @stilez Yes, that's my understanding.
    – bdb484
    Jan 7 at 5:33
  • Wikipedia says article 11 of the HRA is the "right to marry", so I suspect a typographical error somewhere.
    – kaya3
    Jan 7 at 11:13
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    11 is freedom of association, 12 is marriage and family life
    – craw
    Jan 7 at 14:40
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    @kaya3 the articles are mis-numbered on Wikipedia because they are auto-numbered starting from 1, and the act doesn't have a schedule 1, part 1, article 1. Jan 9 at 23:02
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The arguments the defense made weren't really legal arguments, despite citing laws. They were excuses to be able to talk about how bad the statue is and gain sympathy from the jurors, to get a jury nullification and give that jury nullification legal cover and excuse. It's basically the idea used by the defense in Grishom's A Time to Kill, where temporary insanity was used instead: the idea is to give the jury just about any legal excuse to acquit a sympathetic but legally guilty defendant, and hope they go for nullification.

Solid job by the defense being able to talk about how evil the statue was in their legal defense, which definitely helped not just provide a legal cover, but also made the defendants more sympathetic.

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    A jury's job is to decide yes or no. Sounds like you would have said yes, and not agreed their defence had merit. Sounds like others would say no, and either agree it did have merit, or else should be acquitted regardless (nullified). Both are valid legal outcomes for a jury member to settle at, and vote for.
    – Stilez
    Jan 7 at 17:01
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    @Stilez Yes, but there is no legal defense for what they did. Basically, their legal claims had next to no legal merit. But since they had enough to present them, they could argue for a nullification. Make no mistake, I doubt any juror actually bought their legal arguments, and if they did, either the prosecution screwed up monumentally, the jurors lied to themselves to feel better, or the jurors are idiots. The jury all just wanted nullification, and the defense gave them a road map to it. Basically, absent jury nullification, this would have been a guaranteed conviction. Jan 7 at 17:11
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    Do you remember bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-53051096 ?,That's how powerful UK law is, on outraging public feeling. Now, if some guy can get 28 days just for peeing on a memorial plaque (and zero damage at all), just because it outraged public sentiment, just think how strong a case might exist here. And, apparently, that sounds like one argument that was primarily made. That it was so outrageous a thing to push at people, treating a slaver as a hero, that they believed that in the light of George Floyd, it reached the level of an offence against public decency.
    – Stilez
    Jan 7 at 18:23
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    "Basically, their legal claims had next to no legal merit.": Well, the judge thought there was enough merit to allow the jury to consider them. Jan 7 at 20:48
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    This answer is terrible. It seems the writer has no understanding of the case.
    – bdb484
    Jan 8 at 2:23

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