Four cleared of criminal damage of toppled statue during Black Lives Matter protest

Sage Willoughby, Jake Skuse, Milo Ponsford and Rhian Graham celebrate after receiving a not guilty verdict at Bristol Crown Court on January 5th. Photograph: Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images


Four people have been cleared of criminal damage over toppling the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol and throwing it in the harbour.

The bronze memorial to the 17th-century slave merchant was pulled down during a Black Lives Matter protest on June 7th, 2020, before being rolled into the water.

Although a huge crowd of people were involved, just four people faced trial.

Rhian Graham (30), Milo Ponsford (26) and Sage Willoughby (22) were caught on CCTV passing the ropes around the statue that were used to pull it down.

Jake Skuse (33) was accused of orchestrating a plan to throw it in the harbour.

On Wednesday, they were cleared by a jury at Bristol Crown Court after almost three hours of deliberations.

There were loud cheers from the packed public gallery after the not-guilty verdicts were returned.

All four defendants admitted their involvement but denied their actions were criminal, claiming the statue itself had been a hate crime against the people of Bristol.

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.

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.”

Blinne Ní Ghralaigh, for Rhian Graham, 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.”

Colston’s legacy

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.

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, pledging the funds raised to the defendants’ cause.

The prosecution argued the case was a matter of straight forward criminal damage, and who Colston had been was “irrelevant”.

But the barristers for all four defendants argued Colston and his legacy was vital to deciding the case.

The 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.

Over the course of the two-week trial, the court heard there had been campaigns in Bristol to have the statue removed dating back to the 1920s.

TV historian and author Prof David Olusoga gave expert evidence for the defence, while former Bristol lord mayor Cleo Lake also supported the accused. – PA