The Colston Statue puller-downers have been acquitted. This is patently a GOOD THING. But what does it mean for future defendants?
There have been cases in the past where Juries have defied Judges. John Lilburne was twice acquitted by juries during the Commonwealth but Oliver Cromwell locked him up anyhow. In 1833 a Jury recorded a inquest verdict of “lawful killing” for PC Culley during the Coldbath Fields riot and were promptly jailed themselves.
In modern Crown Court trials, the jury decides on the facts having been instructed on the law by the Judge. Sometimes the Judge can direct the jury to find the defendant guilty when “there is no defence in law”. Juries have gone against these too. Notable examples being for whistleblower Clive Ponting in 1985 and the Hawk Jet Ploughshares in 1995/6 (R v Zelter & others).
However in this case the Judge did not give a direction to convict. The decision was left to the jury. The defendants relied on preventing crime defence, and that the owners would have consented. A key component of both defences being that their actions have to be considered as the defendants honestly believed them to be, even if they were mistaken. In this case “the owners” would be the “citizens of Bristol” to whom the statue was gifted not the current “Mayor and Corporation” whose failure to remove the racist monument was the cause of the whole situation.
The remaining mystery is we don’t know why the jury acquitted. Jurors in England & Wales are not allowed to say what happened during deliberations and the media are banned from reporting it. The jury does not have to give reasons and while we know it was a majority verdict we don’t get told if it was by 10 to 2 or 11 to 1. So we can’t tell if the twelve good and true were swayed by the forensic oratory of the defendants’ excellent legal team or simply had decent politics to start with.
What we can be sure of is that presenting a “legitimate defence” avoided a direct confrontation with the Judge and a direction to convict. Judges have become more cunning over the years at dealing with “justification” defences. Nowadays juries are given a “route to verdict” consisting of a series of yes/no questions accompanied by gentle reminders to “follow my instructions as to the law” and “fulfil your oath” which have proved more effective at getting guilty verdicts. But we are still getting wins in the Courts. Two Black Lives Matter defendants were acquitted at Southwark in December. In one case despite clear footage of the accused kicking a Nazi up the arse.
What does it mean for Kill The Bill cases? When the police did nothing as the Colston statue fell, some observers felt that this a was seminal moment in the development of British public order policing where the constabulary wisely chose not to intervene, deescalating the situation and thus avoiding violence. Poor Misguided Fools. Not a prayer. It meant the Filth would be out for Revenge. And Revenge served up cold with 3 scoops plus a flake and a cherry on top.
So far, we’ve had 10 “rioters” sentenced for the demo on 21st March 2021 for the total of 47 years. Another 30 people face trial this year, 13 others are awaiting a charging decision, with 36 still wanted by the police. For them, the Colston verdict represents Hope and as we know “rebellions are built on Hope”. But we should not underestimate the difficulties they face. The CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) has split the prosecutions into individual cases which will be of about 3 days duration. This gives less scope than in the Colson case for challenging the preconceptions of jurors particularly on the role of the police in society. The defendants already faced a dilemma of choosing between a “the police started it” and a “there was a bad apple who was being violent” approach. The difficulty with the former is persuading the panel (and half the jury catchment area by population for Bristol Crown court is rural Somerset) that All Coppers really Are Bastards.
But unlike most demonstrations where the object is perfectly legitimate, the protests against the Police Crime Courts & Sentencing Bill have taken on a natty nickname of great wit but disadvantageous to those before the courts. Anyone trying “the cops lost it for no reason” has to explain why they were on a protest entitled not “Petition The Peelers” or even “Rib The Rossers” but Kill The Bill. And why they trooped to the police station for a “peaceful protest” and hung about for hours while said station was redecorated and several police vehicles spontaneously combusted.
So, celebrate the win but give your support to those most in need and facing serious jail time if they lose. Check Bristol Defendant Solidarity for the latest updates. Mayhaps Banksy will do them a t-Shirt too.
Andy Meinke (ACAB)