Dr Peter Moore: Are statues always justified?

Torbay Weekly

Was the verdict of not guilty of criminal damage correct for the people who tore down Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol?

I am always careful about commenting on a case when I have not heard all the evidence and I am not a lawyer but having worked as a police surgeon for 30 years and then forensic adviser to Devon and Cornwall Police, I have some experience of court procedure.

Any verdict should only be based on legal considerations and not the wider politics but the jury system can throw up strange results.

If we really wanted a system that narrowly focused on legal details then why have a jury?

In the UK it is impossible to know how juries come to their decision.

A member of the jury is not allowed to discuss their deliberations although the jury of Ghislaine Maxwell in America do not seem to have that problem.

One jury verdict which surprised me was in a murder case.

I examined the accused in my role as police surgeon. He had minor injuries and we were in the A&E department at Torbay Hospital.

As we were only behind curtains, confidentiality was difficult but I explained my role.

Although independent from the police I would have to note down anything he said and I could be asked to repeat it if ordered by a court.

“I don’t care,” he said, “I’ve just murdered my wife.”

I’m not sure how many other people in the department heard him but I noted it down.

In court, I was asked exactly what he said. I quoted him word for word.

Despite his open admission the jury were undecided and the case had to go for a retrial.

I had not heard all the evidence or the barrister’s arguments but I did wonder what else he could have said to convince the jury.

I gave exactly the same evidence at the retrial and the jury gave a unanimous verdict of guilty.

In the case of the Colston statue legally it is difficult to see how tearing it down and throwing it in the river was not criminal damage, but I also think that, strangely, the jury came to the right decision.

Their supporters named the defendants the ‘Colston four’, likening them to some serious miscarriages of justice such as the Birmingham six, wrongly convicted of the 1974 Birmingham pub bombing, or the Guildford four, also wrongly convicted the same year of the Guildford bombing.

If the 'Colston four' had been found guilty they would have become martyrs, although unlike the other cases would not have been sentenced to long prison sentences.

Unlike the IRA bombings, there is some public sympathy for their actions.

Do we really want statues literally putting slave traders on a pedestal?

Colston died in 1721, the statue was created in 1895 and probably bears no relation to his actual appearance.

Colston was a member of the Royal African Company or RAC although I must point out that the large RAC building at the Almondsbury Interchange where the M5 and M4 meet has never been involved in the slave trade.

We do not have many statues in Torbay. The obvious one is of William of Orange at Brixham harbour.

He was a contemporary of Colston and, in 1689, the year after William arrived in Brixham, Colston transferred a large amount of his shares in the African Company to King William but we should keep that quiet as I like the statue.

There are discussions about whether to have a statue of Torquay’s most famous daughter, Agatha Christie, alongside the harbour.

Perhaps the council could appoint an anonymous artist and then, as people look at it they will ask 'who done it?'

Statues reflect the zeitgeist of the time.

Victorian statues are often of great military leaders, more recently we have had campaigners for justice such as Nelson Mandela or the suffragette Millicent Fawcett.

Criminal damage can never be justified but I am not sure that erecting statues is always justified either.