In an unusual Crown Court trial which has lasted nine days, much of it being legal arguments to which the jury were not privy, four activists were jointly indicted over criminal damage caused in a direct action protest at the Brazilian Embassy two years ago, in which they D-locked the main entrance, glued themselves onto the glass, daubed blood red paint, and sprayed slogans and stencils. A fifth who was due to stand trial was severed from the case because they were self-isolating due to an NHS app ping. The prosecution persuaded the judge that a later solo trial for that defendant, Sian Vaughan, will somehow not be prejudiced by the outcome of this first trial.
What made the case unusual was that three of the defendants, Beatrice Zappi Taylor, Lachland Sandford and Barbara Cookson all willingly admitted to their actions, but still maintained that they were not guilty because what they were doing was entirely proportionate at the time.
The fourth defendant, Richard Barnard was dragged into proceedings as something of a bystander, arrested at the time because he was known to police and was standing near a bag which actually belonged to one of the activists and contained incriminating articles. Barnard is one of the co-founders of Palestine Action, and the prosecution persuaded Judge Gregory Perrins to allow them to argue he had ‘bad character’ and a propensity to spray paint, because of his alleged actions AFTER the embassy event, none of which have been tried in court. Despite these revelations, the jury unanimously acquitted him.
At the start of the trial, a jury was disbanded because of prosecution concerns that one of them had taken part in Extinction Rebellion protests and others may have supported the movement. It was agreed that a second jury would be asked as part of vetting whether they support XR, but they were NOT asked whether they had any strong feeling against the movement, which some might say fell short of impartiality.
The prosecution case was on the face of it quite simple – there was enough video and police evidence along with bills for clean-up and repair, to show that around £10,000 of damage had been caused, an event at the embassy had been cancelled, and staff had been inconvenienced. None of these facts were challenged, but the defendants wanted a chance to persuade a jury that what they had done was proportionate and necessary as part of worldwide protests. At the time, the Amazon was burning and Bolsonaro was enabling its destruction by encouraging the murder of Indigenous people, thereby putting the safety of civilisation itself at risk of catastrophic collapse due to climate change.
Before the second jury was allowed to hear any defence evidence, barristers argued over what was and what was not admissible. Recent precedents are making it harder and harder to introduce ‘necessity’ (to prevent a greater crime) as a legal defence in non-violent direct action trials, and the judge ruled there was no lawful excuse available to the defendants either. The result of this was that the accused felt so constrained they decided to sack their legal teams and defend themselves.
The self-representing activists were then instructed that they’d have only twenty minutes each to present their cases, that what they intended to say to the jury would be effectively vetted by the judge beforehand, and that if they strayed from what was agreed they may be held in contempt of court. He said there was a misconception that self-representing would allow a greater flexibility in what the defendant could tell a jury, but that this was not the case and he would not be allowing it in his court.
Although on the face of it, this all appears very unfair, none of it detracts particularly from present day law. In the event they were allowed to give their evidence for more than half an hour each (although they did still want longer, and wanted to call an expert witness to tell the jury just how bad things are in the Amazon). They were also even given some latitude to talk about climate change. But before the jury was retired for verdict, Judge Perrins was clear in instructing them that whatever they had heard there were simply no defences available in law, and their job was to arrive at a judgement based on the legal system and not any higher or different moral authority.
A few months ago, the same judge gave a similar ruling in the case of the Shell 7 (reported here) but the jury went on to give what is called a ‘perverse judgement’, acquitting all the activists in a majority verdict despite no defence in law.
Given the recent report showing the Amazon is on the brink of collapse, with potentially devastating consequences for mankind, and amidst daily reports of climate-driven flooding and heatwaves, expectation were high that this trial’s jury may have acted in a similar way.
After just 90 minutes deliberation, over lunchtime, the jury returned their unanimous verdict, acquitting Barnard but finding Cookson, Sandford and Zappi Taylor guilty.
Next year is predicted to see a huge rise in carbon emissions globally, the Amazon is facing accelerating deforestation, Siberia is on fire and the Arctic permafrost is melting.
It is difficult to understand why not even one or two of a jury of 12 people would not consider the opportunity of sending out a signal to a broken system. Zappi Taylor told Real Media that it took her a long time to really understand the nature of what was happening in Brazil and how it would affect us all – she was desperate to convey some of that understanding to a jury, but it’s not something you can grasp in half an hour.
All three were too shattered to give interviews after the trial, but watch out for a catch-up next week. Sentencing will take place on 17th September, and the prosecution were asking for six month prison sentences as a starting point.
After the Shell 7 acquittal, and a ruling last month (Ziegler) which led to acquittals over obstruction of the highway cases against Extinction Rebellion protesters, there was a feeling that the criminal justice system might be catching up with the severity of the crises facing us, but today’s verdict shows a lot of work still needs to be done to wake up so much of the general public and to stop the punishment of the people doing that work.