Man cleared of killing suspected thief during citizen’s arrest in Bristol

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA</span>
Photograph: Andrew Matthews/PA

A man has been cleared of killing a suspected thief who died after he pinned him down and knelt on his back for nine minutes during a citizen’s arrest.

Nathan Smith, 38, was accused of using “excessive force” as he restrained Craig Wiltshire, 43, but insisted he was only trying to hang on to him as he waited for the police to arrive.

Smith told the jury at Bristol crown court that he thought Wiltshire was faking when he twice told him he could not breathe.

As he left the dock, Smith thanked the jury, which took just over four hours to clear him of manslaughter, by making a prayer sign with his hands.

Wiltshire was believed to have been behind a string of thefts and break-ins in the Bristol suburb where Smith was employed as a live-in carer.

The court was told that despite repeated complaints to the police, there was no active police investigation into the break-ins.

The jury was shown CCTV footage of the incident in the early hours of 20 November 2019, in which Wiltshire can be heard telling Smith: “I can’t breathe,” and his captor replies: “I don’t give a fuck.”

Wiltshire died two weeks later, with a postmortem giving the cause of death as cardiorespiratory arrest and brain damage.

The prosecution alleged that Smith used unlawful force on Wiltshire and wanted to punish him for crimes he believed he had committed in the neighbourhood.

However, Prof Jason Payne-James, a leading expert on restraint techniques, said he believed the force used was “reasonable”, arguing that while police and prison officers would have known that detaining someone in a prone position could lead to positional asphyxia, an untrained person would not have realised this.

Payne-James said he believed “a perfect storm” of conditions and factors contributed to Wiltshire’s death, including his small build, an existing heart condition, the presence of the heroin substitute methadone and the sedative diazepam in his bloodstream and the fact that he was struggling.

Kimberly Lock, a neighbour, had told the court that the community had been “terrorised” by the break-ins, and had extra locks fitted to her house, including a sliding bolt for her bedroom.

Smith’s employer, Michael Crooks, 51, is also seen in the CCTV footage adding his weight to Wiltshire for a few minutes, while his son Ben Crooks, 27, is seen kicking the prone man twice. They have admitted common assault and will be sentenced at a later date.

The jury was told to assume that Wiltshire was the man suspected of committing burglaries in the neighbourhood over the previous weeks, and that the arrest was not a case of mistaken identity.

Speaking after the verdict, Det Supt James Riccio, of Avon and Somerset police, said: “This has been an extremely complex and sensitive investigation into the death of a 43-year-old man.

“Members of the jury have concluded Mr Smith is not guilty of manslaughter. We respect and accept the jury’s verdict.

“We recognise these legal proceedings will greatly impact the affected community and we would urge anyone with worries or concerns to speak to their neighbourhood policing team.”

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