A former violin teacher who spat in the face of Huffington Post UK journalist Owen Bennett during the Conservative party conference was ordered to pay him £80 in compensation – despite claiming the attack was an accident.
Russell Woods, 30, was one of a number of protestors who surrounded Mr Bennett and The Daily Telegraph’s Kate McCann while on an anti-austerity march outside of the Tory conference venue in Manchester city centre earlier this month.
As Mr Bennett attempted to capture footage of the demonstration on his mobile phone, Woods walked up to him and spat directly in his face, hitting him in the eyes.
Owen Bennett after he was spat at, taken by Telegraph reporter Kate McCann
Mr Bennett attempted to grab Woods to explain that he was a member of the press rather than a Conservative delegate but a police officer who had witnessed the incident intervened and Woods was arrested.
Woods, previously of Fallowfield, Manchester, but now of no fixed abode, then suffered a ‘medical episode’ and was taken to hospital in the city centre before he could be interviewed, Manchester Magistrates’ Court heard.
When he was finally questioned on his motives at Longsight Police Station, he told officers he was suffering from an asthma attack at the time of the incident, which caused him to accidentally spit phlegm out.
He later claimed he wasn’t part of the demonstration, had no idea there was an anti-austerity procession in progress and was simply "in the wrong place at the wrong time".
However the incident was captured on CCTV and after pleading guilty to one count of assault he was told to pay Mr Bennett £80, a £65 fine, a victim surcharge of £20, and costs of £235 after District Judge Simon Ross ruled his actions were deliberate.
Around 80,000 people marched in Manchester against Tory austerity during the conference, with the protests passing by in a largely peaceful manner.
But Mr Bennett and the Telegraph’s politics reporter Ms McCann had to be saved by police on October 4 when demonstrators surrounded them began shouting, "scum", with others saying, "he deserved it".
At the time, Ms McCann tweeted to say an officer told the pair to stay where they were as they may be ‘lynched’ if they moved.
Prosecutor Robin Lynch said: “He said he was suffering from an asthma attack at that time and had phlegm on his chest and it was an accidental spit out. The Crown would say that is clearly not the case.
“CCTV was reviewed showing the defendant quite clearly walks up to him, spits directly in his face and walks off.”
On behalf of Woods, who had no previous convictions, solicitor Donna Entwistle said he had suffered from significant mental health problems since he was attacked seven years ago.
“All that he can offer by explanation is that he felt frightened, saw all of these people and as a result of the attacks he faced and his mental health issues he acted in the manner described,” she said.
She added that he is a qualified orthopaedist, specialising in feet, and was a violin teacher until the attack but is now homeless and suffers with post-traumatic stress disorder.
She said: “He didn’t attend the demonstration. He wasn’t aware of an austerity procession in the city centre when he attended. He had been in the Rusholme area as he knows he can get food there.
“It is clear there is a brain injury, post-traumatic stress and mental health issues. He accepted he spat, he unfortunately didn’t accept it was intentional. I am mindful it is spit to the face and extremely unpleasant.”
Sentencing, Woods, who stuttered as he spoke to give his name in the dock, District Judge Ross added: “I find you plead guilty on the basis of recklessness but the prosecution say it was deliberate and I will sentence on you on the basis that it was deliberate.
“There was no injury and you pleaded guilty very early on, so I will take the unusual step of imposing a financial penalty. It will take you an awfully long time to pay that off. The reason your benefits will be down is because of your actions on that day.”