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Police hold back the crowd who are trying to see the notice telling of the execution of Derek Bentley at Wandsworth Jail. (POPPERFOTO/POPPERFOTO/GETTY IMAGES)

Police hold back the crowd who are trying to see the notice telling of the execution of Derek Bentley at Wandsworth Jail. (POPPERFOTO/POPPERFOTO/GETTY IMAGES)

“Let him have it”

?Derek William Bentley

?The execution of Derek Bentley, a mentally handicapped 19-year-old who was falsely convicted of murder, was pivotal in bringing about the end of capital punishment in Britain

“A victim of British justice”

Derek Bentley was hanged on the 28th of January 1953, at the age of 19 and the above words appear on his gravestone.

The Bentley case is one of the most controversial cases in British legal history.

The story starts on 2 November 1952. Two teenage boys, Christopher Craig and Derek Bentley tried to rob a factory, Barlow & Parker a wholesale confectioner’s in Tamworth Road, Croydon.

Chris was 16 and spent his time watching crime movies and reading crime comics. In his mind he was an American hoodlum. By contrast Derek was aged 18 but had a mental age of about 8.

As a child he lived in Blackfriars and his home was bombed in the Blitz. Derek received head injuries and was also epileptic and illiterate. He found it hard to make friends and was bullied at school. When Chris began to take an interest in him, Derek became infatuated. He would do everything Chris told him to do.

They were both extremely inept criminals.

A neighbour spotted them on the factory roof and called the police.

The police arrived at about 9.25pm in a van and a car.

Bentley and Craig, spotted the police and tried to hide behind a lift-housing on the flat roof of the warehouse. DC Frederick Fairfax noticed a footprint on a window-sill and climbed a drain-pipe onto the flat roof.

Fairfax called on the two to surrender but was met with a stream of defiance from Craig. He charged at the pair and grabbed the nearest figure, which happened to be Bentley.

Bentley broke free and called to his partner, ‘Let him have it, Chris!’ Craig fired and wounded DC Fairfax in the shoulder. Fairfax caught up with Bentley and flattened him with a punch.

DC Fairfax stripped Bentley of his weapons, a knife and a knuckle-duster. By this time armed reinforcements had arrived and surrounded the building.

PC Sidney Miles, who had been in the first car to arrive, had located the manager of the building and had obtained the keys.

Miles entered the building and went up an interior staircase to the roof. He kicked open the roof door and stepped onto the roof. He fell dead, shot through the left temple.

Craig continued to fire and scream threats at the police until he ran out of ammunition. He then leapt from the roof of the building, a drop of 27 feet (8.3m). The fall broke his spine, breastbone and left wrist. In the meantime, Bentley had been escorted from the roof under arrest.

Various medals were awarded to the several participating police officers, including one ? posthumously ? to Miles and the George Cross to Fairfax, in January 1953.

The Victim: Police Officer Sidney Miles was 42 when he was shot to death in 1952.

The Victim: Police Officer Sidney Miles was 42 when he was shot to death in 1952.

Both Craig and Bentley were charged with the murder of PC Miles. But should Bentley have been charged with murder at all? There were reasons for such a charge, but they took no account of his retarded mental state or the undisputed fact that he neither had possessed nor fired a gun.

Perhaps in the climate of 1952 London where gangs of armed young thugs were striking terror in the populace it is not surprising that they both were. Four policeman had been murdered in 1951.

Derek Bentley entered Norbury Manor Secondary Modern School in 1944, after failing the eleven-plus examination. In March 1948 Bentley and another boy were arrested for theft. In September 1948, he was sentenced to serve three years at Kingswood Approved School, near Bristol.

Bentley was released from Kingswood school on 28 July 1950, and was a recluse for the rest of the year. In March 1951, Bentley was employed by a furniture removal firm but was forced to leave the job after injuring his back in March 1952. In May 1952, Bentley was taken on by the Croydon Corporation as a dustbin man, but in July 1952 was demoted to street sweeping for unsatisfactory performance. Two months after that, he was sacked by the Corporation.

Derek Bentley had a series of health and developmental problems. When he was fifteen, his parents reported that in a childhood accident he had broken his nose and that he had since had three fits, including one in which they said he nearly died of choking. The family also said they were bombed out three times during World War II, and in one of these incidents, the house in which he lived collapsed around him, but a court did not find an indication that he was physically injured in the incident.

Kingswood Training School administered diagnostic tests to Bentley during the time of his detention there. In December 1948 (when he was 15? years old), his mental age was estimated at 10 years, 4 months. He scored 66 on an IQ test in December 1948 and 77 in 1952. Kingswood staff reported him to be “lazy, indifferent, voluble and of the ‘wise guy’ type”, which a court described as “indifferent, smug, self-satisfied and ready to tell tales.? After his arrest in November 1952, further IQ tests were administered to him at Brixton Prison. He was described there as “borderline feeble-minded,? with a verbal score of 71, a performance IQ of 87 and a full scale IQ of 77.

In December 1948, Bentley had an estimated “reading age” of 4 years, 6 months. He was still “quite illiterate” at the time of his arrest in November 1952. The prison medical officer said he “cannot even recognise or write down all the letters of the alphabet”.

Bentley was examined twice by EEG: a reading on 16 November 1949 indicated he was an epileptic and a reading on 9 February 1950 was “abnormal”.

In February 1952, Bentley underwent a medical examination for national service, where he was judged “mentally substandard” and unfit for military service.

Derek Bentley was executed despite having an IQ between 66 and 77. (KEYSTONE/GETTY IMAGES)

Derek Bentley was executed despite having an IQ between 66 and 77. (KEYSTONE/GETTY IMAGES)

They came to trial at the Old Bailey on Thursday the 9th of December 1952 before the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Goddard, and both pleaded not guilty. The case against Craig was not actually as conclusive as one would imagine. There was some debate as to whether the bullet that had killed PC Miles had been fired form a .455 revolver and the bullet exhibited in court had no traces of blood on it. However this was passed over and Craig was convicted. One could argue that Craig was still responsible for PC Miles’ death as wherever the bullet came from, it would never have been fired if Craig had not been armed and started shooting at the police.

The case against Derek Bentley rested on three main points.

  • The famous words “Let him have it, Chris”. It is by no means clear that these words were ever uttered by Bentley or whether they were invented later to strengthen the case against him by showing “common purpose”. If, however, the words “Let him have it, Chris” could be shown to be an incitement to shoot, there would be an indication of common purpose. This was the prosecution’s interpretation of them.
    The law states that if two (or more) people commit a crime they can be held equally responsible where there was common purpose, i.e. they both intended or could have reasonably foreseen the outcome. This is fair where, for instance, a man and a woman have an affair and wish to get rid of her husband. She lures the husband to a suitable place where the lover kills him. Although it may be possible to prove that she did not strike the fatal blow she is equally guilty because she wanted and intended the outcome.
    Again two robbers, both armed and shooting, may be involved in a gun fight with the police which lead to the death of an officer but the criminals escape. Later they are caught and each blames the other for the shooting but it not possible to prove who fired the fatal shot.
    However the known and undisputed circumstances of this case do not align with either of these examples.
  • Whether or not Bentley was actually under arrest at the time of the shooting. It is not disputed that Fairfax had detained him and that he had made no attempt to escape. However Fairfax had not formally arrested him (i.e. read him his rights and charged him with something) it is not surprising that, wounded and in the excitement of the situation, Fairfax did not formally charge Bentley, it was probably the last thing on his mind at that time. However had he done so, it could have easily have saved Bentley as being under arrest is a strong defence. In the witness box Bentley was unclear as to whether he was under arrest and generally made a poor and confused witness
  • The fact was that Bentley had voluntarily gone with Craig to break into the warehouse and was armed with a knife and a particularly vicious knuckle duster of which much was made by Lord Goddard.

It has often been said that Lord Goddard was biased against them and his summing up was certainly not sympathetic to their case.

It took the jury just 75 minutes to return guilty verdicts against both youths.

Lord Goddard proceeded to sentence Craig to be detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure and then passed the mandatory death sentence on Bentley. (Craig actually served just over 10 years).

The jury had made a recommendation to mercy in respect of Bentley but Lord Goddard did not make the same recommendation to the Home Office in his report after the trial. It has been said that Goddard never expected Bentley to hang and therefore probably thought it unnecessary.

Derek Bentley’s appeal was heard and dismissed on the 13th of January 1953. If Lord Goddard had been biased against the two accused, the Court of Appeal found no reason to question his handling of the case.

His fate now rested entirely with the Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell Fife. The Home Secretary had the right to recommend to the Queen that she exercise the Royal Prerogative of Mercy (in plain English to reprieve the condemned prisoner) without giving his reasons for this decision. This right had devolved upon the Home secretary when Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837, as it was not considered right to expect a nineteen year old girl as Victoria was, to make such decisions.

In practice around 50% of all death sentences were commuted to life in prison by this time (there were 13 hangings in 1953 which was an unusually high annual total).

It was standard practice at this time, that when a person was sentenced to death, they were examined by a Home Office psychiatrist to make sure they were mentally competent. I do not know whether this was done in Bentley’s case, but if it was they did not find reason to recommend commutation which invariably happened where the condemned was not found to be competent.

There was a considerable campaign against the execution led by Derek Bentley’s father and also in Parliament (who, in law, were unable to debate the individual case until after the execution had been carried out!) 200 MP’s signed a petition calling for a reprieve.

An enormous crowd gathered outside Wandsworth prison on the morning of the hanging and there was general disquiet about the case.

28th January 1953: A crowd outside Wandsworth Prison waiting for the execution of Derek Bentley, who was convicted of shooting P. C. Sidney Miles. (Photo by Reg Birkett/Keystone/Getty Images)

28th January 1953: A crowd outside Wandsworth Prison waiting for the execution of Derek Bentley, who was convicted of shooting P. C. Sidney Miles. (Photo by Reg Birkett/Keystone/Getty Images)

At 9am on 28 January 1953, Derek Bentley was hanged for murder at Wandsworth Prison, London. The chief executioner was Albert Pierrepoint, with Harry Allen assisting. When it was announced the execution had been carried out, there were protests outside the prison and two people were arrested and later fined for damage to property.

A large crowd had been begun gathering outside Wandsworth jail from early in the morning. Some sang the hymn Abide With Me and the 23rd Psalm.

Others began booing when a prison warder came out carrying a glass-covered board containing the execution notice.

Bentley’s sentence was sealed last night when the Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, said he could not see any reason for intervening in the case.

The 19-year-old was hanged at 0900 hours after last-minute appeals for clemency were rejected.

A deputation of MPs had earlier gone to see the home secretary with a petition, said to have been signed by about 200 members.

They urged him to ask the Queen to exercise her royal prerogative of mercy.

They pointed out Craig was the ringleader of the two and that Bentley’s mental age was probably younger than his partner – a fact that had not been disclosed to the jury.

They also claimed big public support for a reprieve.

But the home secretary said he could see no grounds for modifying the sentence. Earlier, he had written to Bentley’s parents saying the same thing.

A crowd of up to 300 gathered outside the Houses of Parliament last night, chanting “Bentley must not die!” The demonstrators marched to the Home Office and later to Downing Street.

The crowd eventually dispersed in the early hours of this morning after handing in a petition at Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s home.

Bentley’s execution comes just three months after the warehouse break-in in Croydon in which PC Miles died.

Bentley was convicted on the basis of police evidence. Three officers told the court they had heard him encourage Craig to shoot by shouting “Let him have it”.

Bentley’s defence claimed he was already under arrest at the time the shots were fired and was simply urging Craig to give up his gun.

11th December 1952: Detective Sergeant Fairfax, who was wounded during the killing of another policeman by Christopher Craig, who due to his age was given a life sentence, while his accomplice Derek Bentley was hanged. (Photo by Edward Miller/Keystone/Getty Images)

11th December 1952: Detective Sergeant Fairfax, who was wounded during the killing of?another policeman by Christopher Craig, who due to his age was given a life sentence, while his accomplice Derek Bentley was hanged. (Photo by Edward Miller/Keystone/Getty Images)

So why wasn’t Derek Bentley reprieved? The Home Secretary had decided “someone must pay”. As Craig could not be hanged Bentley had to be. There was also a sneaking feeling that Bentley was considered expendable in the move by Home Office officials to get the death penalty abolished. Obviously that cannot be proved, but his hanging caused public outcry at the time and must have helped to influence the general public against the death penalty.

Because the victim was a police officer the murder was also considered to be more shocking. The Home Office seemed to have an unwritten rule that poisoners and murderers of serving police officers should not be reprieved.

There were four good grounds for Bentley being charged only with armed robbery (of which he was clearly guilty) or with being an accessory to murder.

These being that he did not either possess or fire a gun and thus could not have killed PC Miles. Secondly it is not believed that he had at any time formed the intention to kill anyone. This intention (the “mens rea” which translates to guilty mind) is essential for a charge of murder to be sustained.

He was for all practical purposes under arrest at the time constable Miles died.

His retarded mental state and his low IQ meant that he should have been held less responsible. It is reasonable, based upon available evidence, to view Bentley as a retarded young man who was easily led by the much more intelligent and dominant Craig.

But assuming you accept that he was technically guilty of murder, should he have been hanged?

At every turn he was denied any benefit of the doubt.

These key words “Let him have it, Chris” are clearly susceptible to two meanings. I think most reasonable people would take them to mean give him the gun instead rather than shoot him. Had it been alleged that Bentley had shouted “shoot the bastards, Chris” his intentions would have been all too clear.

No credence was taken of his mental state, although a lot of condemned prisoners were reprieved because of theirs. At that time the death sentence could only be passed on persons of 18 or over. Should therefore a person with a mental age of around 11 be executed? Technically the law only took account of chronological age, but surely mental age should be taken into account where the two are seriously at odds.

Bentley (even if he had been of normal intelligence) could not have known that his actions would lead to the gallows – surely this is relevant. In 1953 the majority of people would have known that if they committed murder they could be hanged. But surely one would not expect to be hanged where one hadn’t killed anyone. Therefore the death penalty could not have been a deterrent to Bentley in this case. It is equally probable that Craig knew he couldn’t be hanged and that was why he was willing to shoot at the police in revenge for the jailing of his brother a few days earlier.

The sheer un-fairness of Bentley’s execution is the reason that this case has stayed alive.

Had both he and Craig been old enough to hang and both had been, there would have been much less public outcry. But how do you square a ten year prison sentence for Craig whilst Bentley “was to be taken to a lawful place of execution and there suffer death by hanging” to paraphrase the words of Lord Goddard’s sentence.

The general public have always had a very clear idea of natural justice and are not unhappy to see criminals get their “just deserts”. But they saw this case (both at the time and since) as a clear case of injustice. Still today there is a majority in favour of death for some murders but few people can possibly feel that hanging Bentley was either just or fair.

Christopher Craig arrives at Croydon Magistrates Court on a stretcher to face murder charges. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Christopher Craig arrives at Croydon Magistrates Court on a stretcher to face murder charges. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Derek Bentley’s family began a campaign to clear his name. His sister, Iris, claimed her brother had learning difficulties and had a mental age of an 11-year-old and was also an epileptic, unable to read or write. For years she kept his case in the public eye, writing letters to politicians, giving interviews and talks and writing a book. In 1991 a film Let Him Have It was made of Bentley’s story highlighting the injustice of the case.

On April the 1st 1997 the case was presented to the Criminal Cases Review Commission who referred it to Court of Appeal November 6th 1997.

The appeal was heard before the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas Bingham, sitting with Lord Justice Kennedy and Mr Justice Collins, from July the 20th 1998 to July the 24th and their judgement that Bentley’s conviction was “unsafe” was given on the 30th July.

The present Lord Chief Justice said that in the court’s judgement the summing-up in the case by his predecessor Lord Chief Justice Goddard, “was such as to deny the appellant that fair trial which is the birthright of every British citizen”.

Lord Bingham also said: “It must be a matter of profound and continuing regret that this mistrial occurred and that the defects we have found were not recognised at the time.”

Lord Goddard may nor have directed the jury as well as he could have done but technically there were some grounds for conviction (If you accept that Bentley should have been charged with murder in the first place). Goddard is often referred to as a “hanging judge” but this is very misleading. As the Lord Chief Justice he tried many murder cases and if they resulted in conviction he had no discretion whatsoever in sentencing. Inevitably he sentenced a lot of people to death and he was clear in his support for capital punishment but he could only pass a death sentence where a person was found guilty of murder.

Although I am pleased with and agree with the Appeal Court judgement, I still feel the then Home Secretary has to shoulder the prime responsibility for Bentley’s death, which he and he alone could have averted despite the verdict of guilty of murder. The Appeal Court heard no new evidence and everything we know now was also known in 1953 when the Home Secretary made his decision.

Scientific evidence also showed the three police officers who testified about Bentley shouting “Let him have it” had lied under oath.

On the 30th of July 1998 the Appeal Court finally ruled (after 45 years of campaigning by his father, his Sister, Iris and since Iris’ death the previous year, by her daughter, Maria Bentley Dingwall, that his conviction was unsafe.

The Court of Appeal quashed the conviction of 19-year-old Derek Bentley who was hanged in 1953 and pardoned him. Christopher Craig, who at the age of 16 was too young to hang, spoke of his relief after the Court of Appeal decision to quash Derek Bentley’s conviction for murder.

Triggerman Christopher Craig escaped the death penalty because of his age. (EVENING STANDARD/GETTY IMAGES)

Triggerman Christopher Craig escaped the death penalty because of his age. (EVENING STANDARD/GETTY IMAGES)

This is his full statement:

“Today, after 46 years, the conviction of Derek Bentley has been quashed and his name cleared. While I am grateful and relieved about this, I am saddened that it has taken those 46 years for the authorities in this country to admit the truth.

“I am truly sorry that my actions on 2 November 1952 caused so much pain and misery for the family of PC Miles, who died that night doing his duty.

Also, for the Bentley family, I regret that Iris, Derek’s sister, who fought all those years for Derek’s pardon, died recently before this appeal was concluded.

Finally, I apologise to my family, who have had to endure Press attention over the years.

“At the end of the day, the lawyers decided it was not necessary for me to give evidence at the appeal hearing but I was ready and willing to do so in the interests of justice.

“A day does not go by when I don’t think about Derek and now his innocence has been proved with this judgment.

“Now at last this case is over. My gratitude goes to those who have fought so tirelessly for justice.”

In 1966 Derek Bentley’s father removed his remains from Wandsworth and he was re-interred in Croydon Cemetery.

Derek Bentley Page

Derek Bentley – Capital Punishment UK homepage

Derek Bentley case – Wikipedia

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