Derek William Bentley "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 grave stone.

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

Derek Bentley was illiterate and is alleged to have had a mental age of 11. He also suffered from epilepsy as a result of a head injury received during the war.
Sunday the 2nd of November 1952, Derek Bentley went out with his friend, 16 year old Christopher Craig, to see if they could carry out a burglary. Bentley was armed with a knife and a knuckle-duster which Craig had recently given him. Craig had a similar knife but was also armed with a .455 Eley revolver. Craig normally carried a gun and it is reasonable to suppose that Bentley would have known this. They were thwarted in their attempts on their first two targets and finally chose to break into a warehouse belonging to a company called Parker & Barlow in Croydon, Surrey. As they climbed onto the roof of the warehouse, they were noticed by a little girl who lived opposite and whose mother phoned the police. The nearest patrol car arrived very quickly and contained a detective constable (DC Fairfax) and a uniformed constable.

Craig and Bentley were on the roof as the police arrived and attempted to run but DC Fairfax quickly detained Bentley (note I do not say arrested). Craig decided to shoot his way out and fired at DC Fairfax wounding him in the shoulder. At some time during the shooting, Bentley is alleged to have said the now famous words "Let him have it, Chris".
Bentley offered no resistance to
Fairfax and stood by the injured policeman without any restraint for the next 30 minutes or so. (Hardly the action of a desperate young thug who could very probably have easily overpowered the wounded and unarmed Fairfax)
Other officers arrived on the scene within minutes, some of them armed. Craig continued shooting at anyone that moved and as the first of the reinforcements, PC Sidney Miles came up the stairs and through the door onto the roof, he was shot through the head and died almost instantly.
Craig eventually ran out of bullets and threw himself off the roof in a vain attempt to avoid capture. He landed on a greenhouse roof 30 feet below and broke his back.
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.

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 from 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 the 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 leads 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 19 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 panel of Home Office psychiatrists to make sure they were mentally competent. I would expect that this was done in Bentley's case but 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.
So why wasn't Derek Bentley reprieved? In my view, the Home Secretary had decided that "someone must pay". As Craig could not be hanged, Bentley had to be. I have also always had a sneaking feeling that Bentley was considered expendable in the move by Home Office officials to get the death penalty abolished. Obviously I cannot prove this, 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, especially where a gun was the murder weapon.

In my view, 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, I do not believe 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.
Thirdly he was for all practical purposes under arrest at the time constable Miles died.
Finally 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. (Which I always thought was a basic tenet of English Law.)
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 a 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 when 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 unfairness of Bentley's execution is the reason that this case has stayed alive.

Had both he and Craig been old enough to hang and had they both been, there would have been much less public outcry. But how do you square a 10 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 were/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.
There was absolutely no reason why the Home Secretary could not have reprieved Bentley. There were plenty of much more questionable cases where reprieves were granted. Derek Bentley received no benefit of any of the doubts mentioned above and was hanged on purely technical grounds to avenge the death of a policeman that everyone knew he hadn't killed.

Justice at last (30th of July 1998).
On April the 1st 1997, the case was presented to the Criminal Cases Review Commission who referred it to Court of Appeal on 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 of 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.

If you are interested in this case, the film "Let him have it" provides an accurate and un-biased account of the events.

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