Today in London’s past: Derek Bentley hanged, 1953.

19-year-old Derek Bentley was executed at Wandsworth Prison on 28 January 1953 for the murder of PC Sidney Miles, despite not firing the shot. Last-minute appeals for clemency were rejected. He was granted a posthumous pardon in July 1998.

Bentley had been sentenced to death on 11 December the previous year, for ‘killing’ PC Miles during a bungled break-in at a warehouse in Croydon – although his co-defendant, Christopher Craig, fired the fatal shot. As Craig was still a juvenile in the eyes of the law he escaped the death sentence and was ordered to be detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure.

On the night of 2 November 1952, Christopher Craig, 16, and Derek Bentley, 19, tried to break into the warehouse of confectionery manufacturers and wholesalers Barlow & Parker on Tamworth Road, Croydon, England. When police turned up, the two youths hid behind the lift-housing. One of the police officers, Detective Sergeant Frederick Fairfax, climbed the drain pipe onto the roof and grabbed hold of Bentley. Bentley broke free and was alleged by a number of police witnesses to have shouted the words “Let him have it, Chris”. Both Craig and Bentley denied that those words were ever spoken.

Craig, who was armed with a revolver, opened fire, grazing Fairfax’s shoulder. Nevertheless, Fairfax arrested Bentley. In his pocket Bentley had a knife and a spiked knuckle-duster, though he never used either. Craig had made the knuckle-duster himself and had recently given both weapons to Bentley.

More officers turned up, a group was sent onto the roof. The first to reach the roof was Police Constable Sidney Miles, who was immediately killed by a shot to the head. After exhausting his ammunition and being cornered, Craig jumped some thirty feet from the roof, fracturing his spine and left wrist when he landed on a greenhouse. At this point, he was arrested.

The trial took place before the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, Lord Goddard, at the Old Bailey in London between 9 December 1952 and 11 December 1952. Craig was under 18, and so could not face the death penalty. But a cop had died, and the pressure was on for someone to pay… Bentley was illiterate, had learning difficulties and was easily influenced; Craig had been the instigator of the robbery.

Bentley’s defence was that he was effectively under arrest when PC Miles was killed; however, this was only after an attempt to escape, during which a police officer had been wounded. As the trial progressed the jury had more details to consider. The prosecution was unsure how many shots were fired and by whom and a ballistics expert cast doubt on whether Craig could have hit Miles if he had shot at him deliberately: the fatal bullet was not found.

English law at the time did not recognise the concept of diminished responsibility due to retarded development, though it existed in Scottish law (it was introduced to England by the Homicide Act 1957). Criminal insanity – where the accused is unable to distinguish right from wrong – was then the only medical defence to murder. Bentley, while suffering severe debilitation, was not insane. Under joint enterprise law, the decision to rob the factory together made Bentley guilty of the killing as well, whether or not he had made any decision to kill anyone or fired any shot himself.

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”, though both Bentley and Craig denied this. Pressure was likely put on Bentley to confess, as leaning on the vulnerable is a fine old police tradition.

After just 75 minutes deliberation, the jury found both Bentley and Craig guilty of PC Miles’s murder. Bentley was sentenced to death with a plea for mercy on 11 December 1952, while Craig was ordered to be detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure (he was released in 1963).

There were protests against Bentley’s execution: there was said to be big public support for a reprieve. A crowd of up to 300 gathered outside the Houses of Parliament the night before, chanting “Bentley must not die!” The demonstrators then marched to the Home Office and later to Downing Street. A large crowd gathered outside Wandsworth jail on the day of the hanging. Some sang hymns; others booed when a prison warder came out carrying a glass-covered board containing the execution notice. Two people were arrested and later fined for damage to property.The crowd eventually dispersed in the early hours of this morning after handing in a petition at Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s home.

A deputation of some 200 MPs had petitioned the home secretary, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, but Fyfe said he could not see any reason for intervening in the case.

Derek Bentley’s family, mostly driven by his sister Iris, campaigned for more than 40 years for a pardon. Questions about the ballistics evidence had always been raised. The bullet that killed PC Miles may not have been fired by Craig at all; it possibly even came from an armed policeman’s weapon.

Eventually, on 30 July 1998, the Court of Appeal set aside Bentley’s conviction for murder 45 years earlier. Though Bentley had not been accused of attacking any of the police officers being shot at by Craig, for him to be convicted of murder as an accessory in a joint enterprise it was necessary for the prosecution to prove that he knew that Craig had a deadly weapon when they began the break-in. Lord Chief Justice Lord Bingham of Cornhill ruled that Lord Goddard had not made it clear to the jury that the prosecution was required to have proved Bentley had known that Craig was armed. He further ruled that Lord Goddard had failed to raise the question of Bentley’s withdrawal from their joint enterprise. This would require the prosecution to prove the absence of any attempt by Bentley to signal to Craig that he wanted Craig to surrender his weapons to the police. Lord Bingham ruled that Bentley’s trial had been unfair, in that the judge had misdirected the jury and, in his summing-up, had put unfair pressure on the jury to convict. It is possible that Lord Goddard may have been under pressure while summing up since much of the evidence was not directly relevant to Bentley’s defence. It is important to note that Lord Bingham did not rule that Bentley was innocent, merely that there had been defects in the trial process. Had Bentley been alive in July 1998 or had been convicted of the offence in more recent years, it would have been likely that he would have faced a retrial.

Another factor in the posthumous defence was that a “confession” recorded by Bentley, which was claimed by the prosecution to be a “verbatim record of dictated monologue”, was shown by forensic linguistics methods to have been largely edited by policemen. Linguist Malcolm Coulthard showed that certain patterns, such as the frequency of the word “then”, and the grammatical use of “then” after the grammatical subject (“I then” rather than “then I”), was not consistent with Bentley’s use of language, as evidenced in court testimony. These patterns fitted better the recorded testimony of the policemen involved.

British Justice. Makes you proud eh?

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

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