The case of Derek William Bentley (30 June 1933 – 28 January 1953) was a case that changed English law. He was hanged for the murder of a policeman even though he didn’t fire the fatal shot and he was probably incapable of defending himself in court due to him having limited mental capacity.
In those days, there was the English law principle of common purpose, of "joint enterprise".
Bentley and his co accused, a minor aged 16, were on the roof when a policeman appeared and restrained Bentley. The policeman asked the minor for his gun and then Bentley uttered those tragically ambiguous words "Let him have it" or did he?
The co accused, is still alive and has undergone polygraph testing to prove that he is being truthful when he says, (and has said all along ) that no such words were spoken. Before he died Bentley also denied saying the words.
At the trial, the Lord Chief Justice Goddard described Bentley as "mentally aiding the murder of Police Constable Sidney Miles" and sentenced him to death simply because at that time, under English law, there was no other sentence possible.
A posthumous pardon was granted in 1993 and a his murder conviction was quashed 1998.
Bentley was a sad soul right from day one. Aged 15, a childhood accident had broken his nose and his parents reported that he had suffered fits ever since, including one so severe he nearly choked to death. The family were bombed out their house three times during World War II. In one incident the house Bentley was living in, collapsed around him. He lost close friends and family. At some point through this, he developed epilepsy. By December 1948 when he was fifteen, his mental age was ten years and his reading age estimated at just over four years. He could not write or recognise the letters of the alphabet. And he was gullible, easily led astray by those with a more cunning nature.
On 2nd November 1952, he tried to burgle a warehouse with a sixteen-year-old companion, Christopher Craig. Bentley was now an adult in the eyes of the law, Craig was still a minor. Craig was much more worldly wise, a would-be gangster who Bentley looked up to. Bentley’s parents had tried to warn their simple son off a friendship with Craig, and in a strange twist of fate, they enlisted the help of a family friend, a local police officer to try and intervene and warn Bentley that this friendship with Craig, a well-known tearaway, could only be detrimental to his future.
That local bobby was the man the Craig later shot dead on the roof top of the Barlow & Parker confectionery company. The murder that Bentley would hang for.
On the night of the attempted beak in, Craig carried a Colt New Service .455 Webley calibre revolver and he had shortened the barrel so that it could be easily hidden in his pocket. He had also given Bentley a sheath knife and a spiked knuckle-duster.
At the warehouse, they were seen climbing the drainpipe and the police were called.
When the police arrived, the boys hid behind a lift housing. As Craig taunted the police, DS Fairfax, grabbed hold of Bentley, technically arresting him. Then the boy broke free. Then the famous exchanged was alleged to have happened; Fairfax said to Craig "Hand over the gun, lad" and Bentley replied "Let him have it, Chris".
Craig fired his gun at Fairfax and hit his shoulder. Fairfax grabbed Bentley again and Bentley told the policeman about Craig’s weapons. At no time did Bentley use the weapons he had in his pockets.
Then more police arrived. First on the roof was the Bentley family friend, Police Constable Sidney Miles. He was killed instantly by a shot to the head.
Craig then jumped around 30 feet from the roof of the factory onto a greenhouse and fractured his spine.
Craig recovering in hospital
Miles and Fairfax both got medals for bravery, Miles posthumously of course.
Bentley and Craig were both charged with murder. At that time murder was a capital offence in England and Wales but minors under 18 could not be sentenced to death, so only Bentley would face the death penalty.
Bentley's best defence was that he was effectively under arrest when Miles was killed but it seemed from the get go, and from reading around the case with the distance of time, that the establishment was unwavering in its determination to secure a death penalty, maybe because it involved the death of an officer of the law, or maybe because there would have to have been a sudden change in the law for the case to go any other way in the strict sense of the ‘law’ at that time.
There were many strange things about the trial. If Craig had shot from the distance that was reported, his sawn off gun would have been “ inaccurate to a degree of six feet” So the kill shot was a unlucky accident? There was also controversy later about the site of the wound on Miles, and where that shot could have come from.
And then the huge controversy over the ambiguity io the words ‘ "let him have it, Chris". Both Craig and Bentley denied that Bentley had said it. The police say he did. There is a clip on YouTube of Craig taking a polygraph where he denied those words were ever said. Indeed, in his condemned cell, Bentley told his mother that he had never said those words.
My issue was why Bentley was considered fit to stand trial in light of his mental capacity but English law at the time did not recognise the concept of diminished responsibility due to retarded development. Though it existed in Scottish law at that time.
In under 75 minutes, the jury found both Craig and Bentley guilty of Miles's murder. They did add a plea for mercy for Bentley as Bentley was sentenced to death. Craig was ordered to be detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure and was released in May 1963 (after serving 10 years) and became a plumber.
There was one appeal against Bentley’s sentence based on the agreed fact that Bentley did not fire the fatal shot, and his limited mental capacity. It was unsuccessful.
Another appeal went to the Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyfe to ask the Queen to exercise the Royal Prerogative of mercy and convert the death sentence into life imprisonment. It didn’t happen.
It was a police officer who had been killed and it was not the duty of the home secretary to "intervene in the due process of the law". So there was no lawful course for the sentence to be changed.
It was motioned to be debated in parliament, but not until after the sentence had been carried out.
At 9am on 28 January 1953, Derek Bentley was hanged for murder.
In 1966 his father removed his remains from Wandsworth and reburied them with the remains of the rest of the family in Croydon Cemetery.
Caro Ramsay 10/06/2016