Derek Bentley case

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Derek Bentley
Derek Bentley.jpg
Born Derek William Bentley
(1933-06-30)30 June 1933
Southwark London, England
Died 28 January 1953(1953-01-28) (aged 19)
Wandsworth Prison, London, England
Cause of death Execution by hanging
Resting place Wandsworth Prison Cemetery
Reburied Croydon Cemetery(1966)
Nationality British
Known for His wrongful conviction and execution
Criminal charge Party to murder (felony murder)
Criminal penalty Death by Hanging
Criminal status Posthumous pardon (1993)
Conviction overturned (1998)
Conviction(s) Guilty
Partner(s) Christopher Craig

Derek Bentley (30 June 1933 – 28 January 1953) was an English man who was hanged for the murder of a policeman, which was committed in the course of a burglary attempt. The murder was said at the time to have been committed by a friend and accomplice of Bentley's, Christopher Craig, then aged 16, but whether he had fired the fatal shot was later called into question. Bentley was convicted as a party to murder, by the English law principle of common purpose, "joint enterprise". The jury at the trial found Bentley guilty based on the prosecution's interpretation of the ambiguous phrase "Let him have it" (Bentley's alleged instruction to Craig), after the judge, Lord Chief Justice Goddard, had described Bentley as "mentally aiding the murder of Police Constable Sidney Miles". Goddard then sentenced Bentley to death: at the time, no other sentence was possible.

The Bentley case became a cause célèbre and led to a 45-year-long campaign to win Derek Bentley a posthumous pardon, which was granted in 1993, and then a further campaign for the quashing of his murder conviction, which occurred in 1998.

Early life[edit]

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. By chance Christopher Craig also attended the same school.

Bentley was released from Kingswood school on 28 July 1950, a year early, though he remained under the care of Kingswood until 29 September 1954, by which time he was dead. He was a recluse for the rest of the year. In March 1951, he 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, one month later, in June 1952 he was demoted to street sweeping for unsatisfactory performance. One month after that, he was sacked by the Corporation. He was unemployed for the rest of his life.[1]

Health and mental development[edit]

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.[2] 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 15½ years old), his mental age was estimated at 10 years, 4 months, when he scored 66 on an IQ test. Kingswood staff reported him to be "lazy, indifferent, voluble and of the 'wise guy' type", whilst 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.[2]

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".[2]

Bentley was examined twice by EEG: a reading on 16 November 1949[2] indicated he was an epileptic and a reading on 9 February 1950 was "abnormal". Both were taken at the Burden Neurological Institute in Bristol.[1]


On 2 November 1952, Bentley and a sixteen-year-old companion, Christopher Craig, attempted to burgle the warehouse of the Barlow & Parker confectionery company at 27–29 Tamworth Road, Croydon. Craig armed himself with a Colt New Service .455 Webley calibre revolver, of which he had shortened the barrel so that it could be easily carried in his pocket. He also carried a number of undersized rounds for the revolver, some of which he had modified by hand to fit the gun. Bentley carried a knuckle-duster, which he had been given by Craig, who on 21 November the previous year had been fined for possessing a firearm without a certificate.[3]

At around 9.15pm, a nine-year-old girl in a house across the road spotted Craig and Bentley climbing over the gate and up a drainpipe to the roof of the warehouse. She alerted her mother, who called the police.

When the police arrived, the two youths hid behind the lift-housing. Craig taunted the police. One of the police officers, Detective Sergeant Frederick Fairfax, climbed the drainpipe onto the roof and grabbed hold of Bentley. Bentley broke free of Fairfax's grasp. What happened then is a matter of controversy: police witnesses later claimed that the police officer asked Craig to "Hand over the gun, lad" and Bentley shouted the ambiguous phrase, "Let him have it, Chris" to Craig. Craig fired his revolver at Fairfax, striking him in the shoulder. Despite his injury, Fairfax was again able to restrain Bentley. Bentley told Fairfax that Craig was armed with a revolver and had further ammunition for the gun. Bentley had not used either of the weapons which he had in his pockets.

A group of uniformed police officers arrived and 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 around 30 feet (10 metres) from the roof onto a greenhouse, fracturing his spine and left wrist.

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


Bentley and Craig were charged with murder. They were tried by jury before the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, Lord Goddard, at the Old Bailey in London between 9 December and 11 December 1952. Christmas Humphreys, Senior Treasury Counsel, led for the prosecution.[4]

At the time of the burglary attempt and Miles's death, murder was a capital offence in England and Wales. Minors under 18 were not sentenced to death: consequently, of the two defendants, only Bentley faced the death penalty if convicted. The doctrine of felony murder or "constructive malice" meant that a charge of manslaughter was not an option, as the "malicious intent" of the armed robbery was transferred to the shooting. Bentley's best defence was that he was effectively under arrest when Miles was killed. There were three principal points of contention at trial:

Firstly, the defence claimed there was ambiguity in the evidence as to how many shots were fired and by whom. A later forensic ballistics expert cast doubt on whether Craig could have hit Miles if he had shot at him deliberately:[1] The fatal bullet was not found. Craig had used bullets of different undersized calibres, and the sawn-off barrel made it inaccurate to a degree of six feet at the range from which he fired.

Secondly, there was controversy over the existence and meaning of Bentley's alleged instruction to Craig, "let him have it, Chris". Craig and Bentley denied that Bentley had said the words while the police officers testified that he had said them. Further, Bentley's counsel argued that even if he had said the words, it could not be proven that Bentley had intended the words to mean the informal meaning of "shoot him, Chris" instead of the literal meaning of "give him the gun, Chris".

Thirdly, there was disagreement over whether Bentley was fit to stand trial in light of his mental capacity. The Principal Medical Officer responsible was Dr Matheson and he referred Bentley to Dr. Hill, a psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital. Hill's report stated that Bentley was illiterate and of low intelligence, almost borderline retarded. However, Matheson was of the opinion that whilst agreeing that Bentley was of low intelligence, he was not suffering from epilepsy at the time of the alleged offence and he was not a "feeble-minded person" under the Mental Deficiency Acts. Matheson said that he was sane and fit to plead and stand trial. 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.

The jury took 75 minutes to decide that both Craig and Bentley were guilty of Miles's murder, with a plea for mercy for Bentley. Bentley was sentenced to death on 11 December 1952, while Craig was ordered to be detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure. He was eventually released in May 1963 after serving 10 years' imprisonment, married two years later and subsequently became a plumber

Bentley was originally scheduled to be hanged on 30 December 1952 but this was postponed to allow for an appeal. Bentley's lawyers filed appeals highlighting the ambiguities of the ballistic evidence, Bentley's mental age and the fact that he did not fire the fatal shot. Bentley's appeal was unsuccessful on 13 January 1953.

Decision not to reprieve Bentley[edit]

When his appeal was turned down, Bentley's life was placed in the hands of the Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyfe, who had to decide whether to recommend that Queen Elizabeth II exercise the Royal prerogative of mercy to convert his death sentence into life imprisonment. Lord Goddard forwarded the jury's recommendation of mercy, but added that he himself "could find no mitigating circumstances";[5] his later statements to David Yallop which convinced Yallop that Goddard had wanted a reprieve[6] appear to have been incorrectly quoted.

Maxwell Fyfe's autobiography, published in 1964, refers to the factors which he took into consideration: "the evidence of the trial, medical reports, family or other private circumstances .. and police reports, .. the available precedents, and .. public opinion". He went on to say that Bentley's case also involved the issue of the police force, since it was a police officer who was killed. Maxwell Fyfe then stresses that a reprieve would mean the Home Secretary is "intervening in the due process of the law".[7] Maxwell Fyfe, in the words of the letter sent out, failed to discover any sufficient ground to justify him in advising Her Majesty to interfere with the due course of the law.

There was a great deal of political pressure, including a memorandum signed by over 200 Members of Parliament. Despite several attempts, Parliament was given no opportunity to debate Bentley's sentence until it had been carried out.[8] The Home Office also refused Dr. Hill permission to make his report public.

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.

In March 1966 Bentley's remains removed from Wandsworth and re-interred in Croydon Cemetery.[9]

To Encourage the Others[edit]

In his 1971 book To Encourage the Others (the title is an acknowledged allusion to Voltaire's Candide), David Yallop documented Bentley's psychiatric problems, inconsistencies in the police and forensic evidence and the conduct of the trial. He proposed the theory that Miles was actually killed by a bullet from a gun other than Craig's sawn-off .455 revolver. Yallop drew this conclusion from an interview in March 1971 with Dr. David Haler, the pathologist who carried out the autopsy on Miles, who Yallop reports estimated the head wound was inflicted by a bullet of between .32 and .38 calibre fired from between six and nine feet away. Craig had been firing from a distance of just under 40 feet and had used a variety of undersized .41, and .45 calibre rounds in his revolver; Yallop asserted it would have been impossible for him to use a bullet of .38 or smaller calibre. Haler did not offer in his trial evidence any estimate of the size of the bullet that had killed Miles. In July 1970, during an interview with Yallop, Craig accepted that the bullet that killed Miles came from his gun, but maintained that all of his shots were fired over the rear garden of a house adjacent to the warehouse, approximately 20 degrees to the right of Miles's location from where Craig had been firing.

The standard Metropolitan Police pistol at the time was the .32-calibre Webley automatic, a number of which were issued on the night. In his book The Scientific Investigation of Crime, the prosecution's ballistics expert Lewis Nickolls stated that he recovered four bullets from the roof, two of .45, one of .41 and one of .32 calibre. The last was not entered as an exhibit in the trial, nor mentioned in Nickolls' evidence to the court.

When Yallop telephoned Haler the day after the initial interview, he reportedly confirmed his estimate of the bullet size. Shortly before the publication of Yallop's book, Haler was provided with a transcript of the interview, and Yallop says Haler again confirmed as accurate. After the subsequent broadcast of the BBC Play for Today adaptation of To Encourage the Others, directed by Alan Clarke and starring Charles Bolton, Haler sought to deny that he had given any specific estimate of the size of the bullet that killed Miles beyond being "of large calibre".

Posthumous pardon[edit]

Following the execution there was a public sense of unease about the decision, resulting in a long campaign to secure a posthumous pardon. The campaign was initially led by Bentley's parents until their deaths in the 1970s, after which the drive to clear Bentley's name was led by his sister Iris. In March 1966 his remains were removed from Wandsworth Prison and reburied in a family grave. In August 1970, Lord Goddard told Yallop that he thought Bentley was going to be reprieved, said he should have been, and attacked Maxwell-Fyfe for allowing the execution to go ahead.[1]

On 29 July 1993, Bentley was granted a royal pardon in respect of the sentence of death passed upon him and carried out. However, in English law this did not quash his conviction for murder.

Eventually, on 30 July 1998, the Court of Appeal quashed Bentley's conviction for murder.[2] However, Bentley's sister Iris had died of cancer the year before.[10]Her daughter, Maria Bentley-Dingwall, who was born 10 years after Derek Bentley's execution, continued the campaign after her mother's death.[11]

Christopher Craig, by then aged 62, (Born May 1936), issued a statement welcoming the pardon and apologised to the families of both PC Miles and Bentley for his actions, as well as his own family for the press intrusion they had suffered over the years.[12]

Though Bentley had never been accused of attacking any of the police officers, who were 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. The 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 because 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. Lord Bingham did not rule that Bentley was innocent, merely that there had been fundamental defects in the trial process.

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"), were not consistent with Bentley's use of language (his idiolect), as evidenced in court testimony.[13] These patterns fitted better the recorded testimony of the policemen involved. This is one of the earliest uses of forensic linguistics on record.

In a case with similarities to the Bentley case, a House of Lords judgment of 17 July 1997 cleared Philip English of murdering Sergeant Bill Forth in March 1993, the reasons being given by Lord Hutton. English had been handcuffed before his companion Paul Weddle killed Sgt Forth with a concealed knife. The existing joint enterprise law allowed the conviction of English for murder because they had both been attacking Sgt Forth with wooden staves, making English an accessory to any murder committed by Weddle as part of that assault. Lord Hutton made the 'fine distinction' that a concealed knife was a far more deadly weapon than a wooden stave, so that proof of English's knowledge of it was necessary for conviction. The appeal may have influenced the allowing of a posthumous referral of the Bentley case.

Lord Mustill had asked for new laws on homicide when setting out his reasons at the time of Lord Hutton's ruling on English's appeal. However, Lord Bingham's ruling blamed Lord Goddard for a miscarriage of justice without making further alteration to the law on joint enterprise. The English judgement, delivered just over two months after the Labour government took office, remained the most recent precedent in joint enterprise law, though the Bentley verdict attracted far more media attention.

In popular culture[edit]

The 1980 book Theatre in Education - Four Secondary School Programmes, edited and introduced by Pam Schweitzer, includes the play "Example", with an introduction by Harry Miller, who played Bentley in the original 1975 production. The play was devised by the Coventry Bellgrade TIE Team for fifth and sixth form students.

The 1990 book Let Him Have It, Chris written by M J Trow explores the inconsistencies in the police version of events.

The 1991 feature film Let Him Have It, starring Christopher Eccleston as Bentley and Paul Reynolds as Craig, relates the story, as do the songs "Derek Bentley" by Karl Dallas (in which the lyrics imply that Bentley was guilty but sympathise with him), "Let Him Dangle" by Elvis Costello, "Let Him Have It" by The Bureau, and "Bentley and Craig" by Ralph McTell, whose mother was a friend of the Bentley family.

The 1992-3 TV sitcom Grace & Favour a spin off from Are You Being Served contains an episode call "The Gun" which is a satire of the Derek Bentley case. The plot involves a misplaced gun that is fired by accident and the words "Let him have it".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Yallop, David (1991). To Encourage the Others. New York: Bantam Books. ISBN 978-0-552-13451-4. 
  2. ^ a b c d e "Bentley (Deceased), R v [1998] EWCA Crim 2516 (30 July 1998)". Retrieved 8 May 2015. 
  3. ^ The Trial of Craig and Bentley - Montgomery Hyde
  4. ^ Francis Selwyn (1988). Gangland: the case of Bentley and Craig. Crimes of the century. Taylor & Francis. p. 101. ISBN 0-415-00907-3. 
  5. ^ Smith, K. J. M. "'Goddard, Rayner, Baron Goddard (1877–1971)'" (online edn, Sept 2010 ed.). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. Retrieved 16 August 2014. 
  6. ^ Yallop, David (1990). To Encourage the Others. Corgi. p. 266. ISBN 9780552134514. 
  7. ^ Kilmuir, 1st Earl of (1964). Political adventure: the memoirs of the Earl of Kilmuir. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. p. 206. 
  8. ^ "Efforts to save Bentley Fail". the Guardian. Retrieved 8 May 2015. 
  9. ^ London Cemeteries: An Illustrated Guide and Gazetteer, by Hugh Meller & Brian Parsons
  10. ^ "Derek Bentley's sister dies". The Independent. Retrieved 8 May 2015. 
  11. ^ [1]
  12. ^ "BBC News - UK - Craig's relief at Bentley pardon". Retrieved 8 May 2015. 
  13. ^ R.M. Coulthard (2000): "Whose text is it? On the linguistic investigation of authorship", in S. Sarangi and R.M. Coulthard: Discourse and Social Life, London, Longman, pp270–87

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