One of Great Britain’s most controversial state hangings
Updates listed at the foot of this item
Derek Bentley was 19 years-old when he was hung at Wandsworth Prison on the 28 January 1953. Derek was executed by the state for his role in the murder of Police Officer Sidney Miles. In November 1952 Derek and his friend Christopher Craig broke into a warehouse in Croydon, London. Members of the public notified the police of a burglary and they quickly arrived at the scene. When they arrived Derek and Christopher had managed to climb onto the roof of the warehouse in a bid to escape them.
Detective Constable Frederick Fairfax climbed up a drainpipe onto the warehouse roof and quickly detained Derek. Christopher shot Fairfax in the shoulder but despite this he managed to keep Derek restrained. Fairfax radioed for help and Police Constable Sidney Miles climbed onto the roof to assist.
Once Miles was on the roof Derek shouted ‘Let him have it, Chris’ and Christopher shot Miles in the head. Miles died almost instantly of the single gunshot wound. Police back-up arrived shortly after the shooting and it became clear to Christopher that he was cornered. Once he had exhausted his remaining bullets he jumped off the roof in an attempt to escape but landed badly and broke his back and wrist.
Christopher and Derek were both charged with the murder of Miles under the law of joint enterprise and were tried at the Old Bailey.
The law of joint enterprise holds that defendants are liable for their partner’s actions in a crime that was planned and committed together. To be guilty of this offence Derek had to be aware that Christopher brought the pistol with them.
The prosecution argued that when Derek shouted ‘Let him have it, Chris’ he was instructing Christopher to shoot Miles. The defence suggested that Derek did not have any knowledge of the pistol and was himself unarmed. The defence also argued that Derek was not shouting an instruction but was urging Christopher to give up the gun. The case relied on the interpretation of this ambiguous phrase and this interpretation would ultimately result in Derek’s death.
During the trial the jury were not made aware that Derek had severe mental health and medical problems. Although Derek was 19 he had the mental age of an 8 year old and was illiterate. Derek also suffered a head injury as a child when his house was bombed in the blitz, this head injury resulted in epilepsy. At this time the law did not recognise mental health problems or abnormally low intelligence as a mitigating factor or a defence.
The jury took just over an hour to find both defendants guilty of murder. As Christopher was 16 when the offence was committed he could not be given the death sentence, instead he served 10 years in prison before being released in 1963. Conversely as Derek was over 18 when the offence was committed he was sentenced to death. The jury asked for mercy for Derek however the judge Lord Goddard believed firmly in an eye for an eye and sentenced him to death by hanging. Derek had never held let alone fired the gun.
Derek’s lawyers appealed his sentence and a petition was signed by over 200 MP’s asking for his death sentence to be commuted. Despite this and a number of protests Derek was hung on the 28 January 1953.
40 years later in 1993 Derek was given a posthumous pardon after his Sister Iris tireless campaigned for him. This Pardon did not automatically overturn his guilty verdict and it would take until 1998 for the House of Lords to quash Derek’s original conviction. The House of Lords held that at the original trial Judge Goddard had not instructed the jury correctly with reference to the meaning of joint enterprise. Lord Goddard had not made it clear that the prosecution had to prove that Derek knew Christopher was armed to be convicted.
Although Derek’s conviction was eventually overturned this was of little comfort to his family. His parents died in the 1970’s and his sister died of cancer one year before his conviction was overturned. Christopher Craig released a statement saying; “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.”
Derek’s case is cited as an important one when discussing the abolishment of the death penalty in the UK because of the flaws in the legal system.
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18 February 2016
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A Chief Justice got away with murder
1 August 1998
Craig’s relief at Bentley pardon
30 July 1998
Derek Bentley hanged for murder
On This Day : 1953