UK News Electronic Telegraph
Friday 31 July 1998
Issue 1162

Bentley cleared after 45 years
By Sally Pook

External Links

Derek Bentley Page - Simon Reap

Capital punishment in modern British law and culture - Abolition Now!

Scandals in Justice [British Edition]

Summing-up 'put unfair pressure on the jury to convict'
Pc 'tortured by guilt after the execution'

Derek Bentley pictured in 1952
THE murder conviction of Derek Bentley, the teenager hanged more than 45 years ago for the shooting of a police officer, was quashed yesterday in a historic judgment greeted with tears and elation by his relatives.

Lord Bingham, the Lord Chief Justice, said that Bentley, 19, an epileptic with a mental age of 11, had been denied "that fair trial which is the birthright of every British citizen".

In a heavily-critical judgment of 52 pages, the Court of Appeal judges concluded: "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."

The ruling was celebrated by his family and friends with the opening of a bottle of Moët & Chandon champagne bought in 1958 by Bentley's father in anticipation of his son's name eventually being cleared. It represented a posthumous victory for Iris Bentley, his sister, who died from cancer last year, and who unstintingly kept the case in the public eye for more than four decades.

Maria Dingwall-Bentley, 35, Bentley's niece, who was in tears as the judgment was read, said: "This is one of the most pleasurable days of my life, but it is also tinged with great sadness that my mother, Iris, is not here today.

"For 46 years my mother, and then I, fought tirelessly, always knowing Derek never murdered anybody. We have always known that the British justice system had a death on its hands. Derek had been under arrest for 15 minutes before the gun was fired. He never deserved to hang. The one thing that torments me today is that Derek won't be able to walk free."

Benedict Birnberg, the Bentley family solicitor, said the case was one of "judicial murder" and called for an inquiry into the Home Office's handling of it. He also detailed the "lamentable" behaviour of the Home Office towards relatives of Bentley over successive years, from ordering the destruction of commemorative wreaths placed by his parents outside Wandsworth Prison, where he was executed, to not allowing them to see his prison grave.

Mr Birnberg reserved particular condemnation for Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary from 1992 to 1993, who denied Bentley a free pardon and refused to commission a new inquiry into the case. He said Mr Clarke had "flatly rejected" a report, commissioned by him from the Metropolitan Police in 1991, which concluded that there were "reasonable doubts in this case".

Mr Clarke was unavailable for comment yesterday. Bentley was found guilty of murder in 1952 and hanged in January of the following year, despite the fact that it was his accomplice, Christopher Craig, who fired the fatal shot that killed Pc Sidney Miles.

The pair had mounted a break-in at a confectionery warehouse in Croydon, south London, and were cornered by officers on the roof of the building.

Officers told his trial that, immediately before the murder, Bentley had shouted: "Let him have it, Chris." The prosecution alleged that, in saying this, Bentley had encouraged Craig to shoot and was therefore equally guilty of the murder. Bentley was hanged at Wandsworth in January 1953. At 16, Craig was too young to hang and was detained at Her Majesty's pleasure for 10 years.

In 1993, Iris Bentley won a partial victory when the then Home Secretary, Michael Howard, granted a limited posthumous pardon, accepting that her brother should not have been hanged. Ms Dingwall-Bentley said that she felt no bitterness but reiterated her opposition to capital punishment. She said: "I hope we never have to see anything like this again. There always will be miscarriages of justice but the death penalty is so final. You can never bring them back."

In allowing the appeal, Lord Bingham, sitting with Lord Justice Kennedy and Mr Justice Collins, launched an unprecedented attack on the trial judge in the case, Lord Goddard, the then Lord Chief Justice, accusing him of denying Bentley the basic right of a fair trial.

He said: "It is with genuine diffidence that the members of this court direct criticism towards a trial judge widely recognised as one of the outstanding criminal judges of this century." However, the three judges concluded that Lord Goddard had misdirected the jury on the standard and burden of proof required for his conviction. The balance of his summing-up had put unfair pressure on the jury to convict.

But they rejected submissions that police officers' evidence, particularly the shout "Let him have it, Chris" should be regarded as necessarily unreliable or invented. Bentley's younger brother, Dennis, 56, who yesterday recalled police officers coming to his parents' house and saying "your son has shot a policeman", said he was dismayed that the decision had taken so long.

He said: "I am dismayed that such learned people, with all the facts before them, have taken so long to come to the conclusion that, I guess, most people around the world formed 30 years ago. My family has always believed that my brother's name would be cleared eventually. It was just a case of time."

The chairman of the Police Federation, Fred Broughton, said: "Our thoughts are with the family of Pc Sidney Miles who gave his life in the line of duty and whose death is often forgotten." Craig, now 61 and a farmer and plumber in Clophill, Beds, said he was "grateful and relieved" at the judgment but saddened that the authorities had taken so long "to admit the truth".

He said: "I am truly sorry that my actions on November 2 1952 caused so much pain and misery for the family of Pc Miles, who died that night doing his duty," he said in a statement. "A day does not go by when I don't think about Derek."

Later, campaigners laid flowers at Bentley's grave in Croydon cemetery.

23 July 1998: Bentley appeal verdict expected next week
21 July 1998: Bentley was hanged after 'a grossly unfair trial'
7 November 1997: Bentley's 1952 guilty verdict to be reviewed
2 November 1997: Bentley murder case set to be reopened
1 February 1997: [etcetera] Iris - the whole truth

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