The Derek Bentley Story - My View

Here is my view of the Derek Bentley story. It draws on many of the documents mentioned on this site, but is beholden to none of them.

Derek Bentley was born on the 30th of June, 1933, and was hanged 19 years later. He grew up in the East End of London, and survived the Blitz during the Second World War. When he was 4 he fell, head first, from a lorry. The resultant blow caused epilepsy and brain damage, sufficient to give him a mental age well below his physical one. He suffered further blows to his head during his short life, and was to suffer fits thoughout.

On Sunday the 2nd November 1952, Christopher Craig and Derek Bentley went out for an evening's breaking and entering. Bentley had a knife (for forcing locks) and a knuckle-duster which Craig had recently given him. Craig had a similar knife, and a sawn-off .455 Eley revolver (also known as a .45 Colt). He had carried a gun every day for many years - it was just something that he always had with him. Bentley and Craig failed with the first two break-in attempts (due to a Butcher working late in his shop, and a courting couple being in the door of an electrical shop), but then tried the warehouse of the confectioners, Parker & Barlow. They climbed onto the roof of the warehouse, but had already been spotted by a young girl living opposite. The police were on their way.

DC Fairfax reached the roof first and quickly arrested Bentley. It was at about this time that Bentley is supposed to have said "Let him have it, Chris", the phrase which was to lead to his hanging. Craig shot Fairfax in the shoulder, probably due to a ricochet from the roof they were standing on - his gun was so inaccurate that he was unlikely to have hit Fairfax directly. Fifteen minutes after Bentley's arrest (the whole "shoot-out" took 45 minutes), PC Sidney Miles burst through door at the top of a stairwell and straight into a bullet above his left eyebrow. After the killing Craig shot a few more times then, when he ran out of bullets, he hurled himself off the roof, breaking his pelvis. Bentley was contrastingly quiet and shocked after the death of PC Miles.

The Daily Mail, the day after the shooting, produced the following sensational and highly inaccurate report - note the 26 marked errors:

Chicago Gun Battle in London: gangsters with machine guns on a roof kill detective, wound another: "Sidney Street" rages an hour, the hand-to-hand fight. Armed police shoot back'

The London crime wave reached a new peak last night. A detective [sic] was shot dead and another seriously [sic] wounded in a second 'Battle of Sidney Street' [sic]. They had seen the flash of a torchlight in [sic] the warehouse of Barlow and Parker, wholesale confectioners, Tamworth Road, Croydon, just after ten o'clock [sic]. They entered the building [sic]. They cautiously edged their way in [sic]. Inside [sic] the raiders were so far undisturbed [sic]. Ambulances and fire brigades had been summoned. Then as the bandits realized they had been trapped by a police cordon, shooting began. The gangsters armed with a Sten-gun [sic] hit one of the officers as he climbed the fire escape [sic] towards the bandits. He was Detective [sic] Constable Miles, in plain clothes [sic] of Z division, a married man, two children [sic] with 22 years service. He was killed. His colleague PC [sic] Frederick Fairfax, who was in a police patrol car [sic] dashed into an alleyway leading to another fire escape [sic] up which the gunman [sic] had climbed. As he went to help Miles there was another shot and people coming out of the Sunday cinemas heard one of the gunmen cry 'You won't get me'. PC Fairfax fell wounded in the shoulder. By this time 200 police were there, thirty [sic] of them armed with revolvers. Shots were exchanged.... Then the end came. As three [sic] officers crouching low, sprung onto the rooftop, the Sten-gun was flung in their faces [sic]. the ammunition had run out. Then a chase began over the roofs [sic] after the gunmen. They dodged behind chimney pots [sic]. One of them attempted to lower himself by a stackpipe [sic] at the rear of the premises. By this time more police were on the roofs, and there were hand-to-hand battles [sic] before the two gunmen [sic] were finally overpowered, hand-cuffed and brought to street level. Here one of the gunmen was found to be injured, and was taken to Croydon General Hospital. When the shooting began Scotland Yard mobilized all police officers and C.I.D. men from Kent and the Metropolitan area. "Get them at all costs", was the order to the 200 police officers in the battle.

The media, following public opinion, were baying for blood when the case came to trial, a mere six weeks after the shooting. A policeman had been murdered, so the London "cosh boys" involved had to hang. In time-honoured fashion, the media completely changed tack after the conviction, asking why this judicial murder was being allowed to go ahead. Public opinion after the trial was divided. Crowds nearly rioted outside Wandsworth prison - only the intervention of Derek's father calmed the mob. They felt that Bentley was only going to the gallows because a authorities were frustrated that they couldn't hang the real killer. On the other hand, some people still hung on to the belief that the death of a policeman required some response, if only "to encourage the others".

South London's climate of fear over "cosh boys" seemed to demand an execution in this outrageous instance of murder. The desire for a conviction went right through the Establishment - a report on the case was requested on behalf of the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, though he had shown no such interest in other recent police killings. The judge, Lord Chief Justice Goddard, conducted an extremely biased trial. He destroyed any arguments being constructed by the defence and helped the prosecution whenever he could. His summing up was selective and damaging. He failed to urge on the Home Secretary the jury's recommendation to mercy. The Home Secretary, David Maxwell Fife, was deaf to all appeals for clemency, even though it was morally and legally justified.

The prosecution felt that the whole thing hinged on a point of law, from Rex v. Appleby 1940: Where two persons engage in the commission of a crime with a common design of resisting by violence arrest by an officer of justice, they have a common design to do that which will amount to murder if the officer should be killed in consequence of resistance. If, therefore, an officer of justice is killed in such circumstances, both persons are guilty of murder. David Yallop argues that not only had the "common purpose" stopped when Bentley was arrested, but that there was in fact no murder - the fatal bullet came from a police marksman or from a an unlucky ricochet from Craig's gun. The "design of resisting arrest by violence" was never satisfactorily proved. Bentley avoided violence whenever possible. Two weeks before the warehouse shoot-out, he had refused to go with Craig when he intended to hold up a grocer's shop.

Bentley's defence counsel (who had, before the trial, expressed the desire to see his client hang!) failed to introduce several arguments which could have saved Bentley's life. It could have been argued that he was unfit to stand trial - his continuing epilepsy and his extremely low intellect were strong reasons. One crucial point of law was whether Bentley was under arrest when Miles was killed. The police knew that he was under arrest, Craig knew that Bentley was under arrest, everyone knew - except for Bentley himself. When repeatedly asked, he sealed his own fate by claiming that he was not under arrest, simply because he was not actually being physically restrained. The prosecution counsel, Christmas Humphries, was happy to dwell on this point, using the foolish and naive claims of a simpleton as fact, when the contradictory views of stronger and more experieced minds were ignored. Indeed, there might not have been a murder at all. The bullet which killed Miles was never found. A pathologist who examined the body thought that the fatal bullet was about a .32 calibre one, so could not possibly have been fired from Craig's gun. Also, when PC Miles came though the stairwell door, he would have turned away from Craig, towards his colleagues. How then could Craig have shot him in the forehead? There was an agreement between the prosecution and defence counsels not to introduce evidence about the third boy who was probably on the roof top.

Lord Goddard's summing up was a masterpiece of flawed and biassed logic. He spent 45 minutes summing up and expanding upon the prosecution case in dramatic and lurid detail, and one short sentence on the defence. As he completed his presentation, the official transcript (as corrected by Goddard himself) has him saying "..., and if you find good ground for convicting them, it is your duty to do it". Several others in the court (John Parris included) heard him say "..., and unless you find good ground for not convicting them, it is your duty to do it". This is not only against all precepts of British law, but showed beyond doubt that Goddard was out for blood. He subsequently claimed that he never believed that Bentley would actually hang for the crime. He chose very funny way of showing that. Having ensured that the trial verdict was a Guilty one (possibly to satisfy his depraved sexual appetites), he then failed to pass on to the Home Secretary the jury's plea for mercy.

The jury considered their verdict for just 75 minutes before returning guilty verdicts on both youths, with a recommendation for mercy in Bentley's case. Bentley was sentenced to death. Craig, who the judge described as 'one of the most dangerous young criminals who has ever stood in that dock' was sentenced to be detained during Her Majesty's pleasure. After the trial, many attempts were made to secure a reprieve for Bentley. The Home Secretary blocked all attempts by his MP colleagues even to get the matter discussed. At one point, it was argued that a Parliamentary debate on whether the sentence should be carried out could only take place after the sentence had been carried out.

Derek Bentley, at age nineteen, was hanged in Wandsworth at 9am on 28th January 1953. Chris Craig was released from prison in May 1963 and he settled in Buckinghamshire.

Iris Bentley, Derek's sister, had campaigned for a full pardon for Derek ever since the guilty verdict. She had few victories over the years. One was that Derek's remains were removed from their unmarked grave in Wandsworth Prison and were reburied in Croydon Cemetery on 4 March 1968, ironically only a few yards from where Sydney Miles' ashes were scattered. Sadly, Iris died on 23 January, 1997, just a few weeks before Derek's case was due to be reviewed with a good chance of that full pardon being granted. In the event, the Home Office has passed the buck to the new Criminal Case Review Commission, so the date for any hearing has slipped somewhat into the future. Despite this, Iris' daughter Maria is continuing the struggle.

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Last updated 29-May-97

As an aside, a recent bad holiday. Just spreading the word.....