SIXTY-FOUR years ago at 9am on January 28 1953 a young man called Derek Bentley was hanged for murder at Wandsworth Prison.
Bentley was 19, but various educational tests had put his mental age at 10 — his reading age at four and his IQ at just below 80. Today, we would describe Bentley as having severe learning difficulties. He also suffered from epilepsy.
Outside the prison a large crowd had gathered — many were convinced a last minute reprieve would save Bentley’s life but it was not to be. When the news emerged that the judicial killing had taken place shock turned to anger. Two people were arrested in the prison gate protests.
Derek William Bentley was born in south London on June 30 1933. He failed his 11-plus and at 14, he and another boy were arrested for theft and sent to an approved school near Bristol. Bentley was released on July 28 1950.
Early in 1952 he failed his medical for National Service where he was judged “mentally substandard” and unfit for military service. He became a bin-man with Croydon Corporation but was soon demoted to a road sweeper. He lost that job too in September for unsatisfactory performance.
On November 2 1952, Bentley and a 16-year-old companion, Christopher Craig, attempted to burgle a confectionery warehouse in Croydon.
Craig carried a revolver. He had shortened the barrel so it would fit in his pocket. Craig gave Bentley a sheath knife and a knuckle duster — neither was used in the crime.
A nine-year-old girl in a house across the road spotted Craig and Bentley climbing over the gate and onto the roof. She told her mother, who called the police.
When the police arrived, the two youths hid. Craig taunted the police.
Detective sergeant Frederick Fairfax was the first police officer to reach the roof. He grabbed hold of Bentley but the teenager broke free.
What happened next has been a matter of argument for half a century. Police witnesses claimed that they demanded that Craig “Hand over the gun, lad.” Bentley is said to have shouted the ambiguous phrase: “Let him have it, Chris.”
Craig fired his revolver at Fairfax, hitting his shoulder. Despite this injury Fairfax was again able to restrain Bentley who warned Fairfax that Craig was armed with a revolver and had further ammunition for the gun.
More police arrived on the roof. Constable Sidney Miles was immediately killed by a shot to the head. Craig, now out of bullets, jumped around 30 feet (10 metres) from the roof, fracturing his spine and left wrist.
Bentley and Craig were both charged with murder and were tried by jury before judge Lord Goddard. At the time those under 18 could not be sentenced to death: consequently, of the two defendants, only Bentley faced the death penalty.
Bentley’s defence was that he was effectively under arrest when Miles was killed. There was much controversy over Bentley’s alleged shout to Craig to “let him have it, Chris.”
Both boys denied that Bentley had uttered the words, while the police officers testified that he had said them.
Bentley’s counsel argued that even if he had said the words, they could mean “give him the gun, Chris.”
In addition there was disagreement over whether Bentley was fit to stand trial in light of his mental capacity.
The jury took just 75 minutes to decide that both Craig and Bentley were guilty of Miles’s murder, with a plea for mercy for Bentley.
The judge put on his black cap to sentence Bentley to death, while Craig was ordered to be detained at her Majesty’s pleasure — he was eventually released in May 1963 after serving 10 years’ imprisonment.
The home secretary David Maxwell Fyfe turned down a reprieve for Bentley. Judge Goddard forwarded the jury’s recommendation of mercy, but added that he himself “could find no mitigating circumstances.”
Two hundred MPs signed a memorandum requesting a reprieve but Parliament was given no opportunity to debate Bentley’s sentence until he had been hanged.
After the execution there was a public outcry 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, then by his sister Iris.
On July 29 1993, Bentley was granted a royal pardon. However, in English law this did not quash his conviction for murder. Finally, on July 30 1998, the Court of Appeal quashed the conviction for murder.
Bentley would have been 65 years old.
The hanging of Bentley for a murder he clearly did not commit was one of three cases that built public opinion against capital punishment.
Timothy Evans was hanged on March 9 1950 for the murder of his daughter, he was also charged with murdering his wife but was not tried for it. Evans made an apparently voluntary confession and it seemed like an open and shut case. ?
Two years later the bodies of more women were discovered in the same house at 10 Rillington Place. They had all been murdered by Evans’s landlord John Reginald Christie who had given evidence against Evans at his trial.
Two years after the Bentley case, Ruth Ellis (below) was sentenced to hang for murdering her boyfriend, David Blakely. Because of the violence she had suffered at the hands of Blakely she attracted enormous public sympathy. She still went to the gallows in Holloway prison on July 13 1955 — the last woman to be hanged in this country.
The abolition of capital punishment was a major priority of the incoming Labour government of Harold Wilson in October 1964.
On November 9 1965, the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act suspended the death penalty for murder in Britain for a period of five years. It has never returned.
The most recent polls suggest that less than half the British population is in favour of capital punishment but it is close.
Tory ministers like Priti Patel and the new leader of Ukip Paul Nuttall (below) are still keen to lead the backwoodsmen of the right to demand the return of the noose.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 27 January 2017.