Chapter 3 - Worst ever miscarriage of justice
I’d just started as a junior reporter on the Croydon Times when Derek Bentley (aged 19) and Christopher Craig (aged 16) broke into a warehouse in Thornton Heath on 2 November 1952. What followed was probably the worst miscarriage of justice in British legal history that changed forever the lives of the Bentley family and my then view about capital punishment.
The details are well documented. Craig was armed with a revolver. The 2 youths were seen entering the premises and the police were called. Bentley and Craig then went on to the flat roof of the building and hid behind a lift-housing.
Detective Sergeant Frederick Fairfax climbed on to the roof, and managed to grab Bentley. Craig shouted defiantly at the detective and Bentley managed to break Fairfax's grip. At this point, Bentley is supposed to have shouted "Let him have it Chris". Craig then fired the gun grazing the police officer's shoulder. Despite being wounded Fairfax continued after Bentley and finally arrested him.
Bentley told Fairfax that Craig had a Colt .45 and plenty of ammunition. Following the arrival of more police officers, a group were sent on to the roof. The first policeman to appear on to the roof was Police Constable Sidney George Miles (age 42). He was immediately shot dead by Craig; being hit in the head.
After exhausting his supply of ammunition, Craig leapt from the roof on to the road 30 feet below.
He landed badly, fracturing his spine and left wrist. Craig was then arrested.
It was clear that even if Craig was found guilty of murder, he could not be sentenced to death; being 16 he was below the minimum age of 18 for execution. However, Derek Bentley was over 18 years' of age and could be sentenced to death.
The case appeared to be a relatively simple one for the prosecution.
However, as the trial progressed before Lord Chief Justice Lord Goddard at the Old Bailey, the prosecution case appeared far less certain. The police seemed unsure how many shots were fired and by whom. A ballistics expert failed to positively identify Craig's gun as the weapon that fired the bullet that killed PC Miles. Also what was meant by Bentley's phrase "Let him have it Chris"? Did he mean that Craig was to give the gun to the officer and surrender? Did he mean that Craig was indeed to shot the officer?
What was clear was that Derek Bentley was illiterate and mentally subnormal. He was ill prepared to undergo cross-examination and did not present a 'good image' to the jury; not surprising considering his mental age of 11.
The jury took just 75 minutes to find both Craig and Bentley guilty of PC Miles' murder. Due to his being below 18 at the time of the offence, Craig was sentenced to being detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure. He served 10 years and was then freed. Bentley was sentenced to death.
Various appeals highlighted the ambiguous evidence, Bentley's mental age and the fact that he did not fire the fatal shot, were all rejected by the then Home Secretary.
On 28 January 1953, Derek Bentley was hanged at London's Wandsworth Prison. I was in the large crowd of protesters, who rushed the gates when a prison officer posted the official noticed that the execution had been carried out. I recall that at that moment I thought how wrong was the principle of ‘an eye for an eye’.
A few days later I visited the Bentley family at their suburban house in Norbury Court Road to do a follow up story with Derek’s parents. They really didn’t know what to say but Derek’s sister Iris, in her early 20s, told me: “David, what they did to Derek was wrong and I am going to make it right one day, even if it kills me….the truth will out” We both cried.
Little did I know then that my story essentially started Iris’s campaign to obtain a posthumous pardon for Bentley It was a campaign that was to last 45 years with many moments of hope and despair that was to tear the Bentley family apart. The lowest point was In 1991 when the Home Secretary of the time, Kenneth Clark, rejected a report by the Metropolitan Police stating that there were "reasonable doubts in this case" for a review.
Derek’s parents died but Iris battled on, despite being diagnosed with terminal cancer until her pledge came true on 30th July 1998, when the Court of Appeal overturned the controversial conviction.
In an unprecedented and very damning attack, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham, ruled that his predecessor and Bentley's trial judge, Lord Chief Justice Goddard, had denied Bentley "that fair trial that is the birthright of every British citizen."
In a 52-page judgment, Lord Bingham placed the blame for the miscarriage of justice with Lord Goddard. Describing Lord Goddard as "blatantly prejudiced", Lord Bingham concluded that he had misdirected the jury and that in his summing-up had put unfair pressure on the jury to convict.
Sadly she died the year before and she never knew her campaign to clear Derek’s name was succeeded. Her ashes were placed on his grave.
For me, this experience has had a lasting impact on my life.
Whatever the odds, pledges are not for breaking and you should always fight for what you believe is right. Fortunately I have not been faced with a situation to test how well I have learned this lesson but I hope that if I did I would be strong enough to emulate Iris’s example.
I am more certain that as a result of the Bentley miscarriage of justice capital punishment is wrong. Thankfully it was abolished in Britain 1969.and I get sickened when, from time to time, there are calls for it to be restored.