Derek Bentley: The Boy Who Didn’t Pull the Trigger

The justice system fails many people, but here’s a case about a low intelligence boy who was hanged, and he didn’t even pull the trigger. Derek Bentley was an English man who was born on June 30, 1933. Bentley was hanged for murdering a policeman, whose death occurred during a burglary attempt. During this crime, Bentley’s friend and accomplice, Christopher Craig, 16, was accused of this murder.

In 1944, Derek Bentley was attending Norbury Manor Secondary Modern School after he failed the eleven-plus examination.

Four years later in March of 1948, Bentley along with another boy was arrested for theft. Then later that year in September of 1948, Bentley was officially sentenced to Kingswood Approved School for the next three years. Christopher Craig was also attending Kingswood Approved School as well.

Bentley was officially released from Kingswood Approved School in July of 1950, even though he was still under the active care of the facility until September 29, 1954.


Bentley and Craig on November 2, 1952, attempted to rob a warehouse of Barlow and Parker confectionery on 27-29 Tamworth Road in Croydon.

Craig was armed with the Colt New Service .455 Webley caliber revolver, which had a shortened barrel to it fit in his pocket perfectly. Craig also had a few rounds on him, which was modified to fit the revolver perfectly. While on the other hand, Bentley had a knuckle-duster, which he received from Craig.

A nine-year-old girl in the neighborhood spotted Bentley and Craig around 9:15 pm climbing over a gate and up the drainpipe connected to the roof the warehouse. The girl told her mother and the mother was the one who phoned the police.

When the police arrived at the warehouse, Craig and Bentley were hiding behind the lift-housing. Craig was stupid enough to taunt the police officers. Detective Sergeant Frederick Fairfax, one of the police officers at the scene climbed up the drainpipe to the roof to grab Bentley. Unfortunately, Bentley slid out of Fairfax’s grasp.

The next series of events is controversial. Witnesses stated that Fairfax asked Craig to hand over the gun, while Bentley told Craig to let the police officer have it. Craig ultimately fired his revolver at Fairfax. Fairfax was shot in the shoulder. Even though Fairfax was shot, he was still able to restrain Bentley for good this time. This is when Bentley told Fairfax that Craig had more ammunition for his revolver, but Bentley never even had the chance to use any of the weapons he had in his pockets.

The group of officers were sent up to the roof. Police Constable Sidney Miles was the first officer on the roof. Miles was shot in the head and immediately killed. Craig was using his ammunition left and right at the officers. Craig even jumped 30 feet to the greenhouse. This is where he fractured his left wrist and his spine.

Derek Bentley Case

Craig and Bentley were ultimately charged with Murder. The duo was tried in front a jury and Lord Goddard, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales at the Old Bailey in London from December 9 to December 11 in 1952. Senior Treasury Counsel, Christmas Humphreys was the lead for the prosecution team.

At the time of Miles death and the burglary attempt, the murder was considered a capital offense in Wales and England. Minors (those under the age of 18) would not receive the death penalty, but Craig and Bentley would, unfortunately, be facing the death penalty if they were in fact convicted of this crime.

The doctrine, when it comes to felony murder ultimately stated that this charge cannot be lessened to manslaughter since it was in malicious intent that coincides with the armed robbery.

However, Bentley’s best defense to this case would be the fact that he was under arrest when Craig shot and killed Miles.

But during their trial there were three main principle points to this contention:

The first main principle was the defense stated that there was obscurity when it comes to the evidence when it comes to how many shots were fired and who pulled the trigger on the shots. When a forensic ballistics expert cast many doubts on whether Craig shot Miles to deliberately kill him; the expert stated that the fatal bullet was never recovered. That Craig was using bullets that of various undersized calibers, which can make it an inaccurate to a degree of six feet of range or so when he fired.

The second main principle was the controversy over the meaning behind when Bentley started to Craig to let him have it. While both Bentley and Craig denied that Bentley ever said those words, the police officers stated that Bentley, in fact, did say them. Bentley’s defense team stated that those words, even if he did say them could not be proven that he intended Craig to shoot the police officer rather than hand over the gun.

The third main principle was the disagreement over if Bentley was competent enough to stand trial with his mental capacity. The Principal Medical Officer who first saw Bentley was Dr. Matheson. Dr. Matheson referred him then to Dr. Hill, who is a psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital. Dr. Hill reported that Bentley had low intelligence and was illiterate. He also said that Bentley was near the retardation level. Even Dr. Matheson agreed with the findings of Dr. Hill that Bentley had low intelligence and that he was not in a feeble mind when it comes to the Mental Deficiency Acts.

Ultimately, Matheson stated that Bentley was sane enough to stand trial. At the time the English law did not the idea of diminished responsibility when it came to retarded development.

In the case against Bentley and Craig, it took the jury just 75 minutes to find the pair guilty of the murder of Miles.

Bentley would be sentenced to death on December 11, 1952, and Craig would be sent off to Her Majesty’s Pleasure. Craig was released after he served 10 years at Her Majesty’s Pleasure in May of 1963. Craig went on to marry and became a plumber.

But Bentley was scheduled to be hung on December 30, 1952, but this scheduled hanging was postponed due to an appeal. Bentley’s defense team filed appeals that highlighted the obscurity of the forensic ballistic evidence along with Bentley’s mental age and how he did not even shoot miles. Unfortunately, Bentley’s appeal was denied on January 13, 1953.

Capital Punishment in Britain

When Bentley’s appeal was denied, Bentley’s life was in the hands of David Maxwell Fyfe, Home Secretary. Fyfe could decide whether to recommend Queen Elizabeth II to use the Royal prerogative of mercy to change his death sentence into life in prison.

But on January 28, 1953, at 9 am, Bentley was executed at Wandsworth Prison in London under the supervision of Harry Allen and Albert Pierrepoint. There were many protesters outside of Wandsworth Prison, even two people were arrested and fined for damaging the property.

It was not until March of 1966 when Bentley’s remains were transferred from Wandsworth and he was put in the Croydon Cemetery.

Full Pardon

After the execution of Bentley, the public could sense the unease about the overall decision. This resulted in a long and drawn-out campaign to secure a full pardon. The campaign was originally led by Bentley’s parents until they died in the 1970s.

It was not until July 29, 1993, when Bentley finally was granted the royal pardon with respect to the sentence of death that was carried out. You would like to know that at this time the English law, did not overturn his conviction for murder.

It was not until July 30, 1998, when the Court of Appeals officially overturned Bentley’s conviction for murder.

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