The Fight for Derek Bentley

A Full Pardon – 46 Years Later

By: Marlene Martin

The 1953 execution of Derek Bentley, a mentally handicapped 19-year-old who was falsely convicted of murder, was pivotal in bringing about the end of capital punishment in Britain.

And now, after 46 years, the British justice system finally admitted its terrible mistake and granted Bentley a full pardon.

The pardon came only because Bentley’s family fought continuously since he was hanged. They approached filmmakers, authors and lawyers to urge them to take up the case. As a result, there have been songs, movies and books that made the case widely known. But year after year, the government refused to hold a public inquiry.

Bentley was convicted along with codefendant Christopher Craig of the murder of Police Constable Sidney Miles during an attempted robbery. Because Craig was only 16 years old at the time, he could not be sentenced to death. Bentley was never even accused of shooting Miles, as Craig was. He was convicted of “joint enterprise” on the perjured testimony of three police officers who said Bentley had yelled out to Craig: “Let him have it.” Bentley never said anything of the kind. In fact, police borrowed the phrase from another case in which a police officer was shot a decade earlier.

The lies and coverups were clear from the beginning. Before the trial, the defense team was told that the gun used in the killing was missing, so they could not have it for forensics testing. The gun then turned up mysteriously during the trial at a police station. A police officer later admitted that the bullet that killed Miles was never found – and that “a proper forensic examination would have proved that Craig had not killed the police officer.” The belief now is that Miles was killed by a bullet from a police gun. And one of the officers on the roof that night admitted a decade ago that Bentley never said, “Let him have it.”

It was the judge in the case – Lord Goddard – who made sure that Bentley would be killed. One man – a British lord – wrote an affidavit to the British government saying he had heard Goddard say during the trial that “at all costs Craig and Bentley were to be found guilty.” When both Craig and Bentley denied that they had said, “Let him have it,” Judge Goddard lashed out: “Those words are sworn to by three police officers. Are you going to say they are conspicuous liars? Do you believe these three officers have come into the box and sworn what is deliberately untrue?” Goddard apparently got perverted pleasure from sending people to death. His clerk later revealed that he had to put out a spare pair of pants for Goddard whenever the judge handed down the death sentence, as he always ejaculated in his pants.

At the time of Bentley’s execution, Home Secretary David Maxwell Fye said: “There is no possibility of an innocent man being hanged in this country.” But many people in Britain disagreed with him and organized on behalf of Bentley. Two hundred members of parliament signed a motion for Bentley. On the night of the execution, 5,000 people gathered outside the prison chanting, “Murder!” They fought with police and tore down and burned the death notice that had been pinned to the gates.

A few years later, the government abolished the death penalty in Britain – in part as a response to the outrage around Bentley’s case. Now, after nearly a half a century, the British justice system admitted what many people knew all along – that Derek Bentley went to his death an innocent man.

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