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Home - Criminal Cases - Late Pardons - Derek Bentley

Introduction

There has been a great deal written about the Bentley case. Derek Bentley is one of a small group of people in the 20th century who have received posthumous pardons.

Bentley and Craig

Derek Bentley (aged 19) and Christopher Craig (aged 16) broke into a London warehouse on 2 November 1952. 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 (Barlow & Parker's Warehouse, Tanworth Road, Croydon) 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 managed to finally arrest 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.

For his gallantry in pursuing Bentley and Craig, Fairfax was awarded the George Cross. In addition Police Constables Norman Harrison (London Gazette 6 January 1953 Page 167) and James McDonald (London Gazette 6 January 1953 Page 167) were awarded the George Medal, Police Constable Robert Jaggs the British Empire Medal and Police Constable Miles was posthumously awarded the Queen's Police Medal for Gallantry.

The citation for the gallantry awards to police officers Fairfax, Harrison, MacDonald, Jaggs and Miles is reproduced below.

Shortly after nine o'clock on the night of the 2nd November, 1952, two men were seen to climb over the side gate of a warehouse at Tamworth Road, Crpydon, and to reach the flat roof of the building about 22 feet above.

The alarm was given and Detective Constable Fairfax, Constable Harrison and other Officers, went to the premises in a police van. At about the same time Constable McDonald and another Constable arrived in a police wireless car. Other Police Officers took up various positions around the building. When told that the suspects had climbed up a drainpipe to the roof, Detective Constable Fairfax immediately scaled the drainpipe. Constable McDonald followed him but was unable to negotiate the last six feet and had to return to the ground. Fairfax reached the top and pulled himself on to the roof. In the moonlight he saw the two men about 15 yards away behind a brick stack. He walked towards them, challenged them and then dashed behind the stack, grabbed one of the men and pulled him into the open. The man broke away and his companion then fired at Fairfax and wounded him in the right shoulder. Fairfax fell to the ground but as the two criminals ran past him he got up and closed with one of them and knocked him down.

A second shot was then fired at Fairfax but he retained his hold on the man, dragged him behind a skylight and searched him. He found a knuckleduster and a dagger which he removed. Constable McDonald meanwhile had made another effort to climb the drainpipe and had almost reached the top. Fairfax helped him on to the roof and called to the gunman to drop his gun but he refused and made further threats. During this time Constable Harrison had climbed on to a sloping roof nearby and was edging his way along towards the gunman by lying back on the roof with his heels in the guttering. He was seen and a shot was fired at him which struck the roof close to his head. He continued his journey, however, and another shot was fired at him which missed. (Harrison then got behind a chimney stack and reached the ground where he joined other Officers who entered the building, ran up to the fire escape exit door on the roof and pushed it open. Fairfax warned them that the man with the gun was nearby but one Constable jumped from the doorway on to the roof. As he did so the gunman fired and the Constable fell to the ground, shot between the eyes.

Fairfax immediately left cover to bring in the casualty and a further shot was fired at him. McDonald also came forward and the two officers dragged the shot Constable behind the fire escape exit. Constable Harrison then jumped out on to the roof and standing in the roof doorway threw his truncheon and other things at the gunman who again fired at him. Constable Jaggs then reached the roof by way of the drainpipe and was also fired upon but joined the other Constables. Fairfax, helped by Harrison, then pushed his captive through the doorway and handed him over to other Officers. Detective Constable Fairfax was given a police pistol and he immediately returned to the roof. He jumped through the doorway and again called to the gunman to drop his weapon. A further shot was fired at him but he advanced towards the man firing his own pistol as he went. The gunman then jumped over the side of the roof to the ground below, where he was arrested.

The Police Officers acted in the highest tradition of the Metropolitan Police and gave no thought to their own safety in their efforts to effect the arrest of armed and dangerous criminals.

Detective Constable Fairfax repeatedly risked death or serious injury and although wounded did not give up until the criminals were safely in charge of the Police.

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. 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.

Christopher Craig served 10 years in prison before being released.

Since Bentley's execution in January 1953, there have been numerous campaigns to obtain a posthumous pardon for Bentley. In 1991 observers were surprised 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.

However, on 30 July 1998, the Court of Appeal overturned the controversial conviction of Derek Bentley.

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.

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