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Derek Bentley and Christopher Craig - Attempted burglary in 1952

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Derek Bentley's Gravestone in Croydon Cemetery

Image source: Steve Brown | License

The Derek Bentley Case - A Miscarriage of Justice

Derek William Bentley (1933-1953) was hanged in Wandsworth Prison, London for the 1952 murder of a policeman which he did not commit. He was unfairly convicted as a party to murder by the English law principle of joint enterprise used at the time. He was hanged on 28 January 1953 by the chief executioner Albert Pierrepoint despite many attempts to reprieve him.

In the evening of 2nd November 1952 simple-minded Derek Bentley and his sixteen year old friend Christopher Craig attempted to burgle the Barlow and Parker confectionery warehouse in Croydon. Craig carried a .455 calibre revolver in his pocket and Bentley had a sheath knife and knuckle-duster. As they were spotted climbing over a 2 metre metal gate and up a drainpipe to the dark roof of the warehouse by a family who lived in a house opposite, the police were called immediately. The call was logged at Croydon police station at 9.25pm. The first police officer to arrive on the scene was Detective Sergeant Frederick Fairfax who climbed onto the roof and managed to restrain Derek Bentley by the arm. This was witnessed by PC Norman Harrison. Bentley struggled and managed to wriggle free. When the officer saw Curtis remove the gun from his pocket he asked him to hand over the gun. At this point, Bentley allegedly shouted to Craig 'Let him have it, Chris'. Instead of handing over the gun, Craig shot the policeman in the right shoulder when he was about 2 metres away from him. Despite this, DS Frederick Fairfax managed to grab Bentley again who made no futher attempt to escape.

More uniformed police officers soon arrived and the experienced Police Constable Sidney Miles was first of these to reach the roof. Immediately he was killed by a shot to the head. Craig then fired more shots and jumped off the roof after his gun had jammed, and fell on to a garden building causing serious injury. Bentley and Craig were then formally apprehended by the police.

Chief Inspector John Smith, who was leading the investigation, took a statement from Bentley in the early hours of the morning. Detective Sergeant Shepherd wrote it down then read it back to him but Bentley, who was so illiterate he needed help in signing his own name, was in no position to read it himself. Smith and Shepherd later claimed that the statement was given without any prompting although it read very much like Bentley was just answering questions.

Police then raided the homes of the two teenagers. At Craig's house they discovered a sawn-off gun barrel and a lot of ammunition under the floorboards in the loft. Nothing incriminating was found at Bentley's house.

Both Derek Bentley and Christopher Craig were charged with murder and appeared at the Old Bailey on 9th December 1952. At the time of PC Miles's death, murder was a capital offence in England but young persons under 18 years of age were not sentenced to death if found guily. Life imprisonment was usually given. So, only Derek Bentley faced the death penalty if convicted. The trial was heard by Lord Goddard, the Lord Chief Justice, but Goddard had no time for expert testimony from psychiatrists and social workers into the mental state of Bentley.

Bentley's best defence was that he was effectively under arrest when PC Miles was killed but this was not accepted and his subsequent appeals were turned down and he was executed at Wandsworth Prison. Following the execution there was a great deal of public unease about how the trial was conducted and the facts that were taken into consideration and those that were ignored. Long campaigns for a posthumous pardon were started by Bentley's parents but they both died in the 1970s. The campaign to clear Bentley's name was then taken over by his sister. In March 1966 Derek Bentley's remains were removed from Wandsworth Prison and reburied in a family plot in Croydon Cemetery.

Finally, on 29 July 1993 Derek William Bentley was granted a Royal Pardon for the sentence of death and on 30 July 1998 the Court of Appeal quashed Bentley's conviction for murder. Christopher Craig served ten years in prison and was released in May 1963.

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