Derek Bentley

Derek Bentley

British teenager who was hanged for murdering a policeman and posthumously acquitted 45 years later
Date of Birth: 30.06.1933
Country: Great Britain

Biography of Derek William Bentley

Derek William Bentley was born on June 30, 1933. He had a very difficult childhood, marked by several traumatic events. In April 1938, he fell from a truck and hit his head on the pavement, resulting in epilepsy. During World War II, a bomb exploded near his home, causing serious head injuries and a concussion. He enrolled in Norbury Secondary Modern School in 1944 after failing the eleven-plus entrance exam.

In March 1948, Bentley and another boy were arrested for theft. In September of the same year, he was sentenced to three years at the Kingswood Approved School for juvenile offenders, located near Bristol. It was determined at this institution that his mental development had stopped at the age of 11. In December 1948, Bentley scored 55 on an IQ test, and in 1952, he scored 77 (less than 70 is often classified as intellectual disability). At the time of his arrest in early November 1952, Derek could neither read nor write.

Bentley was released from the approved school on July 28, 1950, and spent the next six months living as a recluse. In March 1951, he found work at a furniture transport company, but injured his back a year later and left the job in March 1952. After that, Bentley first worked as a garbage collector for the Croydon Corporation, but was demoted to a street cleaner after two months. Two months later, he was fired for not being able to handle the job.

On February 11, 1952, Bentley was found unfit for military service due to low intelligence and EEG readings. Two electroencephalograms were taken in November 1949 and February 9, 1950, both confirming his epilepsy.

On the night of November 2, 1952, Christopher Craig and Bentley attempted to break into the warehouse of confectionery manufacturers and wholesalers 'Barlow & Parker' on Tamworth Road, Croydon. At 9:15 pm, a nine-year-old girl from a neighboring house saw Chris and Derek climbing over the gate and crawling onto the roof using a drainpipe. She told her parents, and her father went to the nearest telephone booth to call the police.

When the police arrived, one of the officers, Frederick Fairfax, climbed up the drainpipe and grabbed Bentley. Bentley broke free and, as claimed by most police witnesses, shouted to Craig, "Let him have it, Chris!" Both Craig and Bentley denied that he said those words. Armed with a revolver, Christopher opened fire and shot Fairfax in the shoulder, but he managed to apprehend Bentley. Bentley allegedly informed the police that his accomplice had more ammunition for his .455 caliber "Colt New Service" revolver, which had half of its barrel sawed off to fit in a pocket.

When help arrived, a capture team was directed to the roof. The first officer to reach the roof was Constable Sidney Miles, who was immediately shot in the head and killed. After exhausting all their ammunition and being cornered, Craig jumped from the 9-meter roof, breaking his spine and left arm upon landing in a greenhouse. He was arrested. Craig escaped the death penalty because he was not yet 18 at the time of the murder.

The trial at Old Bailey, which took place from December 9 to 11, 1952, was presided over by Lord Goddard, the Chief Justice of England and Wales. Bentley's best defense was that he was under arrest when Miles was killed. However, the alleged phrase "Let him have it, Chris!" was interpreted as an incitement to murder, making Derek an accomplice.

The prosecution was unsure about the number of shots fired and who fired them, and a ballistic expert expressed doubt about the intentionality of Craig's shot, if there was one at all, as the fatal bullet was never found. The chief medical expert, Dr. Matheson, citing a psychiatrist's conclusion from Maudsley Hospital, stated that Bentley was illiterate and had low intelligence, bordering on mental disability. However, Maudsley also stated that Bentley did not have a seizure at the time of the crime and was not "mentally deficient," so he should stand trial. The problem was that English law at that time did not recognize the concept of diminished responsibility due to delayed development.

It took the jury 75 minutes to find Craig and Bentley guilty of Miles' murder. Bentley was sentenced to death with a request for clemency, while Craig spent 10 years in prison and was released in May 1963, after which he became a law-abiding citizen. Bentley's lawyers appealed, highlighting the ambiguity of the ballistic evidence, Bentley's mental age, and the fact that he did not fire the fatal shot. However, these efforts proved futile, and the death sentence remained in effect.

Even the Home Secretary, David Maxwell Fyfe, refused to seek clemency from the Queen, despite a petition signed by over 200 of his fellow members of parliament. On January 28, 1953, Derek William Bentley was hanged at Wandsworth Prison by executioner Albert Pierrepoint.

For many years, Bentley's family fought for his exoneration on the murder charge. It was only in 1998, after 45 years, that the court overturned the conviction. This incident became just one example of a judicial error in the history of British and global justice.