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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.

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 who was hanged for the murder of a policeman over 45 years ago. 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.

The Derek Bentley site gives a very detailed account of the case including background material. It also includes various accounts about the campaign to overthrow the conviction.

Frederick William Fairfax

Frederick William Fairfax was born in Westminster, London, on 17 June 1917. Fairfax was a Detective Constable in the Metropolitan Police Force. He later became a Detective Sergeant.

On the evening of 2 November 1952, two armed youths (Derek Bentley and Christopher Craig) were seen to climb over the side gate of a warehouse at Tamworth Road, Croydon, and to reach the flat roof of the building about 22 feet above. The alarm was given and Detective Constable Fairfax, together with other police officers, went to the premises in a police van. One of the youths fired at the detective constable and wounded him in the right shoulder, but he did not give up the chase. Several more shots were fired at the police officers as they tried to corner the two men on the roof, and Police Constable Miles was shot dead. Despite his wound Detective Constable Fairfax continued to lead the chase until both men were captured, and repeatedly risked death in so doing.

The award of the George Cross to Fairfax was published in the London Gazette on 6 January 1953.

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