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Britain Reviews Evidence for Execution 38 Years Ago

September 24, 1991

LONDON (AP) _ Derek Bentley was hanged in 1953 for a police slaying, not because he killed anyone but because authorities said he egged on a friend with these words: ″Let him have it, Chris.″

Bentley was executed despite the jury’s recommendation for mercy, supported by the trial judge and a petition for a reprieve signed by more than 100,000 people.

He went to his death saying, ″I never told him to kill the copper.″

Now a long campaign to secure a posthumous pardon is being stepped up with claims that the police lied at his trial. One of the policemen involved has cast doubt on much of the evidence given by fellow officers.

Last month, Home Secretary Kenneth Baker directed Scotland Yard to reopen the case.

In the House of Commons, 180 of the 650 lawmakers have signed a petition calling for a pardon. ″The case was a shocking miscarriage of justice,″ said Robert Parry, a Labor Party legislator.

The new investigation comes at a time when confidence in the police and courts has been shattered by recent cases in which 17 people were cleared of crimes, some after spending more than a decade in prison.

On Nov. 2, 1952, Bentley, 19, and Christopher Craig, 16, were surprised by police on the roof of a south London warehouse that they intended to rob. Shots were exchanged and Officer Sydney Miles was killed.

Craig had a gun but Bentley was unarmed and had been in police custody on the roof for about 20 minutes when Miles was killed. Both teen-agers were charged with murder and both were convicted.

Bentley’s conviction swung on the police claim that he shouted, ″Let him have it, Chris.″

Bentley denied saying it, Craig denied hearing it and defense attorneys argued that the words were ambiguous: They could have been a plea to surrender the gun.

Craig was too young to be hanged and was sent to prison for an indefinite term. He served 10 years and was released in 1963.

When Bentley was hanged at Wandsworth Prison on Jan. 28, 1953, about 2,000 people demonstrated at the gates and smashed the frame containing the official notice of the execution.

Craig, who since his release has led an exemplary life as a plumber and family man, broke his long silence on Sept. 3 with a television interview in which he accused police officers of lying.

″I didn’t hear Bentley speak the whole time,″ said Craig, who passed a lie detector test as part of his interview with Thames Television.

″Bentley wasn’t aggressive. He was flash (a show-off), but non-aggressive. I don’t believe he’d harm a fly. It never was said and whatever happens to me I shall go to the grave with the truth.″

Bentley’s sister, Iris, has said her brother had trouble learning, could not read or write, and was very much under Craig’s influence.

Critics of the case say Bentley was a victim of public concern about growing teen-age lawlessness and the easy availability of guns in the years after World War II.

The trial evidence has been questioned in three books, in television documentaries and in songs by popular musicians Elvis Costello and Ralph McTell.

The bullet that killed Officer Miles was never found. David Yallop, author of ″To Encourage the Others,″ says Miles may have been killed by a police shot.

Yallop reported being told by the doctor who conducted the autopsy that Miles’ wound suggested he was killed by a smaller bullet than one from Craig’s .455 Eley revolver.

Three retired officers who were among the 15 called to the warehouse are still alive and are likely to be interrogated by Scotland Yard. One of them, Claude Pain, 83, said in a TV program last year that he never heard Bentley shout, ″Let him have it, Chris.″

Pain suggested he was not called to testify because he would have weakened the prosecution’s case.

Campaigners for Bentley’s pardon hope a new film, ″Let Him Have It,″ will boost support. It is being shown at film festivals in Europe, the United States and Canada and will be released in the United States in November.

The only posthumous pardon ever granted in Britain was for Timothy Evans, hanged in 1950 for the murder of his wife and baby daughter.

Three years later, Evans’ landlord, John Christie, was implicated in the slayings after Mrs. Christie and five other women were found buried in and around the house. Christie also was hanged.

Iris Bentley has campaigned for a pardon for her brother since his execution, and she says Craig’s TV statement could be a big step in that direction.

″I have been waiting for this moment for 38 years,″ Ms. Bentley, 59, told a reporter.

Trust in Britian’s judiciary has been badly damaged by several recent cases in which the Court of Appeal recognized gross miscarriages of justice.

The Guildford Four were cleared in 1989 of Irish Republican Army bombings after spending 14 years in jail. The Birmingham Six were cleared in March of similar charges after 16 years in jail.

All six members of the Maguire family and a friend were cleared in June of running an IRA bomb factory. They served jail terms varying from four to 14 years. One died in prison.

If Britain had not abolished capital punishment for murder in 1969, the nine men and one woman in the Guildford and Birmingham cases almost certainly would have followed Derek Bentley to the gallows.

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