Hanged Teen's Conviction Nixed
Jul. 31, 1998
LONDON (AP) _ It was a case that hinged on a single disputed remark: ``Let him have it, Chris.''
Forty-five years ago, 19-year-old Derek Bentley went to the gallows for supposedly uttering that phrase to his friend Christopher Craig, who shot dead a police constable on the roof of the confectionery warehouse they were trying to rob.
On Thursday, the Appeal Court ruled Bentley innocent, ending a decades-long campaign by his family to clear his name, even if they could not save his life.
``Today is a great victory of British justice,'' said an emotional Maria Dingwall-Bentley, whose mother, Iris, was Bentley's sister.
Lord Bingham, Lord Chief Justice of the Appeal Court and head of the three-judge panel that overturned the conviction, said the closing comments by the judge at Bentley's 1953 trial _ which heavily stressed the ``Let him have it'' remark _ was prejudicial and unfair.
Bingham called those events ``a matter of profound and continuing regret.''
The controversy over Bentley's hanging made him a household name in Britain. The case of the mentally disabled teen-ager was dramatized in a 1991 feature film called ``Let Him Have It'' and was the inspiration for the 1989 Elvis Costello song, ``Let Him Dangle.''
Bentley, who developed epilepsy after being injured in a World War II air raid, was unable to read or write and had a mental age of 11. He and Craig were on the roof of the south London warehouse on Nov. 2, 1952, when they were challenged by police officers.
Craig fired his gun several times, killing Constable Sidney Miles with a single bullet.
Three officers said later that they heard Bentley call out, ``Let him have it, Chris,'' a remark interpreted as an encouragement to fire.
At the trial, there was contradictory evidence on whether Bentley knew Craig was carrying a gun. One policeman who was at the scene also later denied Bentley made the ``Let him have it'' remark, which Bentley and Craig insisted was never uttered.
In his final comments, the trial judge made no mention of Bentley's mental problems, lavishly praised the police and emphasized the remark, leaving the jury little option but to convict, Bingham said.
``Far from encouraging the jury to approach the case in a calm frame of mind, the trial judge's summing up ... had exactly the opposite effect,'' he said.
Unusual in such cases, jurors made a plea for clemency.
The trial judge, Lord Goddard, died in 1971. On Thursday, his daughter, Lady Sachs, said he always believed the death sentence imposed on Bentley was ``fair and just.'' But she added that her father was ``always willing to recognize that there might be two opinions.''
Craig, 16 at the time of the shooting, was too young to be executed and spent 10 years in prison.
Bentley's case is one of a series of British miscarriages of justice that have come to light in recent years and brought calls for a public inquiry. It also provided a grim reminder of the final nature of the death penalty, which Britain abolished in 1965.
Ms. Dingwall-Bentley, 35, said the victory was ``tinged with great sadness'' because her mother, who led the drive for Bentley's pardon and died of cancer in January 1997, could not be there.
On Thursday, those who had fought more than four decades to clear Bentley's name placed flowers on his grave in south London's Croydon Cemetery, where his body was buried next to his sister.
Ms. Dingwall-Bentley said the family will now seek financial compensation from the government.
Craig, now 61, welcomed the judges' decision: ``A day does not go by when I don't think about Derek, and now his innocence has been proved.''