BritFlorida loves to track down historical stories, especially scandals and mysteries from the UK.
Derek Bentley - an innocent man
The man you see here was hanged for a crime he didn't commit. Everyone knew in court that it was another man who had done the deed. Although I say 'man', he only lived to the age of nineteen.I have always been fascinated by this event even though it took place before I was born.
Today, we would probably have a nice politically correct label for him, but that wasn't the case in London in the 1950s. Derek had never been a lad who was in the best of health and this had the effect of disrupting his schooling. He was even turned down by the British army.
In those days, it was compulsory for all young men aged between seventeen and twenty one to serve in the army for a year and a half. But even the army, who only demanded a certain level of intelligence, refused to have him in their ranks. Because he was illiterate, he could only perform the most menial work.
Yet by 1953, everyone in England knew his name. On 28th January 1953, Derek Bentley, aged just nineteen, was hanged for murdering a policeman. And yet, he didn't kill the officer. The court knew that he hadn't. The judge and the jury knew that he hadn't committed the crime. But at 9am on a cold January day, he was hanged by the authorities at Wandsworth Prison.
How on earth could such a thing happen? By the time I heard this story, I was a teenager myself, and it was beyond my understanding. Everyone knew who was innocent and who was guilty and yet the wrong man had been hanged. Why?
Playing cops and robbers
With no meaningful job, and living in one of the poorer areas of London, Derek had little to occupy himself. He couldn't read to pass the time and he didn't have the money to be able to afford many forms of entertainment. A lot of the time he'd just hang out with neighboring teenagers. It was inevitable that the boys would get into trouble with the police.
One of his friends was younger than him - just sixteen - but Christopher Craig was much brighter than Derek. He had a vivid imagination and admired the petty criminals in the area who seemed to him to be glamorous and adventurous gangsters.
Chris even acquired a gun and a motley collection of bullets to enhance his self-image. He planned a minor robbery - of a confectionery warehouse - and Derek accompanied him; maybe in his childish mind he was going to 'steal some sweets.'
The boys climbed over the warehouse gates and onto the roof of the building. They were spotted and the police were called.
Let him have it, Chris
This is the sequence of events that followed. It's important to realize exactly what happened in the order in which the events took place.
- The police arrived on the scene. The boys tried to hide but Chris' bravado took over and taunted them in approved gangster-fashion - just like the movies
- Derek was apprehended almost immediately by an officer
- Derek then allegedly shouted something that was to cause him to be hanged for a crime he didn't commit. 'Let him have it, Chris.'
- Chris Craig fired the gun that he'd brought along with him. It grazed the shoulder of the police officer. Nevertheless, the officer chased Bentley and restrained him. Bentley ranted about the gun, telling the policeman that Chris had still got ammunition and trying to warn him
- Police reinforcements arrived. Almost at once, one of the men, Sidney Miles, was shot in the head by Craig. Chris tried to escape by jumping off the roof, but was injured and arrested.
The court case at the Old Bailey
Both boys were charged with murder.
Despite what we would called today Derek's 'learning disabilities' he was judged to be fit for trial. The court believed that there was no question that the officer had been killed by Chris Craig. Chris however, was under the age of eighteen - he was still only sixteen years of age - and the law dictated that minors could not be hanged. He was sentenced to a prison term.
Derek, on the other hand, was old enough to be executed and was sentenced to receive the death penalty. His crime really was simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
A fruitless appeal
Many were outraged by the verdict and an appeal against the death penalty was immediately launched. It was pointed out that Derek didn't fire the gun, that he was not an adult when his mental capacities were taken into account and also that the evidence given about the bullet that killed the officer was inconclusive.
A topic many people were discussing was his cry of 'let him have it, Chris.' Was this an appeal to Craig to surrender the weapon to the police? In other words 'let him have the gun, Chris.'? Or did he mean 'let him have a bullet Chris - fire.'?
However, the appeal was unsuccessful and on 28th January, 1953, this teenager with learning difficulties and a mental age of below his actual years, was hanged for something everyone knew he didn't do.
He was finally granted a posthumous pardon forty years later. A pardon however does not remove the murder verdict. Campaigners working to clear his name continued to work and in 1998, the verdict was overturned.
And what about Chris Craig? He served ten years in prison and since that time, he lived a peaceful and law abiding life. When Derek was finally exonerated of the crime Chris, by then in his early sixties, welcomed the pardon and made a statement which included the following quote:
"A day does not go by when I don't think about Derek and now his innocence has been proved with this judgment."
Was Craig a victim too?
It's easy to see Christopher Craig as the bad guy in this situation. After all, it was he who killed the police officer. But we must remember that he was only sixteen years old. Of course, he didn't get away scot-free - he received a jail term and served ten years.
But can you imagine what it must have been like living with the knowledge that he wasn't just responsible for the police officer's death but for his friend's too?
When he was released from jail he never committed a crime again and had a completely law-abiding life. However, he was still judged by the actions he had taken as a young teenager in post war London.
Craig and Bentley video
This video is from 1998, the year in which Bentley finally received a pardon. It was too late, of course. The video features footage from the time of the trial and includes an interview with Chris Craig. This is the first part - when you've watched it, the second part is shown on the related videos screen. This is well worth watching.
© 2013 Jackie Jackson
Jackie Jackson (author) from Fort Lauderdale on October 23, 2014:
@RoadMonkey - indeed! Such a strange state of affairs though.
RoadMonkey on October 22, 2014:
Back in those days, the age of adulthood was 21 years, so technically, he was still a minor. I imagine that there was such an outcry about a policeman getting shot and killed that someone had to pay the penalty - politics again!
Jackie Jackson (author) from Fort Lauderdale on February 26, 2014:
@Adventuretravels: It truly isn't.
Giovanna from UK on February 26, 2014:
I used to teach in the east End of London as a drama teacher and this very sad story was something that really interested the kids - justice has been done - but it's no consolation is it.
Jackie Jackson (author) from Fort Lauderdale on February 17, 2014:
@Arachnea: It's real life story and is truly fascinating. Thanks!
Tanya Jones from Texas USA on February 17, 2014:
Hi, BritFlorida. I'm tooling around looking for one of your lenses I saw over the weekend. Found this. Gonna have to come back and have a closer look. the movie looks interesting.
Jackie Jackson (author) from Fort Lauderdale on February 05, 2014:
@Old Navy Guy: So sad, isn't it? Thank goodness the system in the UK has now abolished hanging.
Old Navy Guy on February 05, 2014:
What a sad tale. I had never heard of this one. Life doesn't always turn as we wish and this is certainly one of those times.
Jackie Jackson (author) from Fort Lauderdale on January 20, 2014:
@PAINTDRIPS: So sad, isn't it? Thank goodness those days are gone.
Denise McGill from Fresno CA on January 20, 2014:
Wow, what a tragic case. I never heard of this one before but now I feel compelled to see the movie. Thanks for the education.
Jackie Jackson (author) from Fort Lauderdale on January 19, 2014:
@seahorse60: Amen. It seems unbelievable that this happened in living memory.
seahorse60 on January 19, 2014:
I hadn't heard of this case, so tragic. Thank goodness we've abolished the death sentence.
Jackie Jackson (author) from Fort Lauderdale on April 27, 2013:
@TransplantedSoul: That's very true but unfortunately it does, as you say. The 'ordinary' person is certainly at a disadvantage.
TransplantedSoul on April 27, 2013:
The justice system does not always work. Being transparent and open is the best way. In some cases a clearly guity person has a trial that goes on for ever and ever... and others get a short guilty verdict. The OJ saga is an example of everything gone wrong. If it were you or I, that trial would have been over very quickly. Having fame or money should not influence the process/outcome!
Jackie Jackson (author) from Fort Lauderdale on April 11, 2013:
@JohnTannahill: Yes that's true.Timothy Evans was also 'educationally disadvantaged' like Derek Bentley and yet their mental ages weren't taken into account. Things have changed in the last thirty years or so too. When Peter Sutcliffe was given life, it meant life. Just recently in the UK, as you know, there has been a case when a man responsible for killing six children will probably be a free man in fifteen years.
John Tannahill from Somewhere in England on April 11, 2013:
Timothy Evans and Ruth Ellis were probably more influential (in death) than Derek Bentley was in turning the tide against the death penalty in Britain. But, Bentley certainly underlined the fact that you can't bring an innocent person back when they're already hanged.
Jackie Jackson (author) from Fort Lauderdale on February 05, 2013:
@MarcellaCarlton: What a terrible statistic that it. Thanks so much for reading!
MarcellaCarlton on February 05, 2013:
These tragedies happen all the time. Roughly 50% of the people convicted in the U.S.A. never committed the crimes they are accused of. Great lens!
Jackie Jackson (author) from Fort Lauderdale on January 31, 2013:
@CampingmanNW: Thank you so much for visiting and reading. It's such a moving story.
CampingmanNW on January 31, 2013:
A tragedy indeed. A court system too inflexible at the time to allow for anything but the pursuit of "Justice" for the officer killed. Sadly, a not uncommon occurrence even today. Nice lens
Jackie Jackson (author) from Fort Lauderdale on January 26, 2013:
@anonymous: Thank you so much, Dave. With the death penalty, there's no going back. A pardon is all very well, but what's done is done. It's truly appalling.
anonymous on January 26, 2013:
This is such a tragic story. In two separate decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional to execute a mentally challenged person or a minor. Britflorida, another excellent lens!