LONDON -- For 46 years the relatives of Derek Bentley,
hanged at 19 for
his role in the murder of a police officer, told anyone who would listen
that he was the victim of a terrible miscarriage of justice.
They went to Parliament looking for the support of legislators.
went to Speakers' Corner, that great democratic bazaar in Hyde Park in
London, and pleaded their case before the gathered crowds. They went to
documentary filmmakers, reporters and crusading book authors. And year
after year they went to the British government, asking for help, and
were turned away.
Thursday the Bentley family and what had become a passionate
supporters finally got what they had fought for. Britain's highest court
overturned the conviction against Bentley, saying that the trial judge
had presented such a one-sided account of the case to the jury that
Bentley had been denied "that fair trial which is the birthright of
every British citizen."
"It must be a matter of profound and continuing regret
mistrial occurred and that the defects we have found were not recognized
at the time," the court said.
On the night of Nov. 2, 1952, Bentley and a 16-year-old
Christopher Craig, were confronted by police as they tried to break into
a warehouse in south London. While Bentley -- who was prone to seizures
and had the mental age of 11 -- was held by one of the officers, Craig
shot and killed Police Constable Sidney Miles.
Although Bentley took no part in the killing, three officers
that he had yelled, "Let him have it, Chris," inciting his friend to
fire at Constable Miles.
Despite Bentley's assertion that he never uttered those
words -- an
assertion that was backed up by Craig and several other witnesses -- he
was convicted of murder and hanged in January 1953. Because of his age,
Craig was sent to prison and released after 10 years.
In its judgment Thursday, written by the chief justice
of the Court of
Appeal, Lord Bingham, the court found that the language used by the
trial judge amounted to a "highly rhetorical and strongly-worded
denunciation of both defendants and their choices."
Among other things, the court concluded, the trial judge
gave far too
much weight to the word of the police officers.
"The jury were never fairly invited by the trial judge
to consider the
points which had been made on the appellant's behalf," the judgment
said. "The effect was to deprive him of the protection which jury trial
should have afforded."
The court also said that even if Bentley had yelled "Let
him have it,"
the statement was ambiguous. "It could bear an innocent meaning, being
an encouragement by the appellant to Craig to hand over his weapon," the
The day Bentley was executed, crowds demonstrated outside
Prison, where he was being held, and at the Houses of Parliament. And
his 21-year-old sister, Iris, who had already lost two siblings,
returned her engagement ring to her fiance and vowed to spend the rest
of her life fighting to clear her brother's name.
In years of campaigning, petitioning and hoping, she achieved
of hard-won victories. In 1965 Parliament voted to abolish the death
penalty, in part because of the country's continued unease over the
In 1968 Bentley's remains were removed from a prison graveyard
buried in a grave in a south London cemetery, which Miss Bentley kept
covered in flowers and where the headstone reads: "Here lies the body of
Derek Bentley, a victim of British justice."
The case inspired countless sympathetic books, television
songs and films, including the 1991 feature film "Let Him Have It."
And although one home secretary after another turned down
requests to reopen the case, in 1993 Home Secretary Michael Howard
finally granted Bentley a limited pardon, saying he should not have been
put to death.
Last November the Criminal Cases Review Commission, an
set up to re-examine possible miscarriages of justice, finally sent the
Bentley case to the Court of Appeal. But the decision was too late for
Iris Bentley, who died earlier that year after a long struggle with
Thursday her daughter, Maria Dingwall-Bentley, celebrated
by opening a
bottle of 1958 Moet & Chandon Champagne that Iris and Derek's father had
bought in anticipation of this day. But she said her joy was laced with
"I think this has been one of the most pleasurable days
of my life, but
also tinged with great sadness that my mother, Iris, is not here today,"
Ms. Dingwall-Bentley said at a news conference. "For 46 years all we
have known is Derek never murdered anybody."
The family's lawyer, Benedict Birnberg, applauded the
but lashed out at the successive governments, most under Conservative
rule, that had refused to re-examine the case.
"They had every opportunity, year after year, to refer
this case back to
the courts or to have a public inquiry," he said.
Craig, now 62 and a retired plumber, said that Thursday's
left him "grateful and relieved," but "saddened that it has taken those
46 years for the authorities of this country to admit the truth."
Craig expressed his remorse over the death of Constable
Miles and said
he would never speak publicly about the case again.
"A day does not go by when I don't think about Derek," he said.