Today (January 28) in London History – a Victim of British “Justice”

January 28 – a day of infamy in the history of British criminal justice.


His tombstone bears the words: A victim of British justice. 

Yes, this makes pretty grim listening. So strap yourself in. 

He was hanged on this day – January 28th – in 1953. He was 20 years old. His name was Derek Bentley. 

He was given a posthumous pardon in 1993. His case was a miscarriage of justice. It’s regarded as pivotal in the successful campaign to abolish capital punishment in the United Kingdom.

Who was Derek Bentley? He was the mentally impaired son of a south London working-class couple. He was legally borderline feeble-minded. His mental age was that of a nine- to twelve-year-old child. His IQ was in the 66-77 range. He was ill-coordinated, epileptic and totally illiterate. He was timid. He kept many pets, including cats, dogs and a chicken. He left school at age 15. He worked as a dustman but was downgraded to road sweeper. Even that was beyond him. He was sacked. At the time of his arrest he was unemployed – and unemployable.

The crime? He and a 16-year-old named Christopher Craig were trying to burgle a Croydon warehouse. Police were called. The boys fled up to the roof, where they were trapped. Detective Constable Fairfax got up on the roof and seized Bentley. Bentley broke free but stayed put. Police reinforcements arrived, one of them Police Constable Sidney Miles.  Police witnesses claimed that Bentley called out to Christopher Craig, who had a revolver, “let him have it Chris.” In court, both boys denied that Bentley had told his younger sidekick to “let him have it.” In any case, the younger boy – who was the dominant one of the pair – fired several shots. One of them hit Police Constable Miles in the head and killed him. All the while, Derek Bentley made no attempt to escape.

Bentley’s defence was a debacle. No defence witnesses were called on his behalf. There was no mention of his mental limitations. Or that he was on prescribed medical drugs. The judge prematurely used the word “murdered”, helped prosecution witnesses and muzzled a defence witness. The judge’s summing up was biased. The jury was not given proper direction. Both boys were found guilty. There was a jury recommendation for mercy in Bentley’s case. The judge ignored the recommendation. Sixteen-year-old Craig was too young to hang. But Bentley was sentenced to death. Bentley appealed but the appeal was rejected. Bentley was dim-witted. Bentley had no record of violence. Bentley had been unarmed. Bentley had not fired the shot. Bentley had been in police hands for a quarter of an hour before the fatal shooting. No matter, Bentley was hanged. 

There was widespread public disquiet. There was a concerted campaign for clemency. That was all for nought. 

As Bentley’s biographer put it, Clemency can be exercised for any one of the following reasons: youth; mental problems; a jury recommendation for mercy; widespread or strong local public opinion; the principle that if the leading actor cannot be executed then neither should any associate; and the existence of more than a scintilla of doubt about the evidence. Bentley met each criterion.

Derek Bentley was hanged at Wandsworth prison at 9 am on January 28, 1953. 

In the words of biographer Kevin Bucknall, Derek Bentley’s appointment with British justice was one of the most controversial British criminal trials of the 20th century. 

“It affected public opinion, causing many supporters to reconsider the desirability of capital punishment; it raised the issue 

of parliament’s inability to discuss matters of royal prerogative; it is a case that is regularly cited as an example of the

irreversibility of the death penalty should the verdict be later called into question; and it is a shocking reminder that state

criminal justice systems can sometimes be barbarous and fail with disastrous consequences.”

Ah, yes, capital punishment. It’s too thorny, too lacerating a subject to pursue any further here. But here’s tuppence worth of

argument tossed onto the scale that denies capital punishment is a deterrent. England had public executions until 1868.

Proponents said that was a good idea – that public executions were a deterrent. Picking a pocket was a capital crime. 

The incidence of pickpocketing was never higher than at a public hanging. The reason was the spectators were so absorbed by the

death throes of the condemned it was easy to separate them from their valuables. 

But you’d have thought that if it were a deterrent, the one time, more than any other, that it would deter would be an execution. 

And then there’s the famous clash between the Home Secretary Priti Patel, who supports capital punishment, and Ian Hislop, the Editor of the satirical fortnightly magazine, Private. Hislop is opposed to capital punishment. The two of them locked horns on the BBC television programme Have I Got News For You. 

To put it into today’s parlance, Hislop owns the Home Secretary. Makes a fool of her. It’s 90 seconds of good viewing if anyone’s so inclined. A google will get you there instanta. Here’s the transcript. Necessarily, I’ll have to read all the parts, including the remarks of the show’s host, Jonathan Dimbleby. 


Here’s Ian Hislop, serving for the match. He says: For 50 years Private Eye has pretty much in most issues exposed a miscarriage of justice. And a lot of them have been murders. Over the years large numbers of these cases have been found to be entirely wrong and the men convicted have been found innocent. In some of those very high profile cases which involved terrorism cases we would have made very dangerous new martyrs by executing people who turned out not to have committed the murders involved. So on a purely practical basis, whatever you think it says about the civilised nature of your society, I think it would be incredibly dangerous to have capital punishment back.

Here’s Any Questions Host Jonathan Dimbleby asking the Home Secretary to respond: Priti Patel, are you influenced at all by that argument of miscarriages of justice. 

Here’s her response – remember, she’s the Home Secretary, one of our highest government officials: No disrespect, Ian, but I’m not on the basis that I think you know this is really about our criminal justice system actually and I think if any you know for any conviction for example you need ultimate burden of proof. You really do and that means that…

To which incoherent remarks, Any Questions host Jonathan Dimbleby says: But that’s his point, that they were finding these mistakes all the time.

Home Secretary Priti Patel starts to reply: Well, I mean

Her nemesis, Private Eye Editor Ian Hislop, intervenes: Are you saying they were guilty, all these people?

The Home Secretary replies: No, I’m not saying they were guilty. Obviously I’m not.

Ian Hislop counters: So they would be dead. 

The Home Secretary, boxed into a corner, says: No.

Ian Hislop parries: They would.

The Home Secretary, trying to find a way out, says: The point is, as I said earlier on, this is about having deterrents. You know if you have strong deterrents that…

Ian Hislop applies the coup de grace: It’s not a deterrent killing the wrong people. 

[Audience falls about laughing and gives Ian Hislop’s knock-out punch a resounding ovation]

That’s all from London

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