Early life
During the London Blitz in World War 2 German bomb hit the Bentley family home. Derek fell from the first floor and hit his head on a pile of rubble causing permanent brain damage. It has been claimed that Derek had the mental age of 11 and suffered from epilepsy.
The events of the 2nd of November 1952
On the night of 2 November 1952, Chris Craig and Bentley tried to break into the warehouse of confectionery manufacturers and wholesalers Barlow & Parker on Tamworth Road, Croydon, England. The two youths were spotted climbing over the gate and up a drain pipe to the roof of the warehouse by a nine-year-old girl in a house across from the building. She alerted her parents and her father walked to the nearest telephone box and called the police.
When the police arrived, the two youths hid behind the lift-housing. One of the police officers, Detective Sergeant Frederick Fairfax, climbed the drain pipe onto the roof and grabbed hold of Bentley. Bentley broke free and was alleged by a number of police witnesses to have shouted the words "Let him have it, Chris". Both Craig and Bentley denied that those words were ever spoken.
Craig, who was armed with a revolver, opened fire, grazing Fairfax's shoulder. Nevertheless, Fairfax arrested Bentley, who is said to have told him that Craig had plenty of ammunition for his Colt New Service .455 Eley calibre revolver, for which Craig had a variety of undersized rounds, some of which he had had to modify to fit the gun. Craig had also sawn off half of the weapon's barrel, so that it would fit in his pocket. In his pocket Bentley had a knife and a spiked knuckle-duster, though he never used either. Craig had made the knuckle-duster himself and had recently given both weapons to Bentley.
Following the arrival of uniformed officers, a group was sent onto the roof. The first to reach the roof was Police Constable Sidney Miles, who was immediately killed by a shot to the head. After exhausting his ammunition and being cornered, Craig jumped some thirty feet from the roof, fracturing his spine and left wrist when he landed on a greenhouse. At this point, he was arrested.
Various medals were awarded to the several participating police officers, including one – posthumously – to Miles and the George Cross to Fairfax.edit] Legal proceedings
Craig would not have faced execution if found guilty, as he was below the age of 18 when PC Miles was shot. Bentley on the other hand was not. The trial took place before the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, LordGoddard, at the Old Bailey in London between 9 December 1952 and 11 December 1952. The doctrine of 'constructive malice' meant that a charge of manslaughter was not an option, as the "malicious intent" of the armed robbery was transferred to the shooting. Bentley's best defence was that he was effectively under arrest when PC Miles was killed; however, this was only after an attempt to escape, during which a police officer had been wounded.
As the trial progressed the jury had more details to consider. The prosecution was unsure how many shots were fired and by whom and a ballistics expert cast doubt on whether Craig could have hit Miles if he had shot at him deliberately: the fatal bullet was not found, Craig had used bullets of different under-sized calibres and the sawn-off barrel made it inaccurate to a degree of six feet at the range from which he fired. There was also the question of what Bentley had meant by "Let him have it", if indeed he had said it Though in the gangster movies of the time the expression meant "shoot", it could also be construed as signifying that Bentley wanted Craig to surrender the gun
The Principal Medical Officer responsible was Dr Matheson and he referred Bentley to Dr. Hill, a psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital. Hill's report stated that Bentley was illiterate and of low intelligence, almost borderline retarded. However, Matheson was of the opinion that whilst Bentley was of low intelligence, he was not suffering from epilepsy at the time of the alleged offence, that he was not a "feeble-minded person" under the Mental Deficiency Acts and that he was sane and fit to plead and stand trial. English law at the time did not recognise the concept of diminished responsibility due to retarded development, though it existed in Scottish law (it was introduced to England by the Homicide Act 1957). Criminal insanity – where the accused is unable to distinguish right from wrong – was then the only medical defence to murder. Bentley, while suffering severe debilitation, was not insane.
The jury took 75 minutes to decide that both Bentley and Craig were guilty of PC Miles's murder. Bentley was sentenced to death with a plea for mercy on 11 December 1952, while Craig was ordered to be detained at Her Majesty'sPleasure (he was eventually released in 1963 after serving 10 years' imprisonment and has been a law abiding citizen ever since).
Bentley's lawyers filed appeals highlighting the ambiguities of the ballistic evidence, Bentley's mental age and the fact that he did not fire the fatal shot. These efforts failed to reverse his conviction, however and the death sentence was mandatory.
David Maxwell Fyfe, who had helped to draft the European Convention on Human Rights, had become Home Secretary when the Conservatives returned to office in 1951. After reading the Home Office psychiatric reports he refused to request clemency from the Queen, despite a petition signed by over 200 of his fellow MPs.
Parliament was not allowed to debate Bentley's sentence until it had been carried out The Home Office also refused Dr. Hill permission to make his report public.
At 9am on the morning of 28 January, 1953, Derek Bentley was hanged at Wandsworth Prison, London by Albert Pierrepoint. When it was announced the execution had been carried out, there were protests outside the prison and two people were arrested and later fined for damage to property.