In 1953, Derek William Bentley was hanged for the murder of the police officer Sidney Miles, committed during the course of an attempted burglary. The murder of the police officer was actually committed by 16 year old Christopher Craig. However, Craig was too young to hang. Bentley was convicted as a party to the murder, by English law principle of common criminal purpose “joint enterprise”. The judge in court, Lord Chief Justice Goddard, sentenced Bentley to death based on an interpretation of the phrase “Let him have it”, Bentley’s alleged instruction to Craig. Goddard described Bentley as “mentally aiding the murder of Police Constable Sidney Miles”.
The crime took place on the 2nd November 1952. Bentley and Craig attempted to burgle the warehouse of the Barlow and Parker confectionary company at 27-29 Tamworth Road, Croydon. Craig armed himself with a Colt New Service .455 Webley calibre revolver. Craig had shortened the barrel of the gun so that it could be easily concealed in his pocket and also carried a number of undersized rounds for the revolver, some of which he had modified by hand to fit the gun. Bentley carried a sheath knife and a spiked knuckle duster, both of which Craig had given to Bentley.
At around 9.15pm, a nine year old girl in a house opposite the warehouse spotted Craig and Bentley climbing over the gate and up and a drainpipe to the roof of the warehouse. She alerted her mother, who called the police.
When the police arrived, Craig and Bentley hid behind the lift-housing. Craig taunted the police. Detective Sergeant Frederick Fairfax climbed the drainpipe onto the roof and grabbed hold of Bentley but Bentley broke free of Fairfax’s grasp. What happened next s something that has been debated ever since. Police witnesses claimed that the police officer asked Craig to “Hand over the gun, lad” before Bentley shouted the ambiguous phrase, “Let him have it, Chris” to Craig. Craig fired his revolver at Fairfax, hitting him in the shoulder. Despite his injury, Fairfax was able to restrain Bentley. Bentley told Fairfax that Craig was armed with a revolver and had further ammunition for the gun. Bentley had not used either of the weapons that he had in his pockets.
A group of uniformed police officers then arrived and were sent onto the roof. The first to reach the roof was Police Constable Sidney Miles. Miles was immediately killed by a shot to the head. After his ammunition had run out and he was cornered, Craig jumped around 30 feet from the roof onto a greenhouse, fracturing his spine and left wrist.
Bentley and Craig were both charged with murder and tried at the Old Bailey in London between the 9th and 11th December 1952. At the time of the crime, murder was still a capital offence in England and Wales. However, those under 18 year old could not sentenced to death, meaning that of the two defendants, only Bentley could have been hanged if convicted. The doctrine of felony murder or “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 Miles was murdered. There were three main points of contention during the trial:
Firstly, the defence claimed there was ambiguity in the evidence with regards to how many shots were fired and by whom. Forensics later 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.
The second contentious point was the exact meaning of Bentley’s alleged command to Craig, “Let him have it, Chris”. Both Craig and Bentley denied that Bentley had said the words but the police officers testified that he had said them. Furthermore, Bentley’s counsel argued that even if he had said the words, Bentley could have meant “give him the gun, Chris” as opposed to “shoot him, Chris”.
Thirdly, there was a disagreement as to whether Bentley was fit to stand trial in light of his mental capacity. Bentley had undergone diagnostic tests during his time at Kingswood Approved School, where he served a three year sentence for theft. In December 1948, at the age of 15 years and 6 months, Bentley’s mental age was estimated at 10 years and 4 months. He had a reading age of 4 years and 6 months. He scored just 66 on an IQ test in December 1948 and 77 in 1952. Following his arrest for the murder of Sidney Miles, he was described as “borderline feeble-minded”, with a verbal age of 71, performance IQ of 87 and full scale IQ of 77. Bentley was also examined twice by EEG. A reading taken on the 16th November 1949 indicated that he suffered from epilepsy and a reading on the 9th February 1950 was “abnormal”. In February 1952, Bentley had undergone a medical examination for National Service in which he was judged “mentally substandard” and unfit for military service.
Principle Medical Officer, Dr Matheson, 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. Bentley was also known to suffer from epilepsy. Matheson, whilst agreeing that Bentley was of very low intelligence, was of the opinion that he was not suffering from epilepsy at the time of the alleged offence. He also stated that Bentley was not a “feeble-minded person” under the Mental Deficiency Acts. Matheson considered Bentley to be sane and fit to stand trial. At this point in time, English law did not recognise the concept of diminished responsibility due to retarded development, with this only being introduced by the Homicide Act in 1957. The only medical defence to murder at that point in time was criminal insanity, where the accused is unable to distinguish right from wrong. Whilst he did suffer from severe debilitation, Bentley was not insane.
The jury took 75 minutes to decide that both Craig and Bentley were guilty of Miles’ murder, with a plea for mercy for Bentley. Bentley was sentenced to death on the 11th December 1952 whilst Craig was ordered to be detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure. Craig was released from prison in May 1963 after serving ten years in prison and later became a plumbing engineer. Bentley was originally scheduled to be hanged on the 30th December 1952 but this was postponed to allow for his appeal. 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. The appeal was unsuccessful on the 13th January 1953 and Bentley was hanged on the 28th of the same month.
For his 1989 album, Spike, Elvis Costello composed the song Let Him Dangle based on the events of the murder, the trial and subsequent questioning as to what happened on the night of Sidney Miles’ murder, particularly what the phrase “Let him have it, Chris” actually meant: “Bentley said to Craig, “Let him have it, Chris”, They still don’t know today what he meant by this”. Let Him Dangle also questions whether Bentley should have been hanged when it was Craig who killed the police officer: “Craig fired the pistol but was too young to swing, So the police took Bentley and the very next thing, Let him dangle”. Later in the song, Costello tells of the shock at Bentley’s conviction and the failed plea for mercy: “Not many people thought that Bentley would hang, But the word never came, the phone never rang, Outside Wandsworth Prison there was horror and hate, As the hangman shook Bentley’s hand to calculate his weight”.
Speaking of his comprehensive retelling of the events in the Bentley case in a 1989 interview with On the Street, Costello said:
“It’s one of those cases that’s always brought up when they have a big debate about capital punishment. And as you can hear in the song, I didn’t want to make any ironical point, it’s fairly much a statement of what I understand the facts of the case to be, and what I feel about it, and the way the debate is used as a distraction from the horror of an execution. The song is kind of written like a Woody Guthrie song. It tells a story and then says, ‘And the moral is …’”
After years of battling from Bentley’s sister, Iris, Bentley was eventually granted a partial posthumous pardon in 1993, followed by a complete pardon in 1998. Additionally, there have been many questions as to whether Bentley even said the infamous phrase “Let him have it, Chris”. In September 1991, Christopher Craig broke a forty year silence and was interviewed by Thames Reports. Craig even took a lie detector test to say that it was police lies which hanged Bentley and that Bentley had never said “Let him have it, Chris”:
“He didn’t say a word. It only needed one sentence from me and that is to agree with the prosecution that Bentley did say that remark. I haven’t said it, I never will say it, even [with] all the pressure, because it never was said and my principles, whatever happens to me, I will go to the grave with the truth”.