Mitch Mitchell kicks off a regular column from a rock’n’roll rebel with an eye on our history.
The police execution of Mark Duggan and the lawful killing verdict into his death reminded me of an earlier miscarriage of justice. It took decades to win some sort of justice for Derek Bentley – but the fight eventually won.
The story starts on 2 November 1952. Two teenage boys, Christopher Craig and Derek Bentley tried to rob a factory in Tamworth Road, Croydon. They were both extremely inept criminals. A neighbour spotted them on the factory roof and called the police.
Chris was 16 and spent his time watching crime movies and reading crime comics. In his mind he was an American hoodlum. By contrast Derek was aged 18 but had a mental age of about 8.
As a child he lived in Blackfriars and his home was bombed in the Blitz. Derek received head injuries and was also epileptic and illiterate. He found it hard to make friends and was bullied at school. When Chris began to take an interest in him, Derek became infatuated. He would do everything Chris told him to do.
The police arrived on the factory roof and Derek was arrested by a DC Fairfax. Chris tried to live up to his hoodlum image, pulling a gun and shooting Fairfax in the shoulder before pointed it at PC Sydney Miles. Derek had no idea Chris was armed.
PC Miles was a cop of the “Dixon of Dock Green” mould. “Now come on, son. Don’t be silly. Hand that over,” he said. But Chris shot him, hitting him in the head and killing him instantly.
Here was the crux of the prosecution case against Derek: it was alleged he shouted “Give it to him, Chris. Let him have it.” The prosecution said this meant “shoot PC Miles”. Bentley’s defence said it meant “let him have the gun, hand it over to him.
Another policemen was still climbing the ladder to the roof. He was never called to give evidence and said to the best of his knowledge, Derek did not say anything at all. Meanwhile Chris tried to escape by jumping from the roof, but broke his neck and was confined to a wheelchair for some time afterwards.
The right wing press had been getting into a lather for some time about “juvenile delinquents” and “Teddy Boys”. The home secretary was a Tory named Sir David Maxwell-Fyffe. He put pressure on the court to deal with the case quickly (while the incident was still in the public mind) and as harshly as possible.
Derek was examined by two court appointed psychiatrists. One found him illiterate and borderline “retarded”, concluding that he should not stand trial. But the other said he was not suffering from epilepsy at the time of the shooting and was therefore fit to stand.
One of Derek’s former teachers later became a child behavioural psychologist. He said that at school playground fights, Derek had been “a coward” – and that therefore “let him have it” did indeed mean “give up, don’t shoot the gun”.
But the second psychiatrist’s view became the accepted one. Chris and Derek stood trial on 9 December at the Old Bailey before Lord Goddard. The jury were never told of Derek’s medical conditions and material witnesses who could have strengthened his defence were never called.
David Yallop was Chris’s defence barrister and tells the tale in his book To Encourage Others. Derek was assigned a barrister convinced of his guilt. “I think the little bastard should hang, don’t you,” he told Yallop.
Lord Goddard got his rocks off when sentencing young men to hang. His clerk always had a spare pair of trousers ready in his chambers on days when this sort of sentencing took place. Yallop meanwhile was later disbarred for being too much of a thorn in the side of the legal establishment.
The jury found Derek guilty of encouraging murder, but recommended mercy. That recommendation was ignored by Goddard who sentenced Derek to hang at Wandsworth Prison.
This was postponed to allow an appeal. Derek’s legal team found several anomalies in the ballistic evidence. Chris’s gun was extremely inaccurate after six feet, the calibre of the bullets was in question and the fatal bullet was never found. PC Miles could well have been shot by one of the other police officers and not by Christopher at all.
The appeal was dismissed and the execution was rescheduled for 28 January 1953. Sydney Silverman, a Labour MP, had been campaigning for some time to abolish the death penalty. He raised a petition of over 200 MPs calling for Maxwell-Fyffe to commute the sentence. Fyffe refused.
On the morning of execution a crowd of around 300 gathered outside the prison to oppose capital punishment. They marched to the home office and on to Downing Street.
Derek Bentley’s sister Iris began a campaign to undo this gross injustice and fought tirelessly for years afterwards. MPs and others joined the campaign, including socialist journalist Paul Foot. John Lennon also joined the campaign.
In 1993 Iris had a breakthrough. The shadow home secretary, a certain T Blair, put pressure on his Tory counterpart Michael Howard, who gave Derek a partial pardon. He said that Derek should never have been hanged, but still felt he was guilty of incitement to murder.
Iris kept on fighting, although seriously ill with cancer. She died in 1998, a few months before Derek was given a full pardon. His remains were removed from Wandsworth, where hanged prisoners were buried, to be placed next to his father and sister.
There are obvious parallels between this case and that of Mark Duggan. In both victims were working class people. In both the police colluded in their statements.
One good things came from this mess. Public revulsion over this case and that of Ruth Ellis in 1957 meant no further capital punishments were carried out after 1964. Three years later the death penalty was removed in Britain, although it remained as an option for governments to restore until the late 1990s, when Jack Straw acting on an EU edict abolished it completely. Between 1967 and 1998 you could still be executed for setting fire to a naval dockyard.
This is a step forward. But today we see the deaths of Mark Duggan, Azelle Rodney, Jean-Charles de Menezes and others. The police are still handing out death sentences on the streets. And the state is still refusing to tell the truth about how they died.