Derek Bentley and Christopher Craig
Derek Bentley - an innocent man
The man you see here was hanged for a crime he didn't commit. Everyone knew in court that it was another man who had done the deed. Although I say 'man', he only lived to the age of nineteen.I have always been fascinated by this event even though it took place before I was born.
Today, we would probably have a nice politically correct label for him, but that wasn't the case in London in the 1950s. Derek had never been a lad who was in the best of health and this had the effect of disrupting his schooling. He was even turned down by the British army.
In those days, it was compulsory for all young men aged between seventeen and twenty one to serve in the army for a year and a half. But even the army, who only demanded a certain level of intelligence, refused to have him in their ranks. Because he was illiterate, he could only perform the most menial work.
Yet by 1953, everyone in England knew his name. On 28th January 1953, Derek Bentley, aged just nineteen, was hanged for murdering a policeman. And yet, he didn't kill the officer. The court knew that he hadn't. The judge and the jury knew that he hadn't committed the crime. But at 9am on a cold January day, he was hanged by the authorities at Wandsworth Prison.
How on earth could such a thing happen? By the time I heard this story, I was a teenager myself, and it was beyond my understanding. Everyone knew who was innocent and who was guilty and yet the wrong man had been hanged. Why?
Playing cops and robbers
With no meaningful job, and living in one of the poorer areas of London, Derek had little to occupy himself. He couldn't read to pass the time and he didn't have the money to be able to afford many forms of entertainment. A lot of the time he'd just hang out with neighboring teenagers. It was inevitable that the boys would get into trouble with the police.
One of his friends was younger than him - just sixteen - but Christopher Craig was much brighter than Derek. He had a vivid imagination and admired the petty criminals in the area who seemed to him to be glamorous and adventurous gangsters.
Chris even acquired a gun and a motley collection of bullets to enhance his self-image. He planned a minor robbery - of a confectionery warehouse - and Derek accompanied him; maybe in his childish mind he was going to 'steal some sweets.'
The boys climbed over the warehouse gates and onto the roof of the building. They were spotted and the police were called.
Let him have it, Chris
This is the sequence of events that followed. It's important to realize exactly what happened in the order in which the events took place.
- The police arrived on the scene. The boys tried to hide but Chris' bravado took over and taunted them in approved gangster-fashion - just like the movies
- Derek was apprehended almost immediately by an officer
- Derek then allegedly shouted something that was to cause him to be hanged for a crime he didn't commit. 'Let him have it, Chris.'
- Chris Craig fired the gun that he'd brought along with him. It grazed the shoulder of the police officer. Nevertheless, the officer chased Bentley and restrained him. Bentley ranted about the gun, telling the policeman that Chris had still got ammunition and trying to warn him
- Police reinforcements arrived. Almost at once, one of the men, Sidney Miles, was shot in the head by Craig. Chris tried to escape by jumping off the roof, but was injured and arrested.
Let Him Have It is a film that is largely based on the Craig and Bentley story. It seems to be very close to the truth and the real facts.
It is a warning about the faults with the death penalty but is also a very moving film where Craig and Bentley are well-portrayed. If ever there was a 'must-see' this is it.
The court case at the Old Bailey
Both boys were charged with murder.
Despite what we would called today Derek's 'learning disabilities' he was judged to be fit for trial. The court believed that there was no question that the officer had been killed by Chris Craig. Chris however, was under the age of eighteen - he was still only sixteen years of age - and the law dictated that minors could not be hanged. He was sentenced to a prison term.
Derek, on the other hand, was old enough to be executed and was sentenced to receive the death penalty. His crime really was simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
A fruitless appeal
Many were outraged by the verdict and an appeal against the death penalty was immediately launched. It was pointed out that Derek didn't fire the gun, that he was not an adult when his mental capacities were taken into account and also that the evidence given about the bullet that killed the officer was inconclusive.
A topic many people were discussing was his cry of 'let him have it, Chris.' Was this an appeal to Craig to surrender the weapon to the police? In other words 'let him have the gun, Chris.'? Or did he mean 'let him have a bullet Chris - fire.'?
However, the appeal was unsuccessful and on 28th January, 1953, this teenager with learning difficulties and a mental age of below his actual years, was hanged for something everyone knew he didn't do.
He was finally granted a posthumous pardon forty years later. A pardon however does not remove the murder verdict. Campaigners working to clear his name continued to work and in 1998, the verdict was overturned.
And what about Chris Craig? He served ten years in prison and since that time, he lived a peaceful and law abiding life. When Derek was finally exonerated of the crime Chris, by then in his early sixties, welcomed the pardon and made a statement which included the following quote:
"A day does not go by when I don't think about Derek and now his innocence has been proved with this judgment."
Was Craig a victim too?
It's easy to see Christopher Craig as the bad guy in this situation. After all, it was he who killed the police officer. But we must remember that he was only sixteen years old. Of course, he didn't get away scot-free - he received a jail term and served ten years.
But can you imagine what it must have been like living with the knowledge that he wasn't just responsible for the police officer's death but for his friend's too?
When he was released from jail he never committed a crime again and had a completely law-abiding life. However, he was still judged by the actions he had taken as a young teenager in post war London.
Craig and Bentley video
This video is from 1998, the year in which Bentley finally received a pardon. It was too late, of course. The video features footage from the time of the trial and includes an interview with Chris Craig. This is the first part - when you've watched it, the second part is shown on the related videos screen. This is well worth watching.
© 2013 Jackie Jackson