On this date in 1953, Derek William Bentley was hanged by Albert Pierrepoint in London’s Wandsworth Prison for a murder committed by a friend.
The execution of the mentally impaired 19-year-old was a lightning rod when it was pronounced the previous December and remained so over a half-century struggle for his posthumous pardon.
He had been caught robbing a warehouse with an underage friend in November 1952, and in the gunfight that ensued, a police officer was shot — 15 minutes after Bentley was arrested.
In a welter of confusing evidence, the essential fact was that the two youths had engaged a criminal enterprise and thus became jointly liable for every consequence of the crime, regardless of who pulled the trigger. Nevertheless, it rankled as a manifest injustice that the young man should hang for a murder that happened after he was in custody, while the triggerman should not. There was a sense that Bentley faced a maximal punishment in the state’s frustration that the shooter was too young to hang; and, that since the two boys’ ages were barely on either side of 18 and the 17-year-old Christopher Craig arguably the dominant member of the duo, the effect was a great injustice.
The jury’s recommendation for mercy was not taken up, and Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyfe — a Nuremberg prosecutor fresh from crafting the European Convention on Human Rights — declined to extend a reprieve.
This morning’s hanging was hotly protested. Several hundred rallied outside the prison; 200 MPs presented a petition for Bentley’s clemency, and afterwards several were rebuffed attempting to debate the hanging in Parliament. The medical journal Lancet assayed the general disquietude at the situation and opined that
[W]e are obliged to ask ourselves whether in holding to the letter of justice we are letting the spirit escape … To the English, at any rate, revenge is seldom a fully satisfying experience; it carries too much guilt with it. In the case of Bentley the public sense of guilt seems to have been strong — far stronger than the desire for vengeance.*
Bentley’s 21-year-old sister Iris vowed to her brother the night before his death that she would clear his name, and she fought for the rest of her life to do so. She would win that fight in 1998 (one year after her own death) when the conviction was overturned.
In the meantime, Bentley’s fate entered the public conscience, generally but not universally in the capacity of miscarriage of justice.
Bentley is the subject of an Elvis Costello song, “Let Him Dangle”:
… and a 1991 film:
* Lancet also said that “in our view the perpetual public preoccupation with the condemned cell and the gallows is harmful to the mental health of society.” Executed Today does not endorse this position.