The story of Derek Bentley has become synonymous with the phrase ‘let him have it’, something that Bentley allegedly shouted to Christopher Craig on 2nd November 1952. This one sentence cost Bentley his life and subsequently put massive pressure on Parliament to finally abolish the death penalty in the UK. But what actually happened up on that roof and did Bentley even say those fateful words?
Mr Cassels: Did you say “Let him have it, Chris”?
A: No, sir.
– Derek Bentley’s denial in court, December 1952
Derek Bentley & Christopher Craig
Derek had a difficult childhood. At the age four he suffered a head injury which he never really recovered from; at 15 he was persuaded by some classmates to steal money and sweets from a local shop, which he did and was caught when he didn’t run. For this he spent the next three years in an ‘approved school’. While he was there he was assessed and deemed to have an IQ of 70 and was ‘educationally subnormal.’ [See: H. N. Lloyd’s Murder Tales: The Hangman’s Tales] On 28th July 1950 Bentley was thrust into the world with little idea of how to conduct himself in a world that was not equipped to deal with a man who had a child’s mind.
To occupy his time Bentley began hanging around with Christopher Craig who was three years younger than Derek. Christopher Craig was a mechanic at the time but also got up to all sorts of less-than-legal activities in his spare time. Craig loved guns and hated the police.
2nd November 1952
The infamous crime happened on 2nd November in 1952. Bentley and Craig decided to break into a warehouse owned by a confectioners; however, they were spotted by a local woman and her husband telephoned the police.
Bentley and Craig made their way to the rooftop and were they were joined by Detective Sergeant Fredrick Fairfax. Bentley didn’t resist arrest and was immediately cuffed by Fairfax. At this Craig produced a revolver. Fairfax told Craig to hand over the gun, at which point Bentley, allegedly, uttered the words “let him have it, Chris.”
As fairfax took the prisoner away, Bentley broke away and shouted “Let him have it Chris.” I then heard 2 shots fired from the direction of the chimney…
On arriving at the roof door…Miles was in front of me…I saw the young man I had previously seen on the roof (Craig) from behind the chimney… he still had the revolver in his two hands, and fired another shot towards us…
– PC Harrion’s Statement, 2nd November 1953
Craig then fired a round of bullets and Fairfax was shot in the shoulder. Fairfax backed away from the scene, using Bentley as a human shield and more policemen came up onto the roof, one of which was PC Sidney Miles. Craig then fired another shot, hitting Miles between the eyes, killing him instantly. The confused fight that followed ended when Craig threw himself off the roof, landing in a greenhouse, breaking his breastbone, left wrist and fracturing his spine.
The quote above from PC Harrison’s statement shows how obviously the statement “Let him have it, Chris”, if it was said at all, doesn’t even pertain to the death of PC Miles, who wasn’t on the roof at the time. The statement, which would be twisted to “prove” that Bentley intended for Craig to kill the police officer, is one of great debate. “Let him have it” might mean “shoot him” but it also might mean “let him have the gun”, how could anyone know which Bentley meant, if he said it at all?
A Matter of Age
Craig was taken to the hospital and charged with murder. Bentley was taken to the police station in Croydon and charged with attempted burglary. Statements made on that night backed up both charges – Bentley didn’t know Craig had a gun and Craig showed no remorse. Below are some of his comments from hospital. He was glad he had killed a police officer, his brother had been recently imprisoned for 12 years and he was angry.
Did I really kill a policeman? … Is he dead, that Copper? … I shot him, he went down like a ton of bricks.
– Christopher Craig’s statement in hospital, 2nd November 1953
However, Craig was only 16 at the time and therefore too young to hang for the murder – but Bentley was 19 and the police wanted justice for their fallen comrade. Bentley was also charged with the murder.
On 11th December 1952, after a feeble defence of both Bentley and Craig, both were found guilty of murder: Craig to be jailed and Bentley was given the death sentence.
At this time there was already a massive surge of public dislike towards the death penalty – 3 in 4 of all capital cases were not hanged – Bentley, who had the mental age of a child, should surely be one of those cases. The public, press and hundreds of MPs pleaded with the Home Office to save Bentley. Many letters were received by the home office.
Despite all these protests, the Prime Minister intervened and Bentley was hanged on 28th January 1953.
From the very day that Bentley was hanged his father and sister (Iris) campaigned for a posthumous pardon. In 1993 the Home Office attempted to placate campaigners by granting a pardon that stated that the sentence was unjust, but he was still a murderer. In 1998 under Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, the campaigners finally got a full and impartial review of the case that concluded that there was no evidence to state that Bentley knew Craig was carrying a gun and the judge misdirected the jury in order to find Bentley guilty. There was no evidence to even suggest that Bentley stated “let him have it” and Craig himself denies this. (See video below from 2015.)
Bentley’s conviction was fully overturned in July of 1998. His sister, who spent her life campaign for his pardon, died in 1997, before she could see justice served.
This case was one of a few key cases that paved the way towards the abolishment of the death penalty in 1965. But it’s about more than that, it’s also about proper defences, especially for those whose mental capacities are low. The documents relating to this case are a bit of a mess, I wish I had more time to really go through all the documents and organise my own thoughts on the case, but needless to say, the words on Bentley’s grave are certainly true.
Want to check out the document yourself? Head to the National Archives in London and order document FO 371/22740