Ward's Book of Days.

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What happened on this day in history.

JUNE 30th

On this day in history in 1933, was born Derek Bentley.

Bentley was a petty criminal who was convicted and hanged for a murder committed by his associate. His case became a cause célèbre, and he was eventually pardoned posthumously.

Derek William Bentley was born on 30th June 1933 at London. He had a difficult childhood, being injured in the London Blitz and developing epilepsy, possibly as a consequence of his injury. He had limited intelligence, prison psychologists later said that he had a mental age of 11, and he never learnt to read. When he left school, he was unable to find employment and turned to petty crime.

On 2nd November 1952, accompanied by Christopher Craig, aged 16, he attempted to break into a warehouse in Croydon. He and Craig were seen entering the premises and the police were alerted. When the police arrived, they searched the building and found the two youths on the roof. A constable grabbed Bentley and placed him under arrest, at which point, Craig produced a revolver. As the constable tried to persuade Craig to hand over the weapon, Bentley shouted out "Let him have it, Chris". Craig opened fire, grazing the constable on the shoulder. When a further group of police arrived on the roof, Craig fired again, killing one of the constables and, having exhausted his ammunition, attempted to escape but fell 30 feet from the roof, fracturing his spine.

Bentley and Craig were brought to trial at the Old Bailey, on charges of murder. Even if convicted of murder, Craig could not face execution as he was below the statutory age of 18. Bentley, on the other hand, could be hanged if convicted, even though he had not fired the shot. The prosecution made much of the fact that Bentley had exclaimed "Let him have it”, a slang expression of the time, popular in gangster movies, meaning ‘shoot him’. The defence protested that Bentley had meant ‘hand over the weapon’. Prosecution witnesses testified that Bentley, although retarded, was of sound mind and, at that time, the concept of diminished responsibility was not recognised under English law. The jury took an hour and a quarter to find both defendants guilty. Craig was ordered to be detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure, he was released after 10 years, and Bentley was sentenced to death.

Bentley's lawyers filed appeals against conviction but these were dismissed. They appealed to the Home Secretary for a mitigation of sentence to life imprisonment but were rebuffed. On 28th January 1953, Bentley was hanged at Wandsworth Prison.

There followed a long campaign to obtain a posthumous pardon. The campaigners argued that as Bentley had not fired the shot, he was not a murderer, and as it had not been proved that he had encouraged Craig to fire, he was not complicit in murder. Furthermore, Bentley had not known that Craig was armed and therefore he was not even party to armed robbery and could not even be convicted of manslaughter. On 29th July 1993, after much deliberation by the Home Office, Bentley was granted a royal pardon in respect of the death sentence, but not exonerated of murder. In 1998, the Court of Appeal set aside the conviction for murder, as the court ruled that for a conviction to stand it must be proved that Bentley had known that his accomplice was armed, because if he was not aware of the fact, he could not have willingly participated in an adventure likely to result in murder.

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