I just watched the movie “Let Him Have It”, not because I knew anything about it — simply because it was made by Peter Medak, the director of “Romeo Bleeding”, a movie I liked. “Let Him Have It” is based on true events and tells the story of Derek Bentley who at the age of nineteen was sentenced to death and hanged for a murder which was committed by a friend of his when he (Derek) had already been detained by a police sergeant.
Derek was born in 1933 and suffered serious head injuries when a bomb fell on the house where his family lived. The accident caused severe brain damage and kept him at a mental age of 11. He was prone to frequent epileptic seizures. When he was 18, he and his friend Chris Craig tried to break into a warehouse, but were spotted by neighbors who called the police. When some officers arrived on the scene Chris, who carried a gun, started shooting wildly at anybody and anything that moved, first injuring the sergeant who still managed to retain Derek, and then killing another officer.
At the trial, both boys were convicted of murder. While Derek was unarmed, didn’t shoot anybody, and had already been arrested when the fatal shot was fired, the judge based his sentence on a law that held all parties involved in a crime responsible for its outcome if they had a “common purpose”. In other words, if two people intend to rob a bank and one of them kills a bystander, they’re considered equally guilty because both of them were in agreement about the possible outcome. Bentley supposedly yelled “let him have it, Chris”, which the judge interpreted as “shoot him”, while the defense argued that Derek urged Chris to let him (the police sergeant) have the gun.
Chris was only16 and thus too young to face execution. He was released after spending ten years in prison. Derek, however, was old enough to be hanged, although he had an IQ of 66 and couldn’t read or write. His family, foremost his sister Iris, untiringly contested this great injustice. 45 years after his death, the Court of Appeal overturned his controversial conviction and granted him a full pardon.
A few years after Derek’s execution Britain joined the civilized world and abolished capital punishment. A step that only few states in the US have taken, keeping the United States in the illustrious company of countries such as North Korea, China, or Pakistan.
What decided me to write about Derek Bentley’s case is the strange fact that I happened to watch the movie about his short life exactly 55 years after his death. He was executed on 28 January 1953. What a peculiar coincidence.