A victim of British justice

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.


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13 Responses to A victim of British justice

  1. Lidbass says:


    You are correct in saying that Bentley was a criminal and had been in trouble with the authorities for some time. But ‘hardened to gun crime’? Where is your evidence for this? Indeed, there is evidence to suggest exactly the opposite; that Bentley did not like guns at all. It was Craig who carried the gun, Craig who fired it. Bentley was found guilty of murder simply by the fact that he was on the roof at the same time as Craig. Punished he certainly should have been, but hung by the neck until dead? Reslly?

    And you should know that the film is indeed recognised by many as a very fair and unbiased account of what happened. Being a film it cannot be 100% accurate, but as intelligent people I would hope that we would be able to recognise this. Use it as a starting place to discover the truth, which, as artnexus says, is easy to find on the net.

    As for P.C. Sidney Miles, tragically killed while on duty, leaving a wife and children, Craig remembered him in a statement released recently. And what of the other policeman, D.C. Fairfax, who was shot by Craig? He has gone on record to say that he did not believe that Bentley should have been hung. One would hope that Miles would want the same.

  2. Art says:

    It’s 1/8/09 and I just viewed the movie “Let Him Have It.” History has shown many times the irresponsibility, ignorance, and blindness of how certain laws have failed humanity. It’s unfortunate, in this particular instance, that a child-like, innocent human being was its victim. I suppose it is of some consolation that the UK abolished capital punishment, but too little too late for Derek Bentley. Bless you, Iris, for your faithful and courageous fight.

  3. artnexus says:

    Mark and Willie:
    Without a doubt, Derek’s trial process was highly defective, that’s why he was granted a full pardon 46 years later (quite ironic and futile…). Still, the British justice system abolished Capital Punishment, which is more than one can say in the U.S.

    Yes, I mentioned the ambiguous nature of these six words. Clearly, the jury never considered the two possible interpretations. Whether Derek said them or not (this has been questioned, actually), the bottom line is that he never should have been tried as an adult. He had severe brain damage, his mental age was 11, his IQ 60.

    As I mentioned above, Derek certainly could claim diminished responsibility, and in 1957 the British Homicide Act added a provision for “arrested or retarded development” — too late for Derek. The film is actually quite factual, which you can easily establish for yourself by doing some research. There’s quite a number of interesting documents on the web relating to Derek’s case. Police Constable Sydney Miles received some medals posthumously, and his family certainly deserves our sympathy, but I don’t see what that has to do with justice, unless you mean the “eye-for-an-eye” kind.

    • Johnny says:

      If you look deeper into the Bentley case you will see that Bentley never said let him have it. That was a lie concocted by the police. The sams lie was used to get a man hung by the name of Appleby

      • artnexus says:

        Yes, I’ve heard this too. Derek may have never said those words. Never heard of Appleby but will check it out — thanks.

  4. John Carson says:

    Live by the sword, die by the sword. Bentley was a criminal who committed multiple robberies and burglaries from an early age and was hardened to gun crime.
    Of course the film was a true and completely unbiased account, wasn’t it? I never realised Leonardo Di Caprio had even been on the Titanic until I saw the film…
    No-one seems to remember the policeman who was shot….

  5. willie kearney says:


  6. Joe says:

    But you must remember that before Chris started to fire the gun Derek shouted six of the most famous and remembered criminal words “Let him have it chris!” therefore that is why it was named “Let Him Have It” The reason in which he said it still remains an mystery it could have mean’t anything E.G.Shoot him, or give him the gun.

    But yes the Capital punishment only ever raises crime rather than stop it.

  7. mark taylor says:

    british justice at its worst…discusting.

  8. Pingback: Victim of Texas (in)justice — Jeff Wood « on the wall

  9. artnexus says:

    Quite disturbing, but very informative. A quick look seemed to indicate that states with the highest execution rates (like Texas) also have the highest homicide rates. Go figure.

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