Justice at last, 45 years too late
By Duncan Campbell
The bottle of Moet & Chandon champagne that had been sitting in a south London cupboard for 40 years was finally opened yesterday to celebrate the quashing of Derek Bentley's conviction for the murder of PC Sidney Miles.
Since William Bentley bought the bottle in 1958 in expectation of toasting his son's pardon, the family has experienced many raised and dashed hopes. In the Court of Appeal yesterday the long crusade reached its conclusion.
The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham, sitting with Lord Justice Kennedy and Mr Justice Collins, quashed the conviction in a 52-page judgment which severely criticised his predecessor Lord Goddard, ruled that the conviction had been unsafe because of the judge's intemperate summing-up and expressed regret that the mistrial had not been spotted soon enough to save Bentley.
Maria Dingwall-Bentley, who has led the campaign to clear her uncle's name since her mother, Iris Bentley, died of cancer last year, said she was elated by the result but sad that her mother was not alive to see it.
"I'm absolutely thrilled," she said as she popped the cork and declared the champagne much better than expected. "The British justice system has had a death on its hands for all those years."
She said she held the former home secretary Kenneth Clarke in "absolute contempt". He had had the opportunity to pardon her brother on fresh evidence presented to him by a police reinvestigation but declined to do so.
Benedict Birnberg, the family solicitor, who has worked on the case for many years, said: "We are elated at this historic judgment which is 46 years too late. The poignancy is that we cannot resuscitate Derek and that Iris is not here to celebrate this victory."
Tamsin Allen, another member of the legal team which unearthed fresh evidence for the appeal, said that it would seek compensation for the family. She accused the Home Office of lack of will in reopening the case.
Christopher Craig, who fired the shot that killed PC Miles during a warehouse robbery and served 10 years for the crime because at 16 he had been too young to hang, said he was saddened that it had taken so long to clear Derek Bentley's name. He offered to give evidence in the appeal but was not called.
"I am truly sorry that my actions on November 2, 1952, caused so much pain and misery for the family of PC Miles, who died that night doing his duty, also for the Bentley family," said Mr Craig, who has worked as a plumber and farmer since his release and who lives in Bedfordshire. "A day does not go by when I do not think about Derek and now his innocence has been proved by this judgment." He said he would never make another public statement on the subject.
Fred Broughton, chairman of the Police Federation, said: "Our thoughts are with the family of PC Sidney Miles, who gave his life in the line of duty and whose death is often forgotten."
It has been one of the longest-running campaigns to clear a convicted prisoner's name and has led to books, plays, a film and songs commemorating Bentley in a way that can hardly have seemed possible when he was a slow, easily-led teenager with a mental age of 11.
He had been born in 1933 and, with his family, bombed out three times in south London during the second world war. He had fallen foul of the authorities by the time he was 14 and in 1948, his headmaster at Norbury Manor school in south London described him as "the most irregular boy I have had in my career" and said that he was "meek, indifferent, sheeplike".
His school report noted that "his parents have on several occasions confessed that the boy is out of hand and out of their control." He was sent to Kingswood approved school near Bristol for breaking into a store. There he was described in reports as "lazy, indifferent, voluble and a 'wise guy' type".
Yesterday Hugh Maw, the educational psychologist at that school, recalled the young Bentley. "He was never violent, he was bullied and easily led," said Mr Maw, whom Bentley nicknamed Slasher because of his haircut of the time. When there was trouble at the school, said Mr Maw, Bentley would be the one left behind as the brighter boys fled. This led to frequent beatings from the authorities and Mr Maw and his wife recalled seeing Bentley's back covered with stripes.
It was already apparent that he was educationally sub-normal, as it was then classified. He was unable even to write his name. When he left the school, he fell under the influence of Christopher Craig, whose older brother was a well-known criminal. The Bentleys disapproved of the friendship, knowing of Craig's habits, but their son ignored their entreaties, meeting up with Craig on what was to be his last night of freedom.
Craig was armed with a Colt .45 and had given Bentley a knuckleduster and a knife. Bentley said that he was unaware that they were going to carry out the robbery on the confectionery warehouse until Craig started climbing gates leading into an alleyway. A neighbour spotted the break-in and called the police.
Craig resisted arrest and it was what happened over the next 15 minutes that was to form the basis of the prosecution of both men. Three police officers said that Bentley had shouted out "Let him have it" and one alleged that after those words were uttered a shot was fired and one officer received a glancing blow, probably a ricochet, on the shoulder. Bentley was overpowered and according to police evidence warned them "he'll shoot you". It was 15 minutes later that PC Miles received the fatal shot.
Even after his conviction, Bentley hoped for the reprieve which did not come. He was convicted on December 11, 1952, his appeal turned down on January 13, 1953, and he was hanged two weeks later on January 28.