The tragic story of Derek Bentley is one that reveals the deep flaws and injustices of the British legal system in the 1950s.
Bentley was an 18-year-old with significant cognitive disabilities. By all accounts, he had a mental age of around 11 years old. On November 2, 1952, Bentley was party to an attempted robbery with 16-year-old Christopher Craig in London, England.
When police arrived on the scene, Bentley purportedly shouted “Let him have it, Chris!” to Craig. However, it remains ambiguous what Bentley actually meant by this phrase. Craig, armed with a pistol, interpreted it as an order to open fire on the police. Tragically, one police officer was killed by Craig’s gunshots.
As Craig was a minor at just 16 years old, he could not face execution under British law at the time. But Bentley, despite not directly committing the murder, was sentenced to death by hanging. The presiding judge declared that Bentley’s statement was an instigation to murder the officers.
Bentley’s mental disabilities and vulnerable state were disregarded by the court. Public outcry emerged over the harshness of the sentence against a mentally challenged young man who had not pulled the trigger. But the sentencing stood, and Bentley was executed in January 1953.
The grave injustice of Bentley’s execution was later recognized. In 1993, the case was dramatized in a film called Let Him Have It starring Christopher Eccleston. The stark unfairness prompted a long campaign to fully pardon Bentley and overturn his sentence. Finally, in 1998, Bentley received a royal pardon with his conviction quashed.
While far too late for Bentley himself, the case paved the way for more humane treatment of mentally disabled individuals in the British legal system. It remains one of the most infamous miscarriages of justice in modern British history.