Obituary: Iris Bentley

When 16-year-old Christopher Craig shot dead PC Sidney Miles in 1952, Iris Bentley's destiny was sealed. The shooting was the culmination of a failed burglary at a Croydon warehouse, and the following year her 19-year old brother Derek, an epileptic with a mental age of 11, was hanged for his part in the killing. Iris Bentley began a campaign for a posthumous pardon, a campaign whose momentum continues after her death.

At 16 Craig was too young to be executed. Imprisoned as a minor until 1963, he has since led an uneventful life as a plumber. The evidence against Bentley hinged upon the allegation by police officers that immediately before Craig shot Miles, he had implored his young accomplice to "Let him have it, Chris". The defence claimed that Bentley had been trying to persuade Craig to hand over his weapon, and Bentley's testimony and subsequent evidence from both one of the arresting officers and from Craig himself suggest that the words were never spoken. Despite the jury's recommendation for mercy, Lord Chief Justice Goddard sentenced Bentley to death. Iris Bentley unsuccessfully presented petitions to the Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, for a reprieve, and her brother was hanged in Wandsworth prison in January 1953. Her career as a campaigner had begun.

The symbolism of the clock in her home, stopped permanently to show the time of her brother's death, cannot be understated. Iris and Derek Bentley were close - they had both been buried in the rubble of their south London home during the Blitz that killed their 12-year-old sister. Derek's death marked the blossoming of a resolute and skilled campaigner, who was always ready to present anti-death penalty arguments during the routine clamour for state vengeance that regularly blights British politics.

Yet for many years her efforts on behalf of her brother were ignored, before Derek Bentley's story seeped into the public consciousness via three books and a film, Let Him Have It (1991). Ably assisted by her daughter Maria, and despite failing health, she forced the police to reopen the case in 1992, resulting in the Home Secretary Kenneth Clarke's denying a reprieve. A year later, the Appeal Court ruled that Clarke had not fully considered all the options open to him, and his successor Michael Howard granted a partial pardon that upheld the conviction, while acknowledging that the execution had been wrong.

This was hardly enough to placate Iris Bentley's quest for justice, and she continued the fight. In April 1997 Derek Bentley's case will be reconsidered by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, and as the result of new evidence presented to the Home Office last September, it is possible that a full pardon could be announced before the commission hears the case.

Iris Bentley's very presence, amidst an increasingly punitive law-and- order debate that has raged across five decades, has served as a reminder both of the state's potential for barbarism, and the criminal justice system's inherent fallibility. Indeed, if amongst the frantic clamour for punishment that in contemporary society passes for a law-and-order debate, some moments of reflection are spent considering the last 44 years of Iris Bentley's life, a much wider definition of "victim of crime" becomes apparent.

Dick Hobbs

Iris Bentley, campaigner: born London 5 August 1931; died London 23 January 1997.

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