Hanged man's sister sees hopes shattered: Iris Bentley's brother, Derek, who was executed almost 40 years ago, has been refused a pardon - but the campaign goes on. Heather Mills reports

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The Independent Online
FOR THOSE who 40 years ago stood in silent bitter protest outside Wandsworth prison at the hanging of Derek Bentley - which even then appeared to many a manifest injustice - the Home Secretary's decision not to grant a posthumous pardon was a shock.

For Iris Bentley, his 61-year-old sister, who has made it her life's work to clear his name, the news brought devastation and inconsolable grief. Yesterday, the woman who has laid a wreath at the jail every year, was initially too distraught to speak.

For Christopher Craig, who carried out the fatal shooting for which Bentley was hanged, there was also anguish. Curtains were drawn at his Bedfordshire home and neighbours said he and his wife were too distressed to talk.

But later, as a firm indication that this would not, as Kenneth Clarke yesterday expressly hoped, bring an end to the saga, there was outrage and disgust from politicians and campaigners - and from a once more composed Miss Bentley a vow to fight on.

'I'm not the sort of person who gives in. I've gone this far in this battle for real justice and I'll never, never give up,' she said.

'I can see Derek saying 'Come on sis, there's an awful lot to do'.

'When I die I want that piece of paper, that pardon, put with me in my coffin. I am a very strong believer in an after-life and I want to be able to show it to Derek and my parents when we meet again,' she said.

Bentley, aged 19 but with the mental age of an 11-year-old, was hanged on 28 January 1953. Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, the then Home Secretary, ignored thousands of letters calling for clemency and advice from his officials.

His crime had been to accompany 'a fast-talking tearaway' on a burglary, which went horrifically wrong, ending in the fatal shooting of Sidney Miles, a Croydon policeman and father-of-two. Although the 'tearaway', Craig, was three years younger than Bentley, he was, because of Bentley's mental age, far more sophisticated. There was no doubt that Bentley was in awe of Craig and would defy his parents instructions in order to hang around with Craig's gang.

The two had first intended to rob a butcher's shop, but were deterred by lights inside. Instead they opted for a deserted confectioner's warehouse, climbed the fence and walls and were on the roof, when they were confronted by police.

Bentley was arrested and held by an officer. But Craig produced a .45 Colt pistol - with the barrel sawn off - and opened fire. He killed PC Miles and wounded the officer holding Bentley.

At their Old Bailey trial, before Lord Chief Justice Goddard, both teenagers were convicted of murder. But Craig, the killer, was just 16 and too young to go the gallows. He was detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure.

Bentley, although already detained at the time of the shooting, apparently, was condemned because although he had not offered any resistance, he had been armed with a knife and one of Craig's knuckledusters.

It was argued that he knew Craig was armed and police officers maintained they heard him shout the now infamous and disputed words: 'Let him have it.' It was, the prosecution argued, incitement. The defence maintained it was ambiguous - it could just as easily mean 'give up your gun'.

Lord Goddard maintained the words were 'the most serious piece of evidence' against him. And when the jury, MPs and others were asking the Home Secretary for mercy - claiming it was a grave unjustice to hang an accomplice when the perpetrator was spared - documents released yesterday showed that Lord Goddard advised he could 'find no mitigating circumstances' in Bentley's case.

Iris Bentley had just celebrated her 21st birthday when her brother was executed. It was the start of her crusade. She broke off her engagement to support her parents, Lillian and William, through the ordeal. And when they died, she fought on - despite also fighting her own private battle against cancer. It was, she said the drive to clear her brother's name which kept her going through numerous operations and treatments.

Yesterday morning she had believed the pardon was within her grasp. The many people who have investigated, campaigned, written about and filmed the affair had built up a dossier of new information which they hoped would clear Bentley.

Most importantly, new witnesses - including a police officer present at the time - said Bentley had never shouted 'let him have it', casting doubt on police evidence at the time. Significantly, Craig, now aged 55, broke his silence last year and also maintained that Bentley never uttered those damning words.

It was also disputed that Bentley ever knew Craig was armed, and anyway with Bentley's childlike personality he was incapable of foreseeing or taking any kind of responsibility for Craig's actions.

This was all firmly rejected by the Home Secretary yesterday, who concluded there was clear evidence of Bentley's involvement in the murder. Kenneth Clarke said Bentley's mental incapacity and the fact that he had not been the one to pull the trigger were factors that should have led to him being reprieved from the gallows - not declared innocent of murder.

Mr Clarke said it was a long-established policy that a free pardon should be granted only if moral as well as technical innocence could be established. 'I do not believe that is the case on either point in relation to Derek Bentley,' he said.

There was 'thank God', he added, no longer a death penalty. For Miss Bentley this was the only comfort: her brother's death was a major factor in the abolition of the death penalty 13 years later.

Leading article, page 22

(Photographs omitted)

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