Petitions appealing for mercy were rejected

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The Independent Online
DOCUMENTS released yesterday reveal that Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, the Home Secretary at the time of Derek Bentley's trial, not only ignored the jury and petitions for mercy, but also the advice of senior civil servants when he refused to commute the death sentence.

They pointed out that in four precedent cases, where the main perpetrator of a murder had been reprieved - for reasons such as insanity or, like Craig, because of their age - accomplices had also been reprieved.

Instead, Sir Maxwell listened to the trial judge, then to Lord Goddard, the Lord Chief Justice, now renowned as a hanger and flogger, who advised that there were no mitigating circumstances.

In a memorandum written on 22 January 1953 - less than a week before Bentley, 19, went to the gallows - Sir Maxwell wrote that the prisoner's death would be a deterrent. 'It was a very bad murder involving the death of a police officer, committed at a time when there is much public anxiety about the numbers of crimes of violence.'

He said it would be dangerous to give the impression that an older adolescent could escape the full penalty by using an accomplice of less than 18 years of age. 'I feel also that it is important to protect the unarmed police.'

Yesterday, Kenneth Clarke said he liked to think that, had he been in Sir Maxwell's shoes, he would have stopped the hanging.

'However much many of us may now disagree with the decision to allow the execution to proceed, the sentence passed was the only one available for the offence of which Derek Bentley was convicted and, having examined the relevant Home Office papers, which, exceptionally, I have decided to make available today in advance of the due date, I am satisfied that the issues were properly and fairly considered by the Home Secretary of the day and his officials,' Mr Clarke said.

Those Home Office papers show that Sir Maxwell's two main advisers, Philip, now Lord Allen, and the then permanent secretary, Sir Frank Newsam, recommended mercy. Philip Allen wrote: 'Shocking though this murder was, it is suggested that it would on the whole be right to give effect to the jury's recommendation to mercy, principally on the ground . . . that it would not seem right to exact the extreme penalty from the accomplice when the principal offender is escaping with his life.'

Yesterday Lord Allen said: 'Feelings and emotions did not come into it. I was a civil servant doing my duty and that was it. Have you not read the Home Secretary's statement? The facts are there. What I wrote about the case was written a very long time ago.'

(Photographs omitted)