Saturday, June 30, 2007

June 30: Derek Bentley (1933-1953)

The short descriptor for Derek Bentley in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is "victim of a miscarriage of justice." Hard to argue with that. Bentley was born on this date in 1933, in London (his twin didn't survive). He and his sister Iris were children during the Second World War, and had to be dug out of the rubble of their house during a bombing in London. He was considered "borderline feebleminded," and had a history of seizures. He never learned to read or write. Derek Bentley attended a few schools, with little success (one headmaster described him as "the most irregular boy I have had in my career"), and at fifteen was convicted of petty theft, and sent to reform school. He tried to work as a mover and a road sweeper, but couldn't manage long in either job.

In 1952, Bentley was caught trespassing in a warehouse with a sixteen-year-old named Christopher Craig. Fifteen minutes after Bentley was in police custody, Craig fired a gun and killed a police constable. Because Craig was a juvenile, he was sentenced to ten years in prison; Bentley, who never touched the gun, was sentenced to death. Despite protests, Derek Bentley was hanged on 28 January 1953, at the age of 19.

His parents (who died in 1976 and 1993) and his sister Iris Bentley (1931-1997) never gave up trying to clear Derek's name. In 1966, they succeeded in having his remains removed from the prison cemetery. The tombstone was eventually inscribed "a victim of British justice." A 1991 film about Bentley revived interest in the case, and in 1992, Iris convinced the police to re-examine the case. Derek Bentley was pardoned in 1993, and the conviction was overturned in 1998. Too late for Iris Bentley to see; and far too late for Derek Bentley.

[Image: A waist-up image of a blonde teenaged Bentley, wearing a black turtleneck, holding a cigarette in his mouth, a packet in his hands.]

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