Derek William Bentley (30 June 1933 – 28 January 1953) was a British teenager hanged for the murder of a police officer, committed in the course of a burglary attempt, on the night of 2 November 1952. The murder of the police officer was committed by a friend and accomplice of Bentley's, Christopher Craig, then aged 16. Bentley was convicted as a party to the murder, known under English law as 'joint enterprise'. This created a cause celebre and led to a 46-year-long campaign to win Derek Bentley a posthumous pardon, which was granted partially in 1993, then finally completely By Her Majesty's Pleasure Of The High Court in 1998.
[31.JUL.98] Nearly 46 years after he was hanged for murder, Derek Bentley yesterday had his conviction quashed at the Court of Appeal. He had been convicted of killing PC Sidney Miles during a robbery, although the fatal shot was fired by his companion Christopher Craig. Craig, aged 14, was too young to hang. Bentley, a 19-year-old with a mental age of 11, went to the gallows. Today, the Guardian exclusively published the account of Bentley's final hours written by Albert Pierrepoint, the hangman, which has never before been made public.
When you go to hang a boy of 19 years old, it does not matter that he is tall and broad-shouldered, for at nine o'clock on the morning he is to die, he still looks only a boy.
And so did Derek Bentley, when the sickly green door of the condemned cell was abruptly whisked open for me on January 28, 1953. He sat at his prison table, watching the doorway.
When I walked in with my assistant and the group of silent prison officials crowding behind us, I believe that because we were all dressed so normally, in everyday lounge suits, young Derek Bentley thought then, at that moment, we had come with his reprieve.
His face glowed with an instant of eagerness. Then he saw the yellow leather strap in my right hand, and his eyes fixed upon it. The sight of this wiped all the hope from his expression. He stood up very slowly and clumsily. For all his youthfulness, he was the tallest person in that pale little room.
In some ways the wait in the Wandsworth death cell had been better for Bentley than for many murderers who went before him. Until the very last moment, a reprieve seemed possible.
The murder itself had not been a straightforward one. It may be remembered that Bentley had gone out thieving with a younger boy, Christopher Craig. Both had been pupils at Norbury Manor secondary school. But Bentley was burly and illiterate; Craig was young, quick and cocksure.
Upon this particular night, Craig carried a loaded revolver. Bentley had a knuckle-duster with a vicious spike upon it - in itself a lethal enough weapon. But when the two were observed on the roof of a warehouse, and police went up to get them, Christopher Craig fired shots, shouting to the police officers that he was only 14 - the significance of this being that he knew he was too young to be hanged for murder. One of his shots killed Police Constable Miles, who left a widow and children.
While Craig was cornered among the chimney-pots - hurling defiant threats at the crouching policemen, and punctuating each threat with a screaming bullet from the heavy revolver he carried - Bentley, who had been grabbed by another policeman, was pressing himself against the cold brickwork and praying that his pal's bullets wouldn't hit him.
The jury, who found both lads guilty of murder, added a recommendation of mercy for Bentley. So he became one of the few killers for whom such a recommendation meant nothing.
A storm of public feeling blew up. It increased as Bentley's last days slipped by, his appeal was dismissed, and protest marches by crowds, pleas in Parliament, went all unheeded by the authorities.
The storm was going on when I received the long grey envelope asking me to attend at Wandsworth Prison to hang Bentley. As I peered from the upper windows of the No. 77 bus which took me to Wandsworth the day before the execution, I saw newspaper placards along every street, proclaiming: "MPs Fight To Save Bentley."
So even 16 hours before the execution was due, there was still doubt that it would be allowed to take place.
My first glimpse of Bentley as he moved at his own pace around the inner yard of Wandsworth showed he was taller and more broad of shoulders than either of the two prison officers who guarded his last hours. His fair hair was blowing about in the cold wind.
In his grey prison clothes he looked like a schoolboy dressed for some classroom charade, despite the cigarette that drooped in his mouth. Each time the wind varied in the prison courtyard, he winced away from his own cigarette smoke, and blinked his eyes clumsily.
We expected trouble with Bentley. We knew he was physically very strong, and a little simple-minded. He had been so sure that he wouldn't hang. It did not seem logical to his uncomplex brain that - if Craig fired the murder shot and was not to be hanged - he should be executed.
His family shared his belief. They went further than just thinking he would not hang. They seemed to expect that he would shortly be released from prison.
When his family came to visit him at Wandsworth, the stark little interview room where they saw him had become almost a replica of their cosy family parlour in Norbury. Father, mother, 10-year-old brother Dennis and sister Iris, all laughing and making jokes, sharing fruit and cigarettes.
They laughed at Bentley's description of his death-cell as "my hotel room with bath". Several times he repeated a favourite joke - "I have beaten the warders at cards again today, but I still can't beat them to the door!"
When his sister Iris told him she had bought him a ticket for a New Year dance, his mother is reported to have said: "No, we'll have to ask the dance-hall manager to change it for another ticket next year, so Derek can have it when he comes out."
And at Christmas in the Bentley home, those few weeks before he was to die, the family placed two neatly wrapped parcels upon the Christmas tree. One was a silk tie, the other a box of chocolates. Each was inscribed: "To Derek with love - and the best of luck."
But Derek, of course, never did go home to unwrap those two parcels.
It was nearly dark upon that January afternoon when I walked up to the fortress-like gates of Wandsworth Prison.
I reported to the governor, and found him strained and restless. He advised me that it was possible we might have trouble next day. For after the appeal had been turned down, the gay atmosphere had gone from the family visits. They had ceased to be pleasant parties in the prison interview room, and there had been no more morale-lifting jokes. Instead, Bentley murmured repeatedly: "They can't hang me - can they?"
The day before his execution, he walked about the condemned cell, stumbling for words while the warder sat with pencil and drab-coloured prison notepaper to write a letter for him.
In that letter, there were such phrases as: "Don't let my cycle frames get rusty, they might come in handy some day... keep my mac clean and my tie..."
That night in my room at Wandsworth Prison - after checking Bentley's weight, height and physical structure, making my calculation for length of drop, and the routine test of all the apparatus - I sat drinking a bottle of beer and listened to the radio. Parliament was at a late session and 200 members had signed a petition demanding mercy for Bentley. The motion for a debate had been rejected, but the possibility of a last-minute reprieve still hung in the air, stronger than I have ever known it on any other execution eve.
I must say that my own thoughts were not concerned with any private sympathies for Bentley. I was occupied with the thought that he was 6ft tall, a weight-lifter and boxer with a brain younger than his body.
Only when he actually saw me coming towards him to pinion him would Bentley fully begin to realise that he was to die. And as one grey-haired prison officer mumbled to me: "If that boy does blow his top tomorrow, Albert, you're going to see the toughest five minutes you've ever had."
Next day I woke early, did my morning test of the apparatus, and found all in order. I ate my usual Wandsworth breakfast of fried plaice and potatoes, and studied the newspapers for any last-minute news of a reprieve - just as Bentley's friends and family were presumably studying theirs.
Bentley's father had led a protesting crowd to the block of flats in Great Peter Street where the Home Secretary, Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, lived. They had shouted: "Bentley is not sleeping tonight and neither shall Maxwell-Fyfe."
But the morning papers carried headlines saying only that there was to be "No Reprieve for Bentley" and I knew I would have my job to do.
With my assistant, Harry Kirk, I reported to the governor. He was pale and obviously forcing himself to be very calm. He spoke in a low voice. "Good morning Albert - I see that it has got to be done," he said.
"That's all right, sir," I told him. He led the way to the condemned cell, and we waited half a minute until the governor gave the signal, at 60 seconds to 9am.
Then the door was hastily opened. I went in as quickly as I could without seeming to hurry, and Harry Kirk, who was a burly man, was just behind me.
Bentley had jumped at the sudden opening of the door. Now he slowly rose. The prison officers on each side of him came quickly to their feet.
The boy's crisp, brushed-back fair hair was inches taller than everybody else in the room. I went round the table after him, took his arm without a word and very carefully, so there was no jerk that might trigger off his resistance, I put the pinioning-loop upon his wrists and suddenly made it tight.
I am sure he still had not properly weighed up the situation. He was still uncertain what was happening. He moved his shoulders wonderingly, but did not say anything.
I whispered "Just follow me, lad" and added soothingly: "It's all right, Derek - just follow me."
He started to move and his body caught the edge of the table. He appeared not to feel this, although the table shook. He followed me unaided into the adjoining execution chamber and stood on the chalk-marks upon the wooden floor.
I put the white cap over his head, and the noose with it, and heard the familiar click of belt and buckle as Harry Kirk swiftly pinioned his legs, then flung his arms back in a gesture of completion.
The controversy from that instant became purposeless, for Derek Bentley was dead.