Out of order
Derek Bentley was executed in 1953 for his part in the murder ofa policeman; many believe he was unfit even to stand trial. As a new film about the case rekindles the death penalty debate. Sue Wilson looks at the grim present-day reality oflife on America‘s Death Row.
Almost 40 years ago. an epileptic nineteen-year-old South Londoner with an IQ of 66 and a mental age ofeleven was hanged for the murder of a man he didn‘t kill. His co-defendant. who actually committed the crime. was too young to be executed. and so Derek Bentley went to the gallows instead. As is recounted in Let Him Have It. a new film about the case. Bentley had accompanied his friend (‘hris Craig. a precocious. charismatic delinquent with American gangster dress-sense. on a night-time warehouse raid. Thanks to a tip-off. the police were waiting for them. and in the ensuing melee (‘raig pulled a gun: at which point Bentley. according to the police. shouted the words which sealed his fate: ‘Let him have it. Chris‘. (‘raig fired. and PC Sidney Miles fell dead. a bullet between his eyes.
Those five words were enough for a prosecution case of ‘constructive malice‘. an archaic legal concept which states that an accessory to a crime who incites or encourages the actual perpetrator is equally culpable in law. The legal establishment. according to pro-Bentley campaigners. was out to avenge the death of a colleague (with strong public support) — (‘raig was beyond their reach. so it had to be Bentley. Both were found guilty ofcapital murder; because of his age Craig‘s sentence was automatically commuted. but despite the jury’s recommendation for mercy. Bentley‘s was carried out on 39 January 1953.
The Craig 'Bentley trial predates the introduction. in 1957. ofthe ‘diminished responsibility" plea. In any case. no evidence on Bentley's impaired mental capacity. either from doctors or his parents. was submitted in court. Following the sentence. the doctor who had examined him asked the Home Office if he could make his findings public. but this was deemed to be ‘not in the public interest'.
As the initial hysteria surrounding the case died down. the campaign for a reprieve gathered force. Bentley's parents were inundated with letters of support. questions were asked in the House of Commons. and a large crowd protested outside Wandsworth Prison on the day of the execution. Questions were asked in the House again earlier this year — Douglas Hurd is said to have ordered
the current judicial review ofthe Bentley case after watching Let Him Have It. following a tireless campaign by Bentley's family to secure a posthumous pardon.
Whatever the truth about the case. we are unlikely to see any more Derek Bentley's in Britain. Since its abolition in 1965. all attempts to reinstate capital punishment have been defeated. most of them decisively. and today even its most ardent supporters concede that it’s probably gone for good. You will. however. find plenty condemned people on America‘s Death Row. which many abolitionist campaigners claim is fitted with a highly selective social and economic filter. ()ne commentator stated bluntly: ‘It is increasingly difficult not to notice and admit that we are mainly executing people of marginal intelligence. doubtful sanity and debilitating poverty. The death penalty has become an act of class warfare.’
Some facts: capital punishment in the US was reintroduced in 1976. after a ten-year moratorium. It is currently on the books in 38 states. and there are around 25(lllpeople on Death Row. In 1989 sixteen executions took place. last year there were twenty-three. Blacks. 12 per cent ofthe population as a whole. make up 40 per cent of condemned prisoners. You are up to four times more likely to receive the death sentence for killing a white than a black. In 1989. the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was lawful for mentally impaired prisoners; seven have been executed since. Most Death Row inmates are destitute; state-appointed defence provision is woefully underfunded. so lives are frequently in the hands of inexperienced or incompetent lawyers — one in four of those now under sentence in Kentucky were defended by attorneys who have since been disbarred. suspended or imprisoned. One prisoner acquitted in 1987 had spent thirteen years on Death Row and come within fifteen hours ofdeath. State governors score political points by
Christopher Eccleston as Derek Bentley in Let Him Have It boasting of how many death warrants they have signed: it‘s common for executions to be scheduled to co-ordinate with elections. Hundreds of researchers have investigated the question of whether capital punishment acts as a deterrent: only two studies. subsequently discredited. found any measurable deterrent effect.
The clipped descriptions ofexecuted prisoners in an Amnesty International report rank among the most desolate reading on the subject. A typical example is a man executed last year after a decade on Death Row. who was ‘reported to have suffered from serious childhood head injuries at hands of abusive alcoholic father; to have been hospitalised with brain-damaging lead poisoning at 20 months and to have been addicted to alcohol and barbiturates by age l3.‘ The more you read. the more you get the impression ofa society coldly disposing of the horribly broken human wreckage it produces as an unwanted by-product.
Mikal Gilmore. having described in an essay the brutalised family background which turned his brother (iary into a murderer. concludes bleakly that American society is pervaded by homicide. ‘Murder has worked its way into our consciousness and our culture in the same way that murder exists in our literature and film: we consume each killing until there is another. tnore immediate or gripping one to take its place. When (his murder story is finished. there will be another to intrigue and terrify that part of the world that has survived it. And then there will be another.’ A less than comfortable thought. perhaps. as we stand in the queue to see Let Him Have 1!.
Let Him Have It goes on general release on Friday [8 ()e!oher — see Film 1 .islings/or details. Lifelines. an organisation (if/)ermle who write to prisoners on Death Row, is always seeking new members. ( ‘ontaet them (' o Jan A rriens.
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ON FOLLOWING PAGES: JULIA HAS TWO LOVERS O POISON 0 D00 HOLLYWOOD REVIEWED
The List ll— 2-1 October I991 19