CONTENT RATING: PG-13 (themes: death)
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In 1953, 19-year-old Derek Bentley was hanged for murder, but did the police interfere with his statement to make him look guilty? Below you will find the data, audio credits, sources, and a transcript of the podcast.
(1) I have known Craig since I went to school. (2) We were stopped by our parents going out together, but we still continued going out with each other – I mean we have not gone out together until tonight. (3) I was watching television tonight (2 November 1952) and between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. Craig called for me. (4) My mother answered the door and I heard her say that I was out. (5) I had been out earlier to the pictures and got home just after 7 p.m. (6) A little later Norman Parsley and Frank Fasey called. (7) I did not answer the door or speak to them. (8) My mother told me that they had called and I then ran out after them. (9) I walked up the road with them to the paper shop where I saw Craig standing. (10) We all talked together and then Norman Parsley and Frank Fazey left. (11) Chris Craig and I then caught a bus to Croydon. (12) We got off at West Croydon and then walked down the road where the toilets are – I think it is Tamworth Road. (13) When we came to the place where you found me, Chris looked in the window. (14) There was a little iron gate at the side. (15) Chris then jumped over and I followed. (16) Chris then climbed up the drainpipe to the roof and I followed. (17) Up to then Chris had not said anything. (18) We both got out on to the flat roof at the top. (19) Then someone in a garden on the opposite side shone a torch up towards us. (20) Chris said: ‘It’s a copper, hide behind here.’ (21) We hid behind a shelter arrangement on the roof. (22) We were there waiting for about ten minutes. (23) I did not know he was going to use the gun. (24) A plain clothes man climbed up the drainpipe and on to the roof. (25) The man said: ‘I am a police officer – the place is surrounded.’ (26) He caught hold of me and as we walked away Chris fired. (27) There was nobody else there at the time. (28) The policeman and I then went round a corner by a door. (29) A little later the door opened and a policeman in uniform came out. (30) Chris fired again then and this policeman fell down. (31) I could see that he was hurt as a lot of blood came from his forehead just above his nose. (32) The policeman dragged him round the corner behind the brickwork entrance to the door. (33) I remember I shouted something but I forgot what it was. (34) I could not see Chris when I shouted to him – he was behind a wall. (35) I heard some more policemen behind the door and the policeman with me said: ‘I don’t think he has many more bullets left.’ (36) Chris shouted ‘Oh yes I have’ and he fired again. (37) I think I heard him fire three times altogether. (38) The policeman then pushed me down the stairs and I did not see any more. (39) I knew we were going to break into the place. (40) I did not know what we were going to get – just anything that was going. (41) I did not have a gun and I did not know Chris had one until he shot. (42) I now know that the policeman in uniform that was shot is dead. (43) I should have mentioned that after the plain clothes policeman got up the drainpipe and arrested me, another policeman in uniform followed and I heard someone call him ‘Mac’. (44) He was with us when the other policeman was killed.
References, sources, and more
Dad, Help Me Please: The Story of Derek Bentley by Christopher Berry-Dee and Robin Odell
My Son’s Execution by William George Bentley
The Psychology of Interrogations and Confessions: A Handbook by Gisli H. Gudjonsson
Gangland: The Case of Bentley and Craig by Francis Selwyn
Whose text is it? On the linguistic investigation of authorship by Malcolm Coulthard
An Introduction to Forensic Linguistics: Language in Evidence by Malcolm Coulthard, Alison Johnson and David Wright
Case S01E01 – Derek Bentley.
It’s the 02nd of November, 1952. We’re just south of London, in a large town called Croydon.
It’s been an unseasonably wet winter, and right now, it’s around 9pm at night, but despite the darkness and the winter weather, two teenagers are walking up Tamworth Road. One is Chris Craig, aged 16. The other is Derek Bentley, aged 19. They stop outside of Barlow & Parker’s wholesale shop and warehouse. Their intention is to burgle the warehouse – for money, goods, whatever they can find. Both are armed. Craig is carrying a revolver with a shortened barrel, and several undersized revolver rounds. And he has given Bentley a sheath knife, and a spiked knuckle-duster.
After checking the scene, they scramble over the fence, and begin climbing a drainpipe that runs up the side of the building to the rooftop. It’s a tense climb, some thirty feet to the top. A fall could easily kill. Unbeknown to them, in the houses opposite, a nine-year-old girl has been staring out of her bedroom window, and she has seen them. She tells her parents, and her father runs to the nearest phonebox and calls the police. Within minutes, officers arrive and surround the building.
They begin shouting at the two to come back down. Instead, Craig and Bentley hide behind the lift housing on the roof, and Craig even starts to yell abuse and taunts at the officers. As this is going on, Detective Sergeant Frederick Fairfax is climbing the drainpipe. Once on the roof, he makes a grab for Bentley, and briefly captures him, but Bentley wrenches free and escapes.
On the ground, the police are trying to get into Barlow & Parker’s. Their intention is to find the stairs that lead up the lift shaft and exit at the housing on the roof-top – the same lift housing that Bentley and Craig have put between themselves and the police.
At this point in the story, back on the rooftop, controversy sets in about precisely what happens next. Accounts from the police and the teenagers differ in a crucial detail. According to statements given by the police, Fairfax tells Craig to “Hand over the gun, lad”.
Bentley shouts, “Let him have it, Chris!”
In response, Craig shoots at Detective Sergeant Fairfax, hitting him in the shoulder.
Later in court, both Craig and Bentley will strenuously deny that this phrase was ever uttered. Indeed, Craig continues to deny it to this day. However, we will deal with this controversy in due time. Back in the midst of what is now a gunfight, injured, and at risk of being shot again, Fairfax makes a desperate move. He lunges and manages to grab Bentley again, and this time, he isn’t letting go. Fairfax will later be awarded the George Cross – the UK’s second highest honour – given “for most conspicuous courage in circumstance of extreme danger”.
Now in custody, Bentley is entirely compliant. He tells Fairfax about the extra ammunition that Craig has for the gun, and he makes to attempt to use either the sheath knife or the knuckleduster that Craig gave him.
On the ground, the police have been struggling in the dark and cold against the locked windows and doors, and finally, they have managed to get inside. A group of them are racing up the stairs. Craig is still shooting wildly. It is now around fifteen minutes after Bentley supposedly shouted at Craig to “let him have it”. The first officer to burst out of the lift housing door and onto the roof is Police Constable Sidney Miles.
Craig kills him with a single shot to the head.
As the officers take cover, Craig continues shooting until, finally, his rounds are spent. He is now cornered. There is no safe way down. He can choose handcuffs and the mercy of the officers he has just taunted, shot at, and possible even killed. Or he can take another way out. Turning, Craig runs, and leaps off the roof. It is a thirty foot fall – ten metres straight down – and he crashes onto a glass greenhouse. Incredibly, he survives the impact, but he is badly injured. He will later be found to have a fractured spine and broken left wrist.
For the police, however, the incident is now under control. The shooting is over, and both Craig and Bentley are in custody. Craig is taken to hospital, and Bentley is taken to the police station. There, he gives a statement.
A month after the failed burglary, on the 09th to the 11th of December 1952, both teenagers are tried for murder. Even though Craig pulled the trigger, even though Bentley was under arrest when PC Miles was killed, and even though this death occurred around fifteen minutes after Bentley’s alleged shout of, “Let him have it Chris!”, after only 75 minutes of deliberation, the jury finds both Craig and Bentley guilty of the murder of PC Sidney Miles.
Because he is only 16 years old, Craig is classed as a minor. As such, under English law as it stood in 1952, the maximum penalty that can be imposed upon him is a jail sentence at Her Majesty’s Pleasure – effectively an indefinite sentence that ends when he is deemed to have been rehabilitated. He will finally be released in 1963 after serving eleven years.
However, at 19 years old, Bentley is over the age of majority. He can be given the most severe penalty available under English law, and in 1952, this was the death sentence.
Bentley lodges an appeal. The news breaks across the country to widespread dismay. Politicians submit signed memoranda disputing the verdict, and the public protest the trial outcome. Bentley’s father makes a desperate visit to the Home Secretary, David Maxwell Fyfe. The Home Secretary has the power to recommend that a death sentence be commuted into life imprisonment. However, Fyfe is concerned that the victim was a police officer, and what message might be sent if he is seen to interfere in due legal process.
In the end, all of these efforts, protests, and appeals are to no avail. On the 28th of January 1953, outside of the walls of Wandsworth Prison, there is a public protest so volatile that it results in arrests, assaults, and property damage. Inside the prison grounds, however, events move inexorably forward, and at 9am, 19-year-old Derek Bentley is hanged.
Welcome to en clair, an archive of forensic linguistic cases, literary detection, and language mysteries, myths, and legends. You can find case notes about this episode, including credits, acknowledgements, and links to further reading at my blog. The web address is given at the end of the podcast.
Context and history
Derek Bentley was born on the 30th of June 1933. He was just six when the second world war started, and by the time he reached that fateful night in November in 1952, he had already a difficult life. As a child, during a WWII bombing, a house that Bentley was sheltering inside collapsed on him. Some accounts suggest that Bentley suffered head injuries, but whether this is true or not, a range of medical and cognitive tests administered to Bentley through his life suggest that he had developmental problems.
At the age of 11, in 1944, Bentley failed his 11+ examinations. In 1948, aged 14, he is found guilty of theft and sentenced to three years in Kingswood Approved School. This is . It is here that he first meets Christopher Craig. Whilst at the school, in December of 1948, the then 15-year-old Bentley is diagnosed with a mental age of 10y 6m, and a reading age of 4y 6m. In case you’re not familiar with how well a four-year-old reads, the answer is: not very. A child of this age might recognise some letters of the alphabet, and perhaps even be able to read a few very short words. He also scores 66 on an IQ test. Only ~2% have a score this low, and only ~1% score lower.
At the age of 16, he is diagnosed with epilepsy, and another EEG shortly afterwards returns an abnormal reading. After serving only two years of his sentence, now aged 17, Bentley is released from Kingswood, and he has apparently been so traumatised by his time there that he spends the rest of the year as a recluse. Finally, almost a year later in 1951, he manages to secure employment with a furniture removal business. A few months later he undergoes a medical exam for national service, but he is found to be unfit for military service because he is “mentally substandard”. In March of 1952, aged 18, he quits his furniture removal job after hurting his back. A couple of months later, in May, he is hired as a waste collector, but only two months after that, just after his 19th birthday, he is demoted to street-cleaning, and finally two months later, in September, he is sacked for “unsatisfactory performance”.
As the winter of 1952 sets in, Bentley finds himself unemployed, with no income, few prospects, and an early track record for struggling with school and work. In Brixton Prison only a few weeks later he will be diagnosed with a mental age of 11 or 12. With all of these details in mind, it’s easy to see why the idea of accompanying his friend on a warehouse burglary might have appealed to Bentley.
Evidence and data
Part of the evidence used to convict Bentley was linguistic in nature. There are two parts to this. The first is the ambiguity of Bentley’s alleged shout of “Let him have it, Chris”. If we believe that this sentence was ever uttered, was Bentley urging Craig to kill? Or we he urging him to surrender the gun? We will return to this issue later.
The second part of the linguistic evidence involves a key sentence in the statement that Bentley supposedly dictated to the police shortly after being arrested. In the 23rd sentence of this statement, the police claim that Bentley said to them, “I did not know he was going to use the gun”. What’s the issue here? Well, it will sound trivial and pedantic, but it revolves around the use of the word, the.
Imagine I say to you, “have you seen the eclipse?” Notice how the sentence effectively asserts that there is an eclipse – a specific one – possibly even one that is happening right now. The existence of the eclipse is given as uncontroversial information that we both accept. It has the air of definiteness, and all of this background information is carried by the definite article; that tiny, inconspicuous word, the.
Contrast that to the sentence, “have you seen an eclipse?” Everything has changed. Now there is no longer a specific eclipse in mind. It certainly doesn’t sound like an eclipse is necessarily happening right at the moment that I ask you. The indefinite article, as its name suggests, introduces a strong sense of the indefinite into the sentence.
The prosecution’s argument rested on the idea that by using the definite article – by saying the gun – Bentley had inadvertently revealed the fact that he actually, really did have prior knowledge that Craig had a gun. Their position was that, had he been genuinely unaware of it, he would have used the indefinite article, and said, “I did not know he was going to use a gun”.
The importance of this argument is easy to overlook, so at the risk of going into too much detail, I will spell it out. If Bentley had not known about the gun, he could not be accessory to murder, or, in a peculiar twist of English law, effectively, a co-murderer of PC Miles. They would have to drop his charges down substantially, perhaps only to attempted burglary – a crime for which there is certainly no death sentence.
Since an officer of the law has been shot, there is a lot of personal grievance involved in the case, and it would have been easy for some of those involved to develop tunnel vision – to want an eye for an eye – revenge for their fallen friend. They would never be able to hang Craig for PC Miles’ death. As I’ve said, as a minor he simply cannot be given the death sentence. But Bentley is not so safe. If he could be convicted of the higher level offence of murder, he could hang for it, and for some this would seem like the only kind of justice for the death of PC Miles. The prosecution, then, laboured this argument hard, and pushed the jury to believe that Bentley was indeed a knowing co-conspirator and fellow murderer.
So much rests on tiny matters of linguistics. Bentley’s life is beginning to depend upon some the smallest words in the English language. But how faithful was this statement?
Remember that Bentley was said to have dictated it to the police in the hours after the shooting, so for a moment, it’s worth considering how police in the 1950s, collected evidence.
Firstly, the police did not have quite the same reputation for exemplary levels of fairness and thoroughness that they have today. As in many countries, police brutality was certainly not unheard of, but more than this, in some forces, there was a toxic culture between officers, where status was scored by counting who had the most “coughs” – that is, which officer could get the most confessions. This was before the advent of video cameras and legal requirements to record all interviews from start to finish. It was also before many laws came into place regarding the fair and humane treatment of suspects. The process of being interviewed back then could be extremely unpleasant and many suspects later argued that they had given confessions under duress. There was a period of crisis across several forces where countless confessions were either subsequently recanted or found to be false in the light of further evidence.
Britain’s police forces would eventually introduce the PEACE model of interviewing suspects and witnesses in 1984. This approach, which is collaborative and cooperative in nature, has proven eminently more successful in producing high quality information from interviewees, so much so that it is now adopted in various forms around the world. But at the time of this case, such enlightened ideas are thirty years away into the future. In short, we can’t know for sure, but Bentley is not likely to have found his treatment at the hands of the police to be especially friendly.
Any issues of coercion aside, what was the actual process of taking statements supposed to look like on paper? In the 1950s, the police procedure for collecting verbal evidence could take two directions. On the one hands, the police could conduct an interview, that is, a dialogue. The officers were required firstly to write down their questions long-hand – this was before the modern technology of tape recorders and so forth, of course – and then they would record the suspect’s answers word-for-word directly underneath.
On the other hand, they could take a statement, that is, a monologue. The suspect could either write this themselves, or they could dictate it to an officer who would write it out for them. The catch with this form of verbal evidence is that the officers were not to ask substantive questions. They could ask the suspect to repeat themselves, for instance, but they could not probe, direct, interrogate, or otherwise steer the statement.
It’s worth noting here, that whilst in Brixton Prison awaiting trial, Dr Matheson, the Principal Medical Officer took a detailed history from Bentley, noting that, he “cannot even recognise or write down all the letters of the alphabet”. In other words, Bentley is almost entirely illiterate and would therefore not be able to write his own statement, nor read and check the accuracy of one written on his behalf.
At the trial, three officers swore that Bentley’s statement was of this second type – that it was an unaided monologue dictated to an officer who then wrote it out faithfully, word-for-word. However, Bentley asserted that his statement was at least partially an interview-style dialogue. He said that questions had been put to him, and when he had given the answers, the words had been turned into a statement accredited to him as a monologue. For instance, an officer might have asked, “Did you know he was going to use the gun?” Bentley would have replied, “No”. And the officer would have written down, “I did not know he was going to use the gun.” You can see the problem here. Bentley’s life is currently in the balance over his supposed use of the word the, but what if this was never his word in the first place? What if it belonged to an officer?
Despite Bentley’s protests, the statement was admitted in court and taken to represent Bentley’s exact words as spoken in the hours after the shooting. Does Bentley’s argument have any merit? Well, within the statement, we can find evidence to support his claims. It’s only a short document, at 588 words, or 44 sentences, and you can find the whole thing in the case notes at my blog, but I’ll read some select parts of it now. Whilst listening to this, remember that it has supposedly been dictated by someone with a mental age of 10 or 11, and a reading age of around 4y 6m:
(11) Chris Craig and I then caught a bus to Croydon. (12) We got off at West Croydon and then walked down the road where the toilets are – I think it is Tamworth Road. (13) When we came to the place where you found me, Chris looked in the window. (14) There was a little iron gate at the side. (15) Chris then jumped over and I followed. (16) Chris then climbed up the drainpipe to the roof and I followed. (17) Up to then Chris had not said anything. (18) We both got out on to the flat roof at the top. (19) Then someone in a garden on the opposite side shone a torch up towards us. (20) Chris said: ‘It’s a copper, hide behind here.’ (21) We hid behind a shelter arrangement on the roof. (22) We were there waiting for about ten minutes. (23) I did not know he was going to use the gun. (24) A plain clothes man climbed up the drainpipe and on to the roof. (25) The man said: ‘I am a police officer – the place is surrounded.’ (26) He caught hold of me and as we walked away Chris fired. (27) There was nobody else there at the time. (28) The policeman and I then went round a corner by a door. (29) A little later the door opened and a policeman in uniform came out. (30) Chris fired again then and this policeman fell down. (31) I could see that he was hurt as a lot of blood came from his forehead just above his nose. (32) The policeman dragged him round the corner behind the brickwork entrance to the door. (33) I remember I shouted something but I forgot what it was. [emphasis added]
There’s a little that comes before and after this but as I said, you can read the rest of it in the case notes. Within this statement, what might we focus on to question its veracity? Well, one of the most prominent features to a linguist at least is the prominent use of the temporal then. In fact, then occurs eleven times in this statement.
Initially, you might think, well of course it does. He’s recounting a chronological sequence of events, and it’s useful to put in little linguistic markers that make the ordering of the events as clear as possible. But, when we look at other, genuinely monologic witness statements, we start to see how odd the frequency of this word is.
As part of a later appeal, forensic linguist Malcolm Coulthard undertook a formal analysis of Bentley’s statement, and compared it with two other sets of data. On the one hand he gathered three ordinary witness statements – one from a woman in the Bentley case, and two from men in unrelated cases. This came to some 930 words. On the other hand, he gathered three statements by police officers, two from the Bentley case, and one from an unrelated case. This totalled some 2,270 words. Additionally, as an external measure, he also compared Bentley’s statement with COBUILD, a giant dataset of around 1.5 million words of spoken English.
Now, in the current legal climate, with standards of evidence and proof climbing ever higher, we could poke several holes in these datasets. They’re all very tiny. If the police interfered in Bentley’s statement, what’s to say that these other witness statements have not also been interfered with. Different officers might have very different styles and the three that Coulthard chose for his police dataset might not reflect whoever supposedly interfered with Bentley’s statement. And so on. However, I would also stress that this is one of the earliest recorded uses, if not the earliest, of forensic linguistics being used in the courtroom, and with continued practice, inevitably, there come advances and improvements. Even with the limitations noted here, Coulthard found some very interesting results.
The short version is that, on average, Bentley uses the word then 19 times in every thousand words. By contrast, ordinary witness statements only produce the word then around once every thousand words. And in police statements, then occurs around 13 times per thousand words. In other words, the frequency of the word then in Bentley’s statement is much more like the police dataset, than the witness dataset.
Whilst compelling, this isn’t enough by itself, however, and an appeal lodged on this basis alone might have struggled. However something else is happening with the word then. Let’s just take a few examples from the statement:
(8) …I then ran out after them.
(11) …I then caught a bus to Croydon.
(15) Chris then jumped over and I followed.
(16) Chris then climbed up the drainpipe…
(28) …I then went round a corner by a door.
(30) Chris fired again then and this policeman fell down.
(38) The policeman then pushed me down the stairs…
What’s going on here? It’s something called post-positioning. The then is occurring after the subject, and this construction is pretty unusual. In casual, comfortable conversation, we’re much more likely to say then I – then I caught the bus, then I went around the corner, and so on. We’re far less likely to say I then caught the bus, I then went around the corner. In fact, Coulthard noted that in the COBUILD dataset of 1.5 million words of spoken English, then I – the more typical pre-positioning – occurs ten times more than I then, this unusual post-positioned construction.
What’s more, this post-positioning never occurs in the witness dataset that Coulthard looks at, but it occurs nine times in the police dataset. In short, this high frequency of then, and it’s unusual post-positioning turns out to be a particular feature of the police officer’s (written) register. When officers are trained on how to take verbal evidence, and how to ensure that the sequence of events is preserved and made clear, this is one of the strategies that is used.
The fact that we find so much evidence of this police register in Bentley’s statement certainly does cast some serious doubts over its status as an unaided, verbatim account of the events of that night. In short, the evidence suggests that at the very least, the police have substantially interfered with Bentley’s statement, presumably to ensure that it said whatever they needed it to say.
This takes us back to sentence 23, where Bentley supposedly said “the gun”. We now have compelling evidence to suggest that this definite article was never Bentley’s word. And if we cannot trust the officers’ claims, made under oath, that Bentley’s statement was a faithful account of his words, can we trust their assertion that Bentley shouted, “Let him have it, Chris”? Remember that this is an aspect of the case that Chris Craig continues to deny to this day.
Bentley’s family spend the next 45 years campaigning for justice. Their aim was to have the guilty verdict quashed and Bentley fully pardoned. In the 1970s, when Bentley’s parents pass away, his sister continues the fight. In July of 1993, Bentley’s family achieve a royal pardon. This is not a legal pardon, however. It is, effectively, a way of saying “You are forgiven by the crown” rather than “We no longer believe that you are guilty”. Unsurprisingly, this is not enough, and Bentley’s family carry on with their campaign, however, in 1997, Bentley’s sister, Iris, dies of cancer. Undeterred, her daughter Maria takes up the fight. As part of the appeal, Malcolm Coulthard’s forensic linguistics analysis is presented and his view that Bentley’s statement has been interfered with by the police is taken into consideration.
In 1998, when the case is further reviewed, after criticising his predecessor’s summing-up, Lord Chief Justice allows the Appeal.
And finally, on the 30th of July, 1998, 45 years after his execution, Derek Bentley’s conviction for murder is quashed, and he is fully pardoned.
En clair is entirely researched, narrated, and produced by me, Dr Claire Hardaker. However this work wouldn’t exist in its current form without the prior effort of many others. You can find acknowledgements and references for those people at the blog. Also there you can find data, links, articles, pictures, older cases, media interviews, and analyses of breaking news data. The address for the blog is wp.lancs.ac.uk/enclair. And you can follow the podcast on Twitter at _enclair, or if you like, you can follow me on Twitter at DrClaireH.