It is bizarre beyond belief to think that a man (Sean Hodgson) has just been released from prison after twenty-seven years, because it’s been proved that he was not guilty, but it makes you wonder who else is serving time for something they didn’t do (rather as one wonders how many people are not serving time for something that they did do, and what proportion of the many ‘missing persons’ are long-forgotten victims).
The 1952 Bentley/Craig case always horrified me from childhood, and, as time went on, it just seemd to become more and more bizarre. Derek Bentley was over eighteen, a little brain-damaged, and in police custody when his younger friend, Chris Craig, shot a policeman (and even that is a little disputed, if fancifully). This is the famous ‘Let him have it, Chris’ conundrum – a classic ambiguity. It’s what Bentley shouted to Craig, and it could plainly mean either ‘Give him the gun’ or ‘Kill him.’ On this basis, Craig and Bentley were both convicted of murder, but, since Craig was under eighteen, capital punishment was not available as a punishment. But they hanged Bentley. His sister kept up a campaign for nearly half a century before a posthumous pardon was issued (she didn’t live to see it). Sean Hodgson wouldn’t have had even that dubious luxury.
Perhaps the oddest thing about the Bentley case is the way witnesses were suppressed. The writer Mei Trow came across a crucial one – a policeman who was on the warehouse roof in Croydon when Craig shot his colleague, P.C. Miles (and there was some dispute that he had actually fired the shot). From memory, he came across the policeman because the policeman’s son was his driving instructor. What he turned up in particular about the policeman was that, had he been called, he would have had to have said that Derek Bentley never actually said ‘Let him have it, Chris.’ He didn’t say anything at all. (The likelihood is that the police borrowed the phrase from a 1940s case in which the words were used.)
Another curiosity about the case is that it is thought that the decision to execute Bentley, although relayed through the Home Secretary of the day, was the result of judicial pressure behind the scenes. There was some lingering anger about the fact that, as is also often forgotten, hanging was discontinued in the late 1940s for a while, because there was a parliamentary bill which was discussing the abolition of capital punishment. Some judges are alleged to have been irritated that they were unable to don the black cap for a while, and the very idea of letting a ‘police murderer’ (what Bentley was “guilty” of being) – well, that was unthinkable. So Bentley was hanged for a crime he supposedly committed while under arrest, for something he didn’t say, on the say-so of judges who, in some cases, actually relished their power (the trial judge, Lord Chief Justice Goddard, was said to have found sexual pleasure in death sentences).
Sean Hodgson would have been hanged. And he would never have got out if DNA evidence had finally been discovered. There is a major debate about whether or not DNA samples belonging to innocent people should be kept: it is often cited as an infringement of liberty. But I have to say that I can’t see the problem. They can have my DNA any old time. DNA is the modern equivalent of fingerprints: they can have my fingerprints, too. If it’s an infringement of liberty, it’s a very minor one: not worth getting het up about (that’s a curious phrase, isn’t it? – a real survivor, an old-fashioned past tense of the verb ‘to heat’). Liberty is infringed in many much more serious ways.