Those of us who are prone to call ourselves “students of British history” or “students of Legal history” cannot forget the (in)famous English Criminal Trial, R. v Craig & Bentley (1952).
The case revolved around the Attempted Burglary of the warehouse of Barlow & Parker in Tamworth Road, Croydon in November 1952 & the resulting killing of a police constable, P.C. Sidney Miles. Christopher Craig & Derek Bentley were tried by jury for Murder at the Old Bailey, Lord Goddard – the Lord Chief Justice – presiding. The Jury found both Guilty, but in Bentley’s case – he was 19, Craig only 16 – with a Recommendation to Mercy. Despite all this, however, Derek Bentley was still hanged at Wandsworth Prison in January 1953. The case became a Cause Célèbre and contributed to changes in Britain’s laws on murder – including indirectly in the abolition of the Death Penalty for murder in the 1960s.
Much has since been written about the case (including the appeal etc.), the campaigns, the pardon and – finally – the posthumous quashing of Bentley’s conviction after 45 years in 1998.
However, in all this one man has suffered more than he should have – the Trial Judge, Lord Goddard!
AT THIS POINT, I WANT TO MAKE IT QUITE CLEAR THAT FROM THE LITTLE I KNOW OF LORD GODDARD I CONSIDER HIM A GREAT LAWYER BUT AN ODIOUS MAN. I SAY THIS TO EMPHASISE THAT I AM IN NO WAY AN APOLOGIST FOR HIM! JUST AS MY LATE MOTHER & I CONSTANTLY HOPED FOR A PARDON FOR DEREK BENTLEY TO SEE JUSTICE DONE, HOWEVER, I CAN NO LONGER STAND (OR SIT!) IDLY BY AND ALLOW SLIGHTS AGAINST LORD GODDARD’S REPUTATION TO GO UNCHALLENGED ANY LONGER!
I have researched as much as I could of Goddard’s Trial history – I am basing my comments solely on this! – after R. v Craig & Bentley and as far as I have been able to gauge, he never tried another Capital case (a case for which the Death Penalty was available) again! This does not mean he did not handle Capital cases; he heard several murder appeals following Craig & Bentley’s trial, and even presided at the first appeal heard under the provisions of the 1957 Homicide Act – where, incidentally, the Death Sentence in the case was set aside & replaced with Life Imprisonment – but (as far as I can gather) he never presided at a Capital Murder Trial again.
Also, contrary to popular belief there may not have been any precedent regarding the unquestionable honesty of police evidence but the possibility of such evidence being flawed wasn’t even seriously addressed – at least not properly or successfully – until The Verballing Scandal during the Trial of the Great Train Robbers in 1964 which resulted in a confession being thrown out!
So while Lord Goddard wasn’t perfect, like all judges he maintained his silence to ensure that he presented “an air of infallibility” to the public. It can be safely said that the case of Derek Bentley haunted him for the rest of his life and we should allow him to be remembered more for his fairly liberal attitude on the punishment of minor offenders than for his other faults.