In 1998, Derek Bentley was finally pardoned for his part in the death of a British police constable during a bungled burglary 46 years earlier. Bentley, who suffered from learning difficulties, was proved innocent after years of campaigning by his sister, Iris. His story is the inspiration for this chilling song by Elvis Costello.
Bentley stood trial with his 16 year-old partner in crime, Christopher Craig, in 1952. It was Craig who fired the fatal shot that killed PC Sidney Miles, using a pistol he had brought to the scene. Yet Craig escaped the death penalty because of his age. Derek Bentley, however, was hanged in Wandsworth Prison, London, in January 28th 1953, aged 19. The Court of Appeal ultimately quashed the conviction almost half a century later.
Taken from the superb 1989 album Spike, Let Him Dangle is an indictment of a bloodthirsty judicial class that sought not true justice but an exemplary revenge against society's underclass. The futility and brutality of the death penalty are summed up in the final words: "it won't make you even / it won't bring him back".
More than just a song about a single miscarriage of justice, Let Him Dangle is a warning not to sink to the level of the reactionaries who routinely call for the reintroduction of the death penalty in the wake of any sensational act of murder or terrorism. "If killing anybody is a terrible crime," Costello asks, "Why does this bloodthirsty chorus come round from time to time?"
When the officers recalled the events of 2nd November 1952 in court, it was stated that one of the policemen had urged Craig to hand over his gun. Bentley supposedly said: "Let him have it, Chris". His fate rested on these ambiguous words.
"Bentley said to Craig 'Let him have it Chris'," sings Costello. "They still don`t know today just what he meant by this".
The defence - who later described the judge as "hell bent" on securing a conviction "at all costs" - claimed that Bentley was urging his partner to comply with the police; but the prosecution persuaded the jury that Bentley was instructing his teenage friend to open fire. The jury recommended mercy in Bentley's case; their recommendation was ignored.
Derek Bentley's highly controversial case, along with that of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, helped lifelong campaigner Sydney Silverman MP to eventually achieve his aim to see capital punishment suspended in the Britain in 1965, although he did not live to see it finally abolished in 1969. Meanwhile, there are 53 countries around the world where the death penalty still exists, says The Telegraph, including Japan, where seven members of the Aum cult were executed just this week for their part in a terrorist attack in 1995.
Amnesty International has pledged to abolish the death penalty worldwide. The organisation states that the death penalty discriminates against people from poor socio-economic backgrounds and from minority racial or ethnic groups. It is unjust because "the risk of executing an innocent person can never be eliminated" and the organisation cites 160 cases in the USA alone in the last 45 years where death row prisoners have been subsequently exonerated.
Amnesty argues that there is no evidence to support the claim that the death penalty is an effective deterrent and seeks to expose unscrupulous governments, such as Iran and Sudan, where the death penalty is used to suppress opposition. Ultimately, says Amnesty, the death penalty is a breach of "the right to life and the right to live free from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment". If you want to help Amnesty's work to abolish the death penalty, visit their Take Action page.
Elvis Costello is currently recovering from treatment for "a small but very aggressive cancerous malignancy". All the best, Elvis.
Let Him Dangle was suggested by Andrew Gilardi. Thanks for the contribution, Andy.
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About the curator: Jon Ewing
After graduating from the University of Keele in England with a degree in Politics and American Studies, Jon worked as editor of a music and entertainment magazine before spending several years as a freelance writer and, with the advent of the internet, a website designer, developer and consultant. He lives in Reading, home to one of the world's most famous and long-running music festivals, which he has attended every year since 1992.