In law school we discussed a criminal case where the defendant faced the death penalty based on his use of the ambiguous phrase, “Let him have it!”
In 1952, in England, Derek Bentley, and his 16-year-old companion, Christopher Craig decided to break into and steal from a candy company warehouse.
Bentley had a set of brass knuckles. Craig armed himself with a revolver. He had sawed-off the barrel, so he could hide the gun in his pocket.
Bentley and Craig climbed over the locked gate. They then shimmied up the drainpipe onto the roof of the warehouse.
A neighbor saw them and called the police, and they surrounded the warehouse.
On the roof, Craig started taunting the police. So, several officers climbed the drainpipe. Bentley and Craig were trapped.
Craig pulled his gun. An unarmed polite cop asked Craig to “hand over the gun, lad.” (Recall, English police officers were not armed.)
Bentley shouted to Craig, “Let him have it!”
Whereupon, Craig opened fire, killing one of the other officers. When Craig ran out of bullets he jumped the 30 feet from the roof onto a greenhouse, breaking his back.
Both men were arrested. They were both tried by jury.
Craig was convicted. Since he was a minor, he spent only 10 years in prison. After his release he married, had children, became a plumber, and became a productive member of society.
Bentley’s culpability hinged on his statement, “Let him have it!”
Was the phrase literal? Did Bentley mean, “Let him have the gun?” Or, was the phase figurative? Did Bentley mean, “Open fire!”
The jury concluded that Bentley’s statement, “Let him have it,” instigated the shooting. Bentley was found guilty of murder, and he was ordered hung. In sum, while Bentley was unarmed, and did not shoot the cop, he received a greater punishment than the shooter.
Since Bentley was unarmed, and since Craig was the shooter, Bentley’s family appealed to Parliament and the Home Secretary to grant clemency and commute the death sentence.
Since the victim was a police officer, the Home Secretary declined to intervene. Before Parliament could consider the matter, Bentley was hung. He was hung within a month of his trial.
This case was so unique and interesting that it was made into a film in 1991, entitled, “Let Him Have It.”
Lesson: choose your words carefully.
(Sources: “Derek Bentley Case,” “Let Him Have It,” Wikipedia)
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