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A Principle of Injustice

Neil Root

By Neil Root on 20/03/15

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A Principle of Injustice

The famous lawyer Travers Christmas Humphreys ended his long career as a judge at the Old Bailey in 1976. A Buddhist since his late teens, in 1975, a year before his retirement, he caused a House of Commons motion calling for his dismissal as a judge when he gave a man convicted of two rapes a suspended prison sentence. He survived only when the then Lord Chancellor Lord Elwyn-Jones defended him vehemently. This time he had been saved by a friend in the highest legal place from punishment for being too lenient in his sentencing.

Ironically, a quarter of a century earlier he had persuaded a judge and jury to send Ruth Ellis to the gallows, now widely regarded as a colossal miscarriage of justice, one which the crime novelist Raymond Chandler called ‘an act of mediaeval savagery’ in 1955. Less than three years before that, Christmas Humphreys had also procured the death sentence for Derek Bentley, who was posthumously pardoned. 

‘Compassion is that which makes the heart of the good move at the pain of others,’ so says the spiritual path of Buddhism. Humphreys’ home in St Johns Wood, London is now a Buddhist temple, and a greater paradox with his earlier actions could hardly be dreamt up.

Christmas’s father was the noted and respected barrister and judge Travers Humphreys, and it was no surprise to the judiciary when Christmas was called to the Inner Temple in 1924. In that same year, Christmas set up the London Buddhist Society, the first of its kind in Britain, and it was soon the most important in Europe. In the following years, Christmas would become the leading Buddhist light in Britain, publishing many books on the subject. 

However, there was also a careerist side to Christmas and this ruthlessness would soon surface in court. With his Establishment and legal pedigree, he had a head start, but he was happy to grease the pole to ease his ascent further. A first edition of Christmas’s first book The Great Pearl Robbery of 1913 is inscribed by Christmas ‘to the Lord Chief Justice with the author’s respectful compliments 7/10/29’. He was twenty-eight at the time, a rising lawyer, five years at the bar then.

Christmas held some important legal posts over the next two decades, prosecuted war criminals in Tokyo and by his late forties was Treasury Counsel. But it was his deceptively subtle and forensic skills of cross-examination which led him to high-profile murder cases at the Old Bailey.

December 1952 saw the trial of Christopher Craig (aged 16) and Derek Bentley (aged 19) for the fatal shooting of PC Sidney Miles while trying to rob a warehouse in Croydon, south London. Craig had fired the shot, there was no proof that Bentley had known that his younger friend was carrying a loaded gun that night, and Bentley was already in police custody on the warehouse roof when the shot was fired. Much was made of the shout ‘Let him have it, Chris!’ that Bentley was alleged by the police to have called to Craig. Bentley denied ever saying it and, even if he had, the fact it could have been a plea for Craig to pass the policeman the gun rather than a provocation to open fire was not raised at the trial. 

Derek Bentley also had learning difficulties, with a mental age of twelve, and was epileptic. Christmas Humphreys, the dedicated Buddhist, secured the death penalty on Bentley (under the law of joint enterprise), with Lord Chief Justice Rayner Goddard the trial judge donning the black cap. Craig was too young to hang. There was a huge public call for clemency, and a petition was signed on Bentley’s behalf by over 200 Members of Parliament, all to no avail, as the Home Secretary Sir David Maxwell Fyfe refused to commute the death sentence, and it was duly delivered, Bentley being hanged on 28 January 1953. His parents and sister campaigned relentlessly for his pardon, but sadly all passed away before, forty-five years later in 1998, Derek Bentley was finally pardoned.

At the Old Bailey in June 1955, Christmas Humphreys prosecuted Ruth Ellis for the murder by shooting of her former lover David Blakely. Ellis pleaded not guilty but Christmas stated in court that it was ‘to all intents and purposes a plea of guilty’. It was a classic crime of passion, and Blakely had allegedly both physically and emotionally abused Ellis. However, Ellis was sentenced to death and, despite a petition signed by 50,000 people (Ellis herself did not appeal), the Liberal-Conservative Home Secretary Gwilym Lloyd George was not moved and Ellis was hanged at Holloway. In her book Ruth Ellis: My Sister’s Secret Life, Monica Weller alleges that Christmas manipulated evidence at the trial and changed witness statements.

In 1982, just a year before Christmas Humphreys died, Ruth Ellis’s son Andre McCallum had a long conversation with Christmas regarding his mother’s trial, which he secretly taped. In her book, Monica Weller divulged the conversation, part of which had Christmas saying about the trial, ‘(Mercy) never came into my mind because, you must understand, how we play parts as if on a stage. I have my part to play. Defending counsel has his. The judge has his. The jury have theirs… mercy never came into it.’ Tragically, just weeks later, Ruth Ellis’s son Andre committed suicide in a bedsit. Andre had been psychologically damaged since childhood, being just ten years old when his mother was hanged.

Christmas Humphreys paid for his funeral. Perhaps it was a final twinge of Buddhist conscience.

The judge who passed the sentence of death at the 1952 trial of Derek Bentley was Rayner Goddard (1877-1971), Lord Chief Justice (1946-58). Rayner Goddard was known for his strict, authoritarian sentencing - he once rejected six appeals in an hour. In fact, it has been claimed that Goddard had a particular personal reaction to sentencing people to death. The late writer and barrister Sir John Mortimer, creator of Rumpole of the Bailey, was told by Goddard’s former valet that Goddard would sometimes ejaculate during sentencing and his trousers had to be sent off to be cleaned as a result. Another version suggests Goddard reacted in this way when sentencing young men to be birched.

Goddard almost definitely had a bearing on the Home Secretary’s decision not to reprieve Ruth Ellis too, as he was the Lord Chief Justice, and his advice would have been automatically sought.  In the case of Derek Bentley, it is now known that Goddard recommended that the Home Secretary ignore the jury’s plea for mercy for Bentley - the chosen twelve having seen Bentley’s mental deficiencies as a mitigating factor.  

It is no coincidence that Goddard was involved in two of the most controversial death penalty decisions in British legal history, working with Christmas Humphreys and alone.
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