By Thomas Fields-Meyer
October 26, 1998 12:00 PM

Maria Bentley-Dingwall can not remember a time when she didn’t know about her uncle Derek Bentley, who had been executed for murder nine years before she was born. “It was always there,” she says of the story. So was her mother Iris’s obsession with clearing her brother’s name.

Now Bentley-Dingwall, 36, has written the tale’s bittersweet ending. Less than two years after her mother’s death, Maria gained the vindication Iris had so desperately sought for Derek. “If I ever had a day I wanted to relive again and again,” Maria says of the July morning a British court officially pardoned her uncle, “that’s the one.”

Derek, 19, mentally retarded and epileptic, had been caught by police on the roof of a south London warehouse on the night of Nov. 2, 1952. He and a friend, Christopher Craig, 16, were apparently attempting a burglary. According to police accounts, when Craig started shooting at officers, Bentley—already captured—shouted, “Let him have it, Chris!” just before Craig shot and killed Constable Sidney Miles. Though Bentley denied uttering those words, a jury found both Bentley and Craig guilty of murder. Craig, a minor, served 10 years in prison. (He is now a retired plumber and farmer.) Despite public outcry, Bentley was hanged on Jan. 28, 1953, just three months after the killing.

“It was then,” Iris wrote in a 1995 memoir, “that I said…I would not give up until he was proved innocent.” That evening, Iris, then 21, returned her engagement ring to her fiancé and pledged to dedicate her life to clearing her brother’s name. Though she married Royal Air Force engineer Stewart Dingwall in 1960, her life’s work remained the effort to exonerate Derek. She became an outspoken opponent of the death penalty (which Britain abolished for murder in 1965), regularly appearing on British TV and relentlessly lobbying the government to have her brother’s name cleared. “Most parents had jobs,” says Maria. “My mum was a personality.”

The work was discouraging, but Iris never gave up. In 1968, she persuaded officials to let her move Derek’s remains from a prison graveyard to a cemetery near her home. A 1991 movie on the case, Let Him Have It, generated new interest. And in 1993, Britain’s then-Home Secretary Michael Howard granted Derek a limited pardon, saying his crime did not merit the death penalty. But the government repeatedly refused to reopen the case.

The crusade took its toll on Iris, whose husband grew weary of her obsession; they divorced in the mid-1970s. (Maria hasn’t spoken to her father since she was 6.) Iris was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1972, but survived. “She kept the fight going against every adversity,” says her longtime lawyer, Benedict Birnberg. But by 1995 the cancer had spread to her bladder. Maria, who is unmarried, quit her job as a financial researcher to care for her mother, who died on Jan. 22, 1997. “There was never any question that I would carry on the fight,” says Maria. “My mother had always taught us that the case comes first and our grief comes second.”

Maria went to work almost immediately, applying to Britain’s newly formed Criminal Case Review Commission, which sent the case to the Court of Appeal, which scheduled a hearing for last July. “We felt, ‘Hooray!’ ” says Maria. “At least we’d get our day in court—which is what we’d always wanted.” Yet, exhausted and overwhelmed by grief for her mother, she swallowed a handful of painkillers in a suicide attempt just weeks before the hearing. “I was tired of the struggles,” she says. “The thought of being with my mother was more desirable than anything else.”

Bentley-Dingwall recovered, and at the hearing, Lord Chief Justice Lord Bingham quashed Derek’s conviction, ruling that the original judge had denied Bentley a fair trial by urging the jury to convict. The reviewing court also noted that Bentley was already in police custody when the shooting occurred.

“I was ecstatic,” says Maria, who took a copy of the judgment to Croydon cemetery and buried it next to the side-by-side graves of her mother and uncle. “Mum wanted to get the pardon before she died, so she could take it to Derek. She has it now.”

Thomas Fields-Meyer

Nina Biddle in London