When the family of Derek Bentley – hanged in 1953 for the murder of a policeman – attempted to obtain a posthumous pardon for his wrongful execution, they approached a local south London solicitor, Benedict Birnberg, for help.
It was the beginning of a more than 30-year-long, ultimately successful, legal campaign that helped pave the way for the abolition of the death penalty in Britain in 1969, and raised profound questions about miscarriages of justice.
For Birnberg, who has died aged 93, it was a cause to which he dedicated much of his working life. He was determined not to let the family down. That commitment was characteristic of his pioneering approach to civil rights cases.
Bentley was 19 and had mental impairments. He and an accomplice, Christopher Craig, aged 16, had burgled a warehouse in Croydon in south London. They were spotted on the building’s roof. As PC Sidney Miles climbed up, he was shot and killed by Craig, who was carrying a revolver.
Both Craig and Bentley were found guilty of murder at the Old Bailey. Because Craig was under 18, he was ordered to be detained, but Bentley was sentenced to hang despite the jury sending a plea for mercy.
Evidence was given that Bentley shouted: “Let him have it, Chris.” The defence argued that this meant he was telling Craig to surrender his weapon; the prosecution alleged it was encouragement to open fire. English law at that point had virtually no concept of diminished responsibility.
Bentley was one of the first cases Birnberg took on. He pursued it relentlessly until in 1993 a royal pardon was granted, revoking the death sentence. In 1998 the court of appeal quashed Bentley’s conviction, admitting he had been denied a fair trial due to a partisan summing-up by the then lord chief justice, Lord (Rayner) Goddard. Birnberg described it as “judicial murder”, remarking that: “The poignancy is that we cannot resuscitate Derek.”
Birnberg was born in Stepney, east London, to Jewish parents. His father, Jonas, was a maths teacher and his mother, Naomi (nee Bentwich), ran a private school that took in refugees from Germany. The family had legal connections: Ben’s grandfather had been a barrister; an uncle, Norman Bentwich, served as attorney general in British-governed Palestine.
The family were evacuated to Somerset during the war. Birnberg attended Minehead grammar school and then the King’s school, Canterbury, before completing national service in the Royal Artillery as an education officer. At Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, he studied history. He trained as a solicitor and on qualifying joined a commercial law practice but “hated it”.
In 1962 he set up his own firm in Borough High Street, Southwark, where he continued practising until retirement in 1999. His early cases involved defending supporters of CND and the anti-war group the Committee of 100, whose members faced criminal charges for non-violent protests.
In 1967 the Greek embassy in London was occupied in protest at the Colonels’ military coup in Athens. Among those arrested was a Greek LSE student, Felitsa Matziorini. She had knocked on the embassy door to present a bunch of daffodils. When the door opened, protesters, hiding in a van parked nearby, rushed the building. They unfurled a banner on the balcony denouncing the stifling of democracy in its birthplace.
Matziorini was detained in Holloway prison, and after being released following a night inside, she and other protesters were charged with affray.
Birnberg represented them, helping Matziorini to come away with a one-year suspended sentence. “A couple of days later I had a call from Ben,” she said. “He had two tickets to see the play Mother Courage.” They married the following year.
Among other clients helped by Birnberg were David Hockney, for whom he won the right to bring in magazines deemed obscene by customs officers, and the Notting Hill community activist Frank Crichlow, whose restaurant, the Mangrove, was repeatedly subjected to police raids in the 1970s and 80s.
Crichlow was charged variously with riot, affray and drug offences, despite being known for his anti-drug stance. Birnberg’s firm demolished the evidence and the jury found him not guilty. The Metropolitan police were subsequently successfully sued for false imprisonment, battery and malicious prosecution.
“The office would be full of ANC officials or exiles from Pinochet’s regime,” remembered the solicitor Gareth Peirce, who joined Birnberg’s firm as an articled clerk in 1974. “Sometimes we had to sit on the stairs if there wasn’t room. Everything was based on hard preparation. He was an exceptionally fine advocate, erudite and a very good lawyer.”
Other trainees who started with Birnberg included the Labour peer Paul Boateng, the former director of Liberty John Wadham and Imran Khan, who acted for the family of Stephen Lawrence. Boateng praised Birnberg as “mild and understated in manner and appearance” but with “a fire in his belly and passion for justice that has caused him to tower over his contemporaries”.
Wadham worked with Birnberg on the case of Michael Randle and Pat Pottle, from the Committee of 100, who were acquitted by an Old Bailey jury in 1991 of helping the convicted spy George Blake escape from Wormwood Scrubs prison – despite having confessed their part in the break-out.
Birnberg’s cases set legal precedents. Sweet v Parsley (1970) established that a landlady could not be guilty of a drugs offence if she had no knowledge of her property being used to smoke cannabis, and Brutus v Cozens (1972) showed that an anti-apartheid activist’s protest was not insulting behaviour.
A supporter of an independent Palestinian state, Birnberg also campaigned in Israel for the release of the nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu. Prison reform was another abiding interest. He had been introduced by his friend Lord (Frank) Longford to the Moors murderer Ian Brady, who became his client.
Birnberg was company secretary for the charity War on Want and chair of the National Council of Civil Liberties (now Liberty).
In retirement he enjoyed classical music, art and writing letters to the Guardian and other newspapers.
He is survived by Felitsa, their daughter Ariadne, and two grandchildren, Jonas and Theo.