Although widowed Mrs. Selina Mewes was 82 and a semi-recluse, she was still in business as a moneylender. Patrick Dunbar, a 24-year-old labourer, was one of many who had borrowed from her. On MARCH 4th, 1957, he had also burgled her Newcastle-on-Tyne home, stealing £78, and on the following night he got drunk and decided to rob her again.

As she was deaf, he was surprised when she awoke as he entered her bedroom. Fearing he would be recognised, he covered her face with her bedclothes and struck her several times with a lemonade bottle. Then he fled with several 10-shilling notes.

Within 24 hours, however, he gave himself up to the police. Charged with capital murder in the course or furtherance of theft, he pleaded “Not guilty,” his counsel seeking a verdict of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility.

This defence had become possible only a few weeks earlier with the implementation of the Homicide Act (1957), which “created” the crime of capital murder. But in Dunbar’s case the defence was unsuccessful and he was sentenced to death.

On July 5th, 1957, however, all five judges of the Court of Criminal Appeal ruled that the jury at Dunbar’s trial had not been properly directed. Although Mr. Justice Ashworth had said that the onus of proof of diminished responsibility lay with the defence, he had failed to say that the degree of proof needed was not as great as that required of the prosecution in alleging murder.

Dunbar was consequently spared the gallows, his sentence being commuted to life imprisonment. But he remains in the record books as the first person in Great Britain convicted and sentenced to death for capital murder.