Guenther Podola was a burglar with a difference. Not content with the £2,000-worth of furs and jewellery he stole from Mrs. Verne Schiffman’s South Kensington flat, he then had the nerve to phone her. Posing as a private detective, he claimed he had photos and tape-recordings placing her in a compromising situation, and he tried to blackmail her, demanding £500.

She informed the police, and they tapped her phone. “Next time he calls,” detectives told her, “keep him talking. We’ll see if we can trace where he’s phoning from.”

When the blackmailer rang again on July 13th, 1959, his call was traced to a South Kensington kiosk where he was arrested by two detectives. He broke free and made a dash for it, but was recaptured shortly afterwards when he was cornered on a window-sill in the hallway of a block of flats.

One of the detectives went to phone for a patrol car, leaving his colleague Detective Sergeant Raymond Purdy guarding the prisoner. Seconds later the man produced a gun, shot Purdy dead and escaped.

The police knew neither who he was nor where he had gone. But they had a clue, provided by Purdy’s widow. When her husband’s personal possessions were returned to her she found a small notebook among them which wasn’t his. She handed it back to his colleagues, who realised that Purdy must have taken it from the wanted man.

The notebook was full of phone numbers. Calling them, detectives learned that Purdy’s killer was a German who had spent time in Canada. A palm-print had been found on the window-sill where he was cornered, and a copy of it was sent to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. They reported that it belonged to Guenther Podola, who had been deported as an undesirable alien, and they also supplied Scotland Yard with his photograph.

Then the manager of a South Kensington hotel reported that a Paul Camay of Montreal had booked in on June 25th, but since July 13th — the day of the shooting — he had not left his room. Shown the photo of Podola, the manager said, “That’s Paul Camay — he’s in Room Fifteen.”

Arrested and charged with Purdy’s murder, Podola had a novel defence when he appeared at the Old Bailey. His counsel Mr. Frederick Lawton QC told the court: “I rise at the very outset of this case because this case is not a usual case at all. It has one very, very unusual feature. I stand here today, my learned friend by my side, Podola’s solicitor in front of me, and the three of us have no idea what his defence is at all. We have no idea whether he wishes to say the witnesses for the prosecution are mistaken, inaccurate or lying; no idea whether he wishes to say the gun was discharged accidentally.

“We have no idea whether he wishes to say he was provoked, and we have no information about his past. This is because he has been unable to give us any instructions, unable to tell us because he has lost his memory. And the consequences, members of the jury, of losing his memory are that he is unable to defend himself.”

Police who arrested him had broken down Podola’s door, knocking him over, and he had been taken to hospital apparently semi-conscious. On recovering he claimed he could remember nothing.

The court heard from four doctors who thought he was afflicted by amnesia, and two who believed he was faking. But the prosecution claimed he had given himself away in a letter written while he was on remand, and Purdy’s partner Detective Sergeant John Sandford testified that he had seen the shooting. Moreover, the fatal bullet was proved to have been fired from a gun found among Podola’s possessions.

Nevertheless, Podola told the jury: “I cannot put forward any defence. The reason for this is that I have lost my memory of all these events. I cannot remember the crime. I do not remember the circumstances leading up to the events or to this shooting. I do not know if I did it or whether it was an accident or an act of self-defence. I do not know if at that time I realised the man was in fact a detective. I do not know in fact whether I was provoked in any way. For these reasons I am unable to admit or deny the charge against me.”

Unimpressed, the jury retired for only 30 minutes before returning to find him guilty, and he was sentenced to death. The Court of Criminal Appeal ruled that loss of memory does not constitute unfitness to plead, and Podola was hanged at Wandsworth Prison on NOVEMBER 5th, 1959.