Guenther Podola.

 

Guenther Fritz Erwin Podola was perhaps the most unusual capital murder case in the tried under the provisions of the 1957 Act.

His actions were not in dispute but whether his amnesia bought on by a blow to the head incurred during his arrest was real or not was the question.

 

Podola had been born in Berlin in 1929 and came to Britain at the Spring of 1959, after deportation from Canada where he had been convicted of theft and burglary.  His occupation was listed in court documents as a photographer. On the 13th of July 1959, he was once again engaged in crime in London's South Kensington. He had broken into the flat of Mrs. Verne Schiffman, stealing some £2000 worth of goods. He later tried to blackmail his burglary victim, by claiming to have embarrassing photos and tape recordings of her. As she knew she had nothing to hide, she reported the phone call to the police who tapped her line and when Podola using the alias Mr. Fisher, rang again.  Mrs. Schiffman kept him talking enabling the police to trace the call to a call box near South Kensington tube station where Detective Sergeants Raymond William Purdy and John Stanford found him moments later.  He got away from the detectives and was chased and caught near a block of flats at 105 Onslow Square.  While the one policeman went to fetch the car, Podola produced a 9mm automatic pistol and shot DS Purdy before escaping on foot. 43 year old Purdy had nearly 20 years of experience as a police officer and had taken Podola's address book when he arrested him, It was discovered by his widow when her husband’s belongings were returned to her.  This pointed the police towards the Claremont House Hotel in Queen’s Gate, Kensington where Podola was staying in room 15.  On the 16th of July armed police assembled outside the room at 3.45 pm and at the signal, forced the door.  Podola, who was probably listening at the door, was hit on the head by it as it burst open.  He was given some first aid at the scene before being taken to Chelsea police station for questioning. Later that day he was transferred to hospital, where he would remain for four days.  Questions were raised in the House of Commons over Padola’s treatment at the police station and why he was removed from there to hospital on a stretcher.

Fingerprint evidence from the murder scene together with Padola’s description were sent to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who were able to supply the real identity of Mr. Fisher.

 

On the 14th of August Podola was committed for trial at the Old Bailey by West London Magistrates sitting in camera, at the request of the defence, on the capital charge of murdering a police officer in the execution of his duty.

It would be the largest calendar at a Sessions since the Old Bailey since it opened in its then form in 1907, with over 300 defendants, including five charged with murder.

 

Padola claimed to have no memory of his arrest or the shooting of D.S. Purdy.  Even though it could be proved that he had shot Purdy, if he genuinely couldn't recall doing so and was not mentally fit to stand trial, he would have had to have been acquitted.  A jury hearing commenced on September 10th 1959 to determine whether the defendants claimed amnesia was genuine or not.  Expert witnesses were called by both sides.  After 3 1/2 hours deliberation they concluded it was not and so the trial proper could move forward but with a new jury.

 

The murder trial opened before Mr. Justice Edmund Davies on the 24th of September. His solicitor was Mr F. Morris Williams who had briefed Mr. F H Lawton QC. for the defence, assisted by Mr. R J Harvey.

The prosecution was led by Mr. Maxwell Turner, assisted by Mr. John Buzzard.  In the normal way Podola was asked to plead to the charges and replied "I do not remember the crime for which I stand accused ... I am unable to answer the charges."

Mr. Lawton told the jury that Podola had a complete loss of memory of events before the 17th of July.  There was a considerable amount of procedural wrangling but in the end Mr. Justice Davies decided that it was for the defence to prove insanity in this instance.  In doing so he noted that he was departing from the judgement of Mr. Justice Salmon in 1957 on a similar argument.

Mr. Lawton then told the jury “I stand here today with my learned friend by my side and Podola’s solicitor in front of me and the three of us have no idea what his defence is at all.”  “What happened on the occasion of his arrest is part of the memory lost.”  Podola had been taken to Chelsea police station after his arrest where, as he had been injured, he was examined by the police doctor, Dr. Shanahan, who found him fit to be detained but unfit to be charged.  Podola was transferred to St. Stephen’s Hospital Chelsea for treatment and was examined by Dr. Philip Harvey who found him to be in a “stuporous state”.  Both of these doctors later gave evidence.

 

The jury of ten men and two women rejected his defence of memory loss, convicting him on September the 25th, after only 38 minutes of discussion.

 

Podola did not lodge an appeal himself because he had no legal grounds to appeal the jury’s decision that he was fit to plead to the murder charge against him.  However the Home Secretary, Richard Austen “RabButler referred the case to the Court of Appeal under Section 19a of the Criminal Appeal Act of 1907.  This appeal was heard and dismissed by five law lords on October the 14th.

 

A petition for a reprieve was collected and presented to the Home Secretary but the German Embassy declined to get involved.  On the 3rd of November 1959 the Home Office announced that there would be no reprieve for Podola.  There was an internal inquiry into the allegation that Harry Allen, the appointed hangman, had been a friend of DS Purdy, which discovered that he had not but had met Purdy once, some five years earlier. 

Padola was duly hanged at Wandsworth prison by Harry Allen and Royston Rickard on the 5th of November 1959 at 9.45 a.m., the last person to die for the murder of a police officer in Britain.  Outside the prison a woman in black walked up to the gates and placed a bowl of violets there.  Some 100 people had gathered to witness the posting of the notice of execution, the 12th to be carried out under the new Act and the last of six in 1959.

 

This was one of the first capital cases that I remember as a boy in 1959.  I suppose it was his odd sounding name, to a child's view of the world, that caught my attention. 

 

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