A socialite, a gardener, a message in the blood: the murder which still strikes France

PARIS – The wealthy socialite was found dead in the basement of her villa on the Côte d’Azur. The only door was locked from the outside but also barricaded from the inside. A message, scrawled in the victim’s blood, seemed to accuse his gardener.

The brutal 1991 murder of Ghislaine Marchal and the subsequent conviction of her Moroccan gardener, Omar Raddad, has become one of France’s most enduring mysterious murders, capturing the popular imagination.

Now, three decades later, new DNA technology may lead to a second trial which supporters hope will exonerate Mr. Raddad, who has always claimed to be innocent, and reopen a case which, although apparently regulated legally, has long destabilized France.

He did this not only because of the violence that hit an enclave of proud houses just north of Cannes, or because the protagonists were of diametrically opposed origins. There was also the riddle of the locked room which has never been satisfactorily solved. And there was the final message – which contained a grammatical error.

“Omar killed me”, seems to have written Mme Marchal in her last moments. Or, in the French original, “Omar killed me” – not “me killed”, as it should have been. The error raised very French questions about the class and the language, mainly if a woman of her rank made such an insignificant error or if on the contrary the gardener was trapped and easily condemned because he was of Arab origin.

“Today, when you are asked to give an example of wrongful conviction, people immediately mention Omar Raddad,” said Henri Leclerc, the lawyer who represented the victim’s family in the 1994 trial who condemned the gardener. “There is not much we can do today to change public opinion.”

In his first trial, Mr. Raddad was found guilty and sentenced to 18 years in prison. But after a request from King Hassan II of Morocco, whose case has been closely monitored, and a partial pardon from then-French President Jacques Chirac, Mr. Raddad was released after four years. But he was never cleared of the murder.

Today, Mr Raddad, 59, is awaiting a decision on his request for a rehearing of his trial, which was filed in June. Still tormented, he rarely leaves his home and “was no longer alive,” said Sylvie Noachovitch, who is Mr Raddad’s lawyer and said he did not wish to be questioned.

The victim’s family believe Mr. Raddad is guilty and oppose a new trial.

“It’s not an event from the past that I learned to live with,” said Sabine du Granrut, who is Ms Marchal’s niece and also a lawyer, referring to the murder of her aunt. “It’s an event that always comes back to the present.

Ms du Granrut, who said she was very close to her aunt, recalled speaking to her by phone three days before the murder. “Her voice is always in my ear,” she said.

In 1991, Mrs. Marchal, 65, lived alone in a large villa whose garden was tended by Mr. Raddad. She was born into a distinguished family of resistant parents, and her second husband is the heir to an industrial fortune.

Mr. Raddad had grown up in Morocco, could not read or write and spoke little French. He had joined his father, who had worked for years as a gardener in the same commune on the Côte d’Azur, and had a young family.

One summer evening that year, after Ms Marchal failed to show up for two dates with friends, police found her dead, with multiple bruises and cuts, in the locked basement of ‘an annex of his villa. Inside, a folding bed blocked the door with a metal tube.

“Omar killed me” was written on a door inside the locked basement. On another door was a second message – “Omar has told me” – also written in the victim’s blood. Over the years, writing experts disagreed that the posts were written by the victim.

Prosecutors and Ms Marchal’s family argued that Mr Raddad, who often played slot machines, assaulted Ms Marchal out of anger when she refused to give him an advance on her salary. After Mr Raddad escaped from the basement and locked it from the outside, they said, Ms Marchal survived long enough to identify her killer with a dying message. She barricaded the door for fear that Mr. Raddad would return, they said. And money appears to have been taken from her purse, which was found empty on her bed.

But Mr Raddad said he was innocent and had no reason to kill Ms Marchal, who had treated him well. His supporters argue that Ms Marchal’s real killer was able to prop the bed up against the door upon leaving the basement and wrote the messages to avoid detection while framing the gardener.

An empty purse was not proof of theft, they said, and no jewelry or other valuables were missing. More importantly, neither Mr. Raddad’s DNA nor his fingerprints were found at the crime scene.

In 2015, a new DNA technology made it possible to discover the traces of four unknown men on the spot. An expert for Mr Raddad later identified the presence of 35 traces of DNA from an unknown man that were mixed with the second message written in the victim’s blood, said Ms Noachovitch, lawyer for Mr. Raddad.

“This DNA must belong to the killer,” Ms. Noachovich said, arguing that it was highly unlikely to come from investigators or others who contaminated the scene.

Ms du Granrut, the victim’s niece, said she believed the evidence was treated less carefully three decades ago and that the new DNA was contamination from an unrelated source.

Immediately after Mr Raddad’s conviction in 1994, some of the themes that had been raised in the background in court came to light. His lawyer at the time, Jacques Vergès, who became famous for having embraced anti-colonial causes, spoke of the Dreyfus affair. As the Jewish officer wrongly convicted because of his religion, the gardener’s only wrong was to be Arab, the lawyer said.

Inspired by Émile Zola’s defense of Captain Dreyfus, Jean-Marie Rouart, a novelist, formed a group to support Mr. Raddad and wrote a book, “Omar, the making of a culprit”.

“The dying woman pointing at her own killer – it was like a bad Agatha Christie novel,” Rouart said.

Class tensions continued to emerge after the trial, sometimes in unexpected ways. For Mr Rouart – who was also from a prominent family and literary editor-in-chief of Le Figaro, the French conservative establishment newspaper – his plea pitted him against members of his own class.

Class, indeed, was at the heart of the debate over the grammatical error in the message allegedly left by the victim, “Omar killed me.” Correct French would not have used the infinitive “to kill”, but rather the past participle, ending with an “e” to agree with the writer, Mme Marchal.

His family’s lawyer, Mr. Leclerc, remembers learning of the murder while listening to the radio in his car.

“The reporter said a woman’s body was found in her locked basement and she left charges against her gardener – and what was strange was that there was a misspelling, ”recalls Mr. Leclerc.

This is a common mistake among school children, but would someone in their class make it?

Correct use has long been considered a privilege of the elite, said Anne Abeillé, editor of a 2,628-page French grammar book. In 1901, an attempt to simplify the spelling to make it more accessible was rejected on political grounds, she said.

“We had to prevent all these young working class people from acquiring the same mastery of the language as the elite,” said Ms. Abeillé.

For Mr. Raddad’s supporters, the mistake was proof that the message was not written by Ms. Marchal, but by someone who was trying to trick the gardener.

Ms du Granrut said her aunt, like many other women in her class and generation, was not attending college. Investigators also found other examples of his handwriting with the same past participle error.

“I am not sure that when she was writing she had all her French grammar and syntax in mind,” said Mme du Granrut.

On this point, M. Rouart, the novelist, agreed. Personalities – even members of the Académie française, the institution responsible for protecting the French language – make spelling mistakes, said Rouart, a member of the Académie since 1997.

Yet the spelling error took on a life of its own, resurfacing even decades later in book titles, newspaper headlines and social media to point out a miscarriage of justice.

This happened, according to Ms. du Granrut, in part because her family chose to remain silent about the murder. As public opinion turned against them, family members briefly discussed whether to speak up, but fell back on the discretion that was familiar to them and their social class, he said. she declared.

“And because we weren’t talking, it was getting harder and harder to talk,” said Du Granrut, who has finally given a few interviews in recent years. “I think it was too late.”


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