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March 29, 2009
Wrongly accused? Omar Raddad stands outside the courthouse.
French justice can be quite curious. After being pardoned but not exonerated in the murder of his employer, Omar Raddad risked being re-imprisoned by asking for a new trial to clear his name.
Wealthy widow Ghislaine Marchal, 65, lived alone in a luxury villa in the affluent village of Mougins, near Cannes on the French Riviera. On the morning of Sunday, June 23, 1991, she was relaxing beside her pool doing a crossword puzzle, her favourite pastime, when her friends and neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Koster called over the fence to invite her to lunch. She readily accepted.
At 1:30 p.m. Mrs. Koster, anxious that her friend had not yet arrived for the meal, telephoned but there was no reply. She was puzzled, but presumed that something had happened to prevent her from showing up.
Something had happened. The following day, June 24, Mrs. Marchal was found stabbed to death in the basement of her house. Written in blood on the inside of the door was the incriminating message Omar m'a tuer (Omar killed me).
Police immediately arrested Omar Raddad, 28, a gardener who worked part-time for Mrs. Marchal. Although he consistently denied killing his employer, he was charged and three years later, February 2, 1994, found guilty of the murder and sentenced to 18 years' imprisonment.
A fairly straightforward case you might think. So did the police.
The cause of death was multiple stab-wounds –18 in all – to the chest and abdomen. The medical examiner estimated that it had taken the injured woman between 15 and 30 minutes to die after the initial assault. The time of death was not difficult to establish as Mrs. Marchal had telephoned a friend at 11:48 a.m. on that fateful Sunday but had failed to arrive at the Kosters' at 1 p.m.
According to the police who found the body, the door to the basement – the only means of entry or exit – had been barricaded by a collapsible bed and an iron bar, apparently placed there by the murdered woman to prevent the return of her assailant.
On the inside of the door was the message Omar m'a tuer – Omar killed me – traced with a finger in the victim's blood, and further away the same message again, incomplete this time and scarcely legible: Omar m'a t... There was also a bloody hand-print. The blood was later confirmed to be Mrs. Marchal's.
After having written this accusation, Mrs. Marchal must have crawled back to the other side of the room, yet although she was bleeding copiously from her wounds there was no trace of blood on the floor between the door and the spot where she was found.
The murder weapon – probably a long kitchen knife – was never found, but investigators did find lying on the floor a length of wood bearing strands of the victim's hair.
The police decided that it had been the victim herself who had barricaded the door: there was no other way anyone could leave the room, therefore the murderer could not have put it in place and then opened the door to leave. Yet police officers had managed to break into the basement without much trouble and all they could be certain of was that a metal bedstead and an iron bar had fallen as they burst in.
Therefore there could be no sure way of telling exactly how the obstruction had been placed – or indeed if it had been put there deliberately or merely fallen when the assailant left the basement and slammed the door. Apart from housing the central-heating boiler, the place appeared to have also been used as a junk room.
Omar Raddad's fingerprints were not found anywhere in the basement and although he would normally have been tending Mrs. Marchal's garden on a Sunday he had changed his schedule for that weekend and was in fact working in a neighbor's garden that day, Mrs. Pascal's.
Unfortunately for him, he had no certain alibi for the time of the murder. His claim was that, like nearly all French people, he was at home taking his lunch but no one apart from his family could vouch for that, and of course nowhere in the world do police place much credence on alibis provided by close relatives.
He was charged with first-degree murder on June 27 and held in detention pending trial at Grasse prison. The case was to become a national issue, a cause célèbre for those who saw Omar as a victim of racial prejudice and a lucrative headliner for the popular press, who contrived to divide the country in two camps, pro-and-anti-Omar.
|Maître Jacques Vergès|
After two and a half years' detention, Omar Raddad was sent for trial in January of 1994. As befitted a front-page drama, the supporting cast was impressive. Appearing for the victim's family* was Maître Georges Kiejman, a former government minister and also the attorney for the family of President Mitterrand. Defending Omar was Maître Jacques Vergès, champion of lost causes, formerly attorney for such disparate characters as Algerian anti-colonialist rebel Djamila Bouhired ('La Passionara'), international terrorist Carlos and Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie.
[ * Under French criminal law, in addition to the prosecution and the defense, there is provision for a Partie Civile (public plaintiff) allowing other interested parties such as relatives of the victim to have access to documents cited as evidence, the right to put their point of view and to cross-examine witnesses.]
The motive, according to the prosecution case, was money. They surmised that Raddad had demanded an advance of salary from Mrs. Marchal and had been refused. This, they said, led to an argument which got out of control and Raddad, in his anger, had hit his employer over the head with a piece of wood and then repeatedly stabbed her.
According to them, Raddad was a fainéant (loafer) who was short of money owing to gambling debts. They also claimed that he would consort with prostitutes but couldn't afford to do it on his meager pay.
Omar Raddad was Moroccan, having come to France with his family eight years earlier. He was illiterate and still had difficulty mastering the French language. Could the frustration of not being able to adequately explain himself to a domineering white woman have driven him to such a frenzied attack? A woman who, according to him, had always treated him so kindly?
The use of a knife presupposed malice aforethought, in other words it was maintained he had already planned to kill her. But where was the knife, and to whom had it belonged?
And what had Mrs. Marchal been doing in the basement in the first place? Certainly not to attend to the oil-fired boiler which ran her central heating – it was the middle of summer. The only possible explanation, according to Maître Kiejman, was that she had gone down to make adjustments to the filtration system of her swimming pool.
But nobody could be sure whether she had gone there of her own volition or had been lured there, or even forced there at knifepoint.
It was further alleged that Raddad had deliberately changed his work schedule that weekend solely to provide himself with an alibi: by working on Mrs. Pascal's garden rather than Mrs. Marchal's he could claim that he wasn't at the scene of the crime.
Although the prosecution wished to present Raddad as a potential killer, he had no police record and no hard evidence was produced to substantiate any of these allegations. Nobody heard an argument or saw Omar in the vicinity. No bloodstained clothing belonging to him was ever found.
On the other hand, character witnesses called by the defense affirmed that he was a quiet, polite, laid-back kind of guy.
The weak point in the prosecution's case was the inscription in blood, 'Omar m'a tuer'. What would not be apparent to a foreigner – but glaringly obvious to most French speakers – was that this phrase is ungrammatical.
The word 'tuer' is the infinitive form of the verb (meaning literally 'to kill') whereas the writer should have used the past participle, 'Omar m'a tué'. In speech the difference would not be noticeable since 'tuer' and 'tué' are pronounced the same way (i.e. tyoo-ay.)
It is the sort of error that a semi-literate person or a foreigner might make, but Mrs. Marchal, an educated woman, would never have committed such a blunder. Omar Raddad could not have written it himself, even as a double-bluff, since he was illiterate.
Another clue ignored by the investigators was the use of capital letters. Educated people write in cursive script; writing in upper-case letters is a sign of the untutored hand.
And why would a woman dying in agony bother to write her accusation twice?And why write "Omar killed me" when she wasn't yet dead and perhaps not even certain of dying? Wouldn't 'Omar did it' have been shorter and more to the point?
The second, unfinished inscription was faint, suggesting that the writer was running out of blood on his or her finger. Had Mrs. Marchal been the author she would have had more than enough blood on her hands from clutching at her painful wounds.
Despite these doubts, two handwriting experts said they were "80 percent sure" that it was in fact Mrs. Marchal's writing.
At this time graphology was not considered an exact science (although some universities nowadays do offer degree courses in handwriting analysis) and the "experts" were self-proclaimed; all one needed in order to be consulted in such cases was to apply to the police have one's name enrolled on a list of authorized graphologists.
But are we really dealing with "handwriting" here? The expertise claimed by graphologists usually concerns such things as the shape of loops or variations of pressure in upward or downward strokes of a pen or pencil on paper. Writing in capitals with a finger on a hard surface cannot reveal the same characteristics of what we normally consider as handwriting.
Nobody seems to have questioned the significance of the bloody handprint. If it had been made by Mrs. Marchal in trying to steady herself while writing the message then surely it would have shown some smearing but it was a clear print, as though someone had deliberately left what they wanted to appear as a clue. It seems melodramatic and overdoing things, yet it was tacitly accepted by the prosecution as genuine and ignored by the defense.
Unfortunately for Omar the jury disregarded these inconvenient arguments and believed the experts and he was led away to serve his 18-year sentence.
Raddad's attorney immediately applied to have the conviction quashed by the Court de Cassation (Supreme Court) on the grounds that the evidence against Omar was unsound but on March 9, 1995 the state attorney ruled that the petition was inadmissible in the absence of any new circumstances having come to light.
In both France and Morocco public feeling ran high against what was generally considered a miscarriage of justice. The essential question was not if Raddad was guilty or innocent, but whether he should have been convicted on such inconclusive evidence.
Things came to a head when during a state visit to Morocco in 1998 President Jacques Chirac found himself under pressure from King Hassan, who had taken a personal interest in the case, to intercede on Omar's behalf. The upshot was that on his return to France Chirac granted Omar a presidential pardon.
This was a clumsy compromise, since a pardon is not the same thing as being cleared and the conviction for murder remained valid. After seven years in jail, Omar Raddad was released, a free man but still a guilty one in the eyes of the law.
One of the conditions of his release was that he should have a job to go to, a requirement not easy to arrange when one is in jail. Fortunately a sympathetic halal butcher in Marseille offered him work in his warehouse.
Determined to have his name cleared, Omar Raddad applied in January of 1999 to have the conviction quashed, with the obvious danger that a second hearing might also go against him. Justice could not try him again for same offense unless he himself requested it. He was therefore engaging upon a risky ploy. Is it likely that he would have accepted this risk were he guilty?
The stumbling block was that the defense had to provide new evidence acceptable to the court to convince them that the earlier verdict was unsound. In other words, thepresumption of innocence no longer applied.
To this end, defense attorney Jacques Vergès had called in two new graphologists. Unlike the earlier experts, who tried to compare the bloody inscription with samples of Mrs. Marchal's handwriting taken from her correspondence, they looked at some of her completed crossword puzzles. In such puzzles, the convention is that one enters the answers onto the grid in capital letters. At last, therefore, the comparison was meaningful.
The two graphologists submitted a 150-page report concluding that Mrs. Marchal had not written that fateful accusation Omar m'a tuer. Despite the doubt now cast on earlier claims, this report was rejected by the authorities on the grounds that one of the authors was not on the official list of approved experts.
Another fact in the defense's favor was the advances that had been made in DNA analysis in criminal cases. Early in 2001 police agreed to carry out DNA tests on Mrs. Marchal's blood, on the incriminating door and on the piece of wood used to batter her.
They discovered traces of male DNA mingled with the victim's blood in the handprint on the door and elsewhere in the boiler-room – but none of it matched Omar's. Thus he had not handled the piece of wood used to bludgeon Mrs. Marchal nor had he touched the door, the only means of exit. It seemed clear therefore that Omar had never entered the basement at any time.
There was now a strong suspicion that the DNA discovered by the police belonged to Mrs. Marchal's slayer, and that he was not Omar Raddad.
The defense also demonstrated that it was possible to erect a barricade by placing the bedstead in such a way that it would slide into position if the door were closed carefully, so it was far from certain that Mrs. Marchal had put it there herself.
Maître Vergès also managed to lay his hands on an autopsy report, which had not been made available to the defense during the trial, in which the medical examiner had erroneously marked Mrs. Marchal's date of death as July 24 (it was June 24) and this document had been counter-signed by two doctors.
This did not prove Raddad's innocence but it constituted a vice de forme (error in procedure) which, had he known of its existence during the trial, would have given Vergès the opportunity to apply for the proceedings to be invalidated.
There was also the question as to why Mrs. Marchal's family had been given permission – before the investigation was complete – to have her body cremated, meaning that there could be no re-examination of the corpse. What made this even stranger was the fact that the murdered woman had already bought her own tomb and had therefore anticipated a conventional burial.
None of these arguments convinced the panel of judges appointed to consider Raddad's application for a retrial and they rejected his petition, deeming that the new evidence did not constitute sufficient reason to throw doubt on the original conviction.
Omar's attorney must take part of the blame for this extraordinary ruling. If he had been content to rely on the DNA evidence alone perhaps the judges might have been convinced but, carried away by his own rhetoric, he introduced some rather far-fetched claims, such as the rumor that another man called Omar (who had a criminal record) had been in the area at the time of the murder. This uncorroborated evidence merely strengthened the idea that 'Omar m'a tuer' was a valid accusation, a fact that harmed rather than helped the defense case.
Vergès asserted that Mrs. Marchal's part-time housekeeper was a violent man known as "Mad Pete" who had more of the profile of a deranged murderer than Omar Raddad.
Vergès also hinted that relations between Mrs. Marchal and her children were strained and that the latter had employed a Swiss hit-man to kill their mother and frame Omar in order to get their hands on her money.
In short, he would have done far better to have concentrated on Omar's innocence rather than insinuate that the guilt lay elsewhere.
Omar is still campaigning to clear his name but finds himself in a Catch-22 situation. It has been demonstrated that the prosecution case was flawed, leaving "reasonable doubt" which should have been enough on its own to escape conviction, and the DNA analysis done eight years ago by the police seems to rule out Omar as the killer. However, since these considerations were deemed inadmissible when his original appeal was rejected, Omar now has to present further evidence to show that the initial conviction was unsound.
The prosecution does not have to justify its case. Omar Raddad cannot now argue that an educated woman would not have committed a grammatical error, or that the DNA findings indicate that he was not in the basement at the time of the murder or on any other occasion.
He cannot ask why a woman suffering from 18 stab-wounds managed to crawl across the basement to write a message in her own blood and then crawl back to die without leaving a trail of blood on the floor.
He can no longer defend himself from the speculation that he did it for money. He cannot present the logical line of reasoning that if that had been the case he had ample opportunity after killing his employer to steal money or valuables from the house, yet there were no signs of a break-in or of anything missing.
None of these arguments are admissible in his defense since they were either presented at the original hearing or rejected during his application for a retrial.
Over ten years after his liberation, Omar – now 46 years old – continues to claim his innocence. In his simple words, "I am not asking for much, merely a new trial." In the eyes of French justice this apparently seems far too much.
Ironically, what has kept the case in the public eye is not the injustice of Omar's plight but that famous grammatical error. Even today, 18 years after the murder, one can still on TV news broadcasts banners waved during demonstrations by striking workers or protesting students bearing inscriptions such as 'Sarkozy m'a tuer'.
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