1977: Jerome Carrein, the second-last in France

Add comment June 23rd, 2014 Headsman

At dawn this date in 1977, child murderer Jerome Carrein was guillotined in the courtyard of Douai prison. He was the second-last person executed in France’s history.*

A vagabond ex-convict who slept most nights in the slough of rural Arleux, cadging food enough off relatives and a pitying local barkeep.


The Marsh at Arleux by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1871)

It was a more bestial appetite that saw him into the guillotine’s annals: on October 27, he pursuaded an eight-year-old schoolgirl, the daughter of his benefactor publican, to come along with him. Once he had her in the swamps, Carrein attempted to ravish little Cathy Petit. As Cathy struggled, Carrein later explained — he confessed almost immediately — “I saw red. I felt lost in the idea that she would denounce me, so I threw her in the pond.”

Her drowned corpse was discovered the next day.

The growing reluctance of the French state to slice off heads in the 1970s did not express itself in interminable wait times on death row. Carrein was condemned to death on July 12, 1976, during the run-up to Christian Ranucci‘s execution for a similar abduction/child murder.

That conviction was vacated a few months later for a trial irregularity, but the retrial took place in the wake of another high-profile trial: anti-death penalty crusader Robert Badinter had successfully defended a man named Patrick Henry from the guillotine in yet another nationally known child murder case, winning a life sentence instead. There was no small public outcry over this outcome, and Carrein’s prosecutor explicitly called on the jury in his second case to avenge with severity to Carrein the “rape of public conscience” perpetrated by leniency to Henry. (London Times, June 24, 1977)

Pierre Lefrance, speaking for Carrein’s defense, ventured his own appeal to the jurors’ wider sensibilities — in this case, of the growing likelihood that capital punishment was nearing the end of the line in France: “Were the death penalty to be abolished at last in the next year or two, would you wish that Carrein was the last man guillotined in France?”

The invaluable French-language guillotine.cultureforum.net has a forum thread on this case; be sure to note the appearance on page 3 of a poster claiming to be the daughter of Jerome Carrein’s first wife.

* It was also the first execution of France’s last official chief executioner, Marcel Chevalier.

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1977: Benigno Aquino condemned

Add comment November 25th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1977, former Philippines Senator Benigno Simeon “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr. was sentenced to death by firing squad under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.

Aquino, a lifetime politician from one of the archipelago’s powerbroking families, was one of the principal opposition figures against the increasingly autocratic Marcos. His 1968 denunciation of the “garrison state” — Marcos would quadruple the size of the military and infiltrate it widely into civil society — was one of the definitive and lasting brands upon that regime.

So nobody, not least Aquino himself,* was surprised when the outspoken senator was arrested hours after Marcos imposed martial law in September 1972.

Unlike most such political prisoners, Aquino stubbornly refused to cut any deal for amnesty that would confer any hint of submission to Marcos. Their conflict reads, on both sides, as an intensely personal one.

Placed on trial for allegedly arming a guerrilla organization, murdering a political follower, and trying to place the Philippines under (unspecified) foreign domination, Aquino staged a headline-grabbing 40-day hunger strike in 1975 and received extreme unction. The Archbishop of Manila finally talked the wasting Aquino out of letting himself starve to death, but perhaps not out of a certain thirst for martyrdom. (New York Times, Feb. 22, 1977)

“If Marcos believes I’m guilty, I want to be shot tomorrow,” he’s supposed to have exclaimed as he was led away from the tribunal that pronounced his death. (New York Times, Nov. 26, 1977)

That didn’t happen.

While Aquino’s death sentence on this date was expected, it was also generally thought that Marcos — who had allowed only one (non-political) execution during five years of martial law to that point — would spare his foe, as indeed he did. Marcos even released Aquino to travel to the U.S. for treatment after suffering two heart attacks in 1980.

Aquino had those few years to raise his profile and that of the Philippines opposition around the states. Returning to his native country on August 21, 1983, a moment when a then-ailing Marcos seemed weakened enough for a political opening, Aquino was infamously assassinated right on the tarmac as he stepped off the plane.

This event, and the two million-strong funeral march of Aquino’s bullet-riddled body to Manila’s Rizal Park, helped galvanize the country’s opposition. By 1986, popular demonstrations sent Marcos fleeing to exile … and elevated to the presidency Ninoy Aquino’s widow, Corazon.

Today, the couple adorns the Philippines’ 500-peso banknote, and their only son, Benigno Aquino III, is the country’s president. To pay him a call, just catch the next flight to Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport.


Marchers with a banner alluding to Ninoy Aquino’s assassination date pass the monument to the slain ex-senator in Makati. (cc) image from littleislanddimp

* According to In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines, Aquino was disappointed at the muted public reaction to his arrest. “I judged Marcos correctly,” he told a friend, “but I misjudged the people.”

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1977: Hu Nim, Cambodian Minister of Information

1 comment July 6th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1978, peripatetic Communist intellectual Hu Nim vanished into Khmer Rouge Cambodia’s charnel house along with 126 others at Tuol Seng.

The child of a poor peasant’s family, Nim was a gifted young state worker who studied in Paris in the 1950s, where he met several future Khmer Rouge leaders.

Nim charted an independent — some might say hypocritical — course over the next two decades, serving uneasily as a leftist parliamentarian in Prince Sihanouk‘s nationalist coalition government, fleeing ahead of a conservative purge into the bush to join Communist guerrillas, then returning once more to Sihanouk’s now-leftist Chinese-backed government-in-exile. It’s a period whose interests and alliances don’t map straightforwardly onto the familiar Cold War axis.

Hu Nim’s stature as Minister of Information in the government-in-exile transitioned directly to that same portfolio when the Khmer Rouge came to power.

Maybe those old ties to the ancien regime did him in — Vietnam, after invading Cambodia, would seize on the late minister’s reputation for independence to damn the Khmer Rouge for purging a moderate socialist — but there was no ideological talisman for safety during those terrible years. Hu Nim’s longstanding pro-Chinese position was also a dangerous association come 1977, and Phouk Chhay, a fellow officer of the Khmer-Chinese Friendship Association, was among the batch of prisoners shot along with Hu Nim this date.

Early in 1977, a massive internal purge shook the regime; as many people (some 1,500) went to Tuol Sleng from mid-February to mid-April of that year as had gone in all of 1976.* Almost every one of these humans would be, in the terrible bureaucrat-ese of the security apparatus, “smashed.”

Hu Nim was one of these, a denunciation wrung from a local commander leading to his April 10, 1977 arrest. Under repeated torture over the ensuing three months, the ex-Minister of Information would write and re-write his confession, fashioning himself “a counterfeit revolutionary, in fact … an agent of the enemy … the cheapest reactionary intellectual disguised as a revolutionary,” a stooge of the CIA since the high school, and a skeptic of the disastrous forced agricultural collectivization who had swallowed his doubts lest “I would have had my faced smashed in like Prom Sam Ar.” The confession ultimately tallied 200-plus pages. (Here’s some of it.)

Four days after his arrest, Hu Nim submitted the first of seven draft “confessions” to his interrogator, who appended a note to Deuch, saying: “We whipped him four or five times to break his stand, before taking him to be stuffed with water.” On April 22, the interrogator reported: “I have tortured him to write it again.” Five weeks later, Hu Nim was abject: “I am not a human being, I am an animal.” (Source

* Official count for all of 1977: 6,330 “anti-party” types tortured and executed at Tuol Sleng, as against “only” 2,404 in 1975-1976 combined.

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1977: Girma Kebede in the Ethiopian Red Terror

Add comment April 2nd, 2011 Headsman

There’s a reason why “may you live in interesting times” is a curse.

The eras we call a “Terror” — Stalin’s Russia, Robespierre‘s France, Pol Pot’s Cambodia — are pretty interesting.

Ethiopia in the mid-1970’s was one of the most interesting places in the world.

After the Derg, a shadowy committee of leftist officers, toppled the monarchy in 1974, factional violence between Ethiopia’s two main Marxist parties soon came to the fore.

Long story short, All-Ethiopian Socialist Movement (MEISON) backed the Derg — while its rival the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Party (EPRP) denounced it as fascistic.

And when Mengistu assumed dictatorial power in February 1977, it was Red Terror on.

It was as dirty as it sounds, “one of the most systematic uses of mass murder by the state ever witnessed in Africa” according to Human Rights Watch. This was the context of Mengistu’s most notorious public appearance, at an Addis Ababa rally later this same month of April 1977 when he theatrically smashed bottles of (apparently) blood while inciting his supporters against “enemies.”

Now that is red terror.

The Derg-MEISON alliance* built up Kebeles, small neighborhood militias — “essentially a matter of arming the lumpenproletariat against members of the urban intelligentsia,” writes Christopher Clapham.

But even these MEISON-allied goon squads were liable to run afoul of revolutionary justice if their indiscriminate mayhem failed to discriminate at the most essential moment.

On two occasions, March and again in May 1977, house-to-house searches were carried out in Addis Ababa, and suspected EPRP members rounded up for execution. Attempts by the EPRP to launch a school strike were likewise countered by the execution of students who failed to attend classes. The press regularly reported the execution of ‘anarchists’ and ‘paid assassins’. Along with the conflict between the rival political factions went the settling of personal scores, and gratuitous killings by psychotics on either side. The most notorious of these, Girma Kebede, was a Meison kebelle chairman in the Arat Kilo area of Addis Ababa, and the well-educated son of a former high official; he overreached himself by taking away for execution a group of ‘reactionaries’ from the Ministry of Education who included Mengistu’s uncle, and was then shot on the charge of seeking ‘to alienate the people from the Government and incite the broad masses against the revolution’.

On this date in 1977, Girma Kebede paid the forfeit. His, er, strategy of killing scores of humans to alienate the people from the government would take many more years and bodies to succeed.

* Later that year, the Derg-MEISON alliance also fell apart, Mengistu cemented his power, and MEISON got the same treatment it had once meted out to its EPRP enemies.

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1977: Larry Tacklyn and Erskine Burrows, for the murder of Richard Sharples

Add comment December 2nd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1977, Black Berets Larry Tackly and Erskine “Buck” Burrows were hanged in Bermuda for assassinating the islands’ police chief and governor.

“During the 1970s, a black power organization in Bermuda conspired to bring about social change ‘by any means necessary,’ including assassination. This is the first full account of the murders and the Black Beret Cadre, the revolutionary group whose activities resulted in mayhem throughout the island.”
-Book’s advance publicity

A revolutionary black nationalist organization, the Black Beret cadre took its name from that Che Guevara photograph and its model from the Black Panthers.

The cadres’ agenda for early-1970s Bermuda

was ‘freedom by any means necessary’ which included assassination. Taking their cue from the Black Panthers, whose primary aim was to bait the ‘racist cops’, the Black Berets exhorted its members and all Bermudian youth to confront the ‘English racist police’ as frequently as possible and prepare for the coming conflict between blacks and whites …

Its purpose was to indoctrinate young black Bermudians in communist revolution and the ideology of Black Power.

Cadres Tacklyn and Burrows were one part liberators of their oppressed brothers, one part common criminals.

In 1972, they gunned down white police commissioner (a veteran of Britain’s colonies) George Duckett; in 1973, they ambushed governor (and former Tory M.P.) Richard Sharples and slew him, along with his aide-de-camp.

Neither perp was apprehended, which meant they went on to kill a couple of supermarket executives before someone I.D.’d Tacklyn. Burrows stayed on the lam long enough to rob a bank of $28,000.

The trials were a sensation — apt for the involvement of sensational Bermudian lawyer and politician Julian Hall — with Burrows convicted all around. He openly avowed the political murders.

Erskine Burrows

The motive for killing the Governor (his ADC was not our objective, he was shot only because he happened to be with the Governor at the time) was to seek to make the people, black people in particular, become aware of the evilness and wickedness of the colonialist system in the Island of Bermuda.

Secondly, the motive was to show that these colonialists were just ordinary people like ourselves who eat, sleep and die just like anybody else and that we need not stand in fear or awe of them.

Finally, the motive was to reveal to black people unto themselves.

This refers to the revealed reactions of many black people during the Governor’s funeral, when black people were seen to be standing with tears in their eyes, crying for a man who when he was alive didn’t care if they lived or died and here they were crying for a white Governor and yet when many of their own people pass away there is sometimes hardly a tear shed for them.

This shows clearly the evil effects that the colonialist propaganda has had over the long years they have ruled over this little Island.

Tacklyn managed to win acquittals over Duckett and Sharples but was condemned for killing the grocers. With “only” the two murder raps, Tacklyn’s appeals against execution might have stood a chance in other circumstances. But his affiliation with Burrows, who so openly avowed the other crimes and declined to mitigate them in court, “hung like an albatross around Tacklyn’s neck.”

That wasn’t the only thing that was hanging.

Massive riots rocked Bermuda after it became known that eleventh-hour clemency bids were rejected; “Fires erupted across Bermuda,” Reuters report, “causing millions of dollars in damage as a dusk-to-dawn curfew failed to halt the racial violence.” (Per Chicago Tribune, Dec. 3, 1977) British troops were deployed to help quell the riots.

Tacklyn and Burrows were the first people executed in Bermuda in 34 years, and remain the last executed there to this date.

Because all Britain’s overseas territories in the Caribbean subsequently abolished the death penalty (Bermuda in a contentious 1999 parliamentary dispute decided by a single tiebreaking vote), Tacklyn and Burrows also hold the distinction of being the last people put to death anywhere under British law. (As distinct from the last executed in Britain.)

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1977: Atnafu Abate, Mengistu’s last rival

Add comment November 12th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1977,* Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam eliminated one of his last political rivals with the execution of Atnafu Abate.

The men’s relationship had long been complex and unclear; Abate backed the Derg’s “Black Saturday” mass executions in 1974, and sometimes lined up as Mengistu’s ally over the succeeding years as part of the Derg military junta.

At the same time, there were rumors that things between Mengistu and Atnafu were so tense that they pulled guns at meetings.

Atnafu’s absence (by accident or design) during an early 1977 purge within the Derg left the conservative and Orthodox Atnafu officially second-in-command, and unofficially the last real or potential rival to Mengistu.

His elimination was widely expected, though exactly why it went down, when it went down has never been transparent. Mengistu’s grip on the country was already secure enough to have launched the Red Terror.

The New York Times‘ Nov. 15 report of this development captures a bit of the Alice-in-Wonderland political logic evidently at work.

The Ethiopian press agency, which made the announcement, also released what amounted to a six-page indictment listing “twelve specific antirevolutionary crimes,” and “five specific arch-reactionary stands” attributed to Colonel Atnafu, who had served as vice chairman of the provisional military administrative council.

The statement charged Colonel Atnafu with opposing “proclamations intensifying the revolution,” manifesting “a feudal arrogance while on visits to various provinces,” and consorting after working hours with what the statement called riff-raff of the aristocracy and military bourgeois, as well as “extremely dangerous imperialist agents — especially CIA agents.”

The statement also charged that “he had repeatedly confessed at meetings that he did not believe in the ideology of the working class.”

But perhaps the section of the statement that most accurately reflects the bewildering tone of political rhetoric and chaos in Addis Ababa, was one that charged that the proof of Colonel Atnafu’s “reactionary stands” was his placing of Ethiopian national interests before ideological considerations.

“At this time,” said the document, “when workers, farmers, the men in uniform and all the toiling masses are intensifying the revolutionary struggle guided by the principles of Marxism-Leninism, Lieut. Col. Atnafu has been antagonistic to the idea and has instead by way of dilatory tactic, argued that the interest of Ethiopia should be put before ideology.”

* As reported by the London Times gloss (articles Nov. 14 and Nov. 15) of a state radio report given in Ethiopia on Nov. 13. “A revolutionary measure” was the official euphemism for the action taken against Atnafu Abate.

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1977: 178 enemies of the people

1 comment July 23rd, 2009 Headsman

A final example of the S-21 archives discovered by the Documentation Center is more mundane, yet poignant and telling. This particular document is of a type we refer to as an “execution log,” a daily record of executions at a given security center, in this case, at Tuol Sleng itself. Dated July 23, 1977, it is signed You Huy (a chief of guards) and authorized by Hor, the deputy director of S-21. The typewritten form lists biographical details on eighteen prisoners executed that day and, almost as an afterthought, in Huy’s handwriting a note at the bottom adds, “Also killed 160 children today for a total of 178 enemies killed.” This chilling glimpse into the Khmer Rouge internal security services is but a tiny example of the tens of thousands of documents discovered by the Documentation Center of Cambodia.

The “You Huy” named in Craig Etcheson’s After the Killing Fields: Lessons from the Cambodian Genocide is this man, Him Huy:

Huy survived his stint as a guard at the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, which was no mean feat: guards were routinely arrested and executed themselves. (Of course, prisoners had it worse.)

Now a 54-year-old farmer, Huy has been a spellbinding presence at and outside of Cambodia’s ongoing-as-of-this-writing “mixed tribunal”, reckoning with the horrors of the Khmer Rouge.

Like the method of execution.

All prisoners were blindfolded so they did not know where they were taken and their hands were tied up to prevent them from contesting us …

They were asked to sit on the edge of the pits and they were struck with stick on their necks …

Their throats were slashed before we removed their handcuffs and clothes, and they were thrown into the pits.

Him Huy has argued that guards like him “were victims too”. At least some victims and outside observers view him as a man more important to the killing process than Huy makes himself out to be.

Both accounts, though, could be true simultaneously: everyone in Cambodia was in danger of being purged, and guards at Tuol Sleng could find themselves inmates for the slightest derelictions of duty or enthusiasm. From April 17, 1975, Cambodia fell into madness.

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1977: Princess Misha’al bint Fahd al Saud and her lover

8 comments July 15th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1977, a 19-year-old royal adulteress and her paramour were executed in a Jeddah parking lot by the order of the girl’s powerful grandfather.

Princess Misha’al‘s fate has been obscured by secrecy and the Rashomon-like interpretations imposed upon it by observers.

In its outline (and the first stock interpretation we’re imposing) it’s that timeless human tragedy, the love story, in which headstrong royal daughter and suffocating traditional family square off over the seditious power of the feminine libido.

The princess, in a youthful arranged marriage by most accounts, took up with a Saudi boy while both were studying abroad in cosmopolitan Beirut, and dangerously attempted to maintain the affair back in the royal kingdom to the point of a quixotic (and obviously foiled) escape attempt. Whether under color of a judicial proceeding — the story says Misha’al refused to walk away by simply renouncing her lover and defiantly brought down the death sentence by confessing adultery — or simply on his own authority, the girl’s staunchly conservative* grandfather exercised his right as tribal patriarch to inflict an honor killing for the disgrace they had brought on the family.

The execution in Jeddah — she by gunshot,** he by a very clumsy beheading — that is supposed to have occurred on this date was public, but quiet; news of it got abroad only slowly and incompletely. Small wonder that, once it did, the blended motifs of Romeo and Juliet, harem titillation and oil politics made dynamite material for high-, middle- or lowbrow exploitation.

In 1980, the affair became the subject of one of the most notorious television programs ever aired, the docudrama Death of a Princess. This film’s airing in Britain in 1980 led Riyadh to expel the British ambassador, and cost £200 million of lost revenue for the UK from canceled orders and product boycotts by the Saudis.†

It was aired on in the United States on PBS in 1980 to similar controversy, as oil companies rushed to distance themselves from it.

Rebroadcast in 2005, Death of a Princess is available online for your judgment (as is this partial script): is this a muckraking expose of a shameful crime? orientalist heavy petting? “a sensitive and thoughtful exploration of the Arab dilemma,” as per its own advance publicity? and what did the official apologies (and in only a few countries, censorship) say about the political weight of the petroleum industry?

These, meanwhile, are the western reactions, already removed from events by a further layer of mediation, a forest of axes seeking grinding. If the writer who composed this piece is to be believed, the executed girl has posthumously achieved a sort of universal symbolic gravity in the Arab world, standing for the plight of any hopeless cause of justice dashed against authoritarian power.

* For the House of Saud, it must be recalled, the personal was political in the problematic confrontation between tradition and modernity athwart the desert kingdom’s sea of oil.

** “Princess Misha’al” was executed fully veiled, which permits the rumor that the slain woman was actually a surrogate and the onetime royal favorite lives on incognito somewhere.

† According to the July 4, 1980 London Times.

Part of the Themed Set: The Feminine Mystique.

Editor’s note: References to “Princess Misha” corrected; thanks to hannah for the clarification.

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1977: Hamida Djandoubi, Madame Guillotine’s last kiss

17 comments September 10th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1977, the guillotine claimed its last head.

The famous and infamous blade dropped for the last time at Les Baumettes prison in Marseilles on Hamida Djandoubi, a Tunisian immigrant convicted of the torture-murder of the naive young girlfriend he had forced into prostitution. Oddly, he had already had another appendage — a leg — amputated as a result of a work accident; it was while recuperating that he caught the fascination of his hospital roommate’s 19-year-old daughter, Elisabeth Bousquet.

Though the death penalty was grinding to a halt in 1970’s France, Djandoubi was not the last person condemned (the link is French); the guillotine was only abolished with the election of the Francois Mitterand government in 1981.

Today, Executed Today discusses the case with the man who wrote the book on Djandoubi:* expat Canadian writer Jeremy Mercer. Be sure to check his photo series on the Djandoubi case — including discomfiting shots of Djandoubi re-enacting his crime with a police secretary playing the victim, and the killer in happier times.

ET: Thanks for joining us.

JM: Thanks for the opportunity to speak with Executed Today. I moved to Marseille in 2003 and shortly after I stumbled upon the rather arcane fact that the last man guillotined in France was executed at the local prison on September 10, 1977. I thought it was interesting angle on capital punishment and I decided to try and write a book that mixed true crime and death penalty philosophy. As a result, I’ve been immersed in the death penalty debate for the better part of five years.

Let’s start with Hamida Djandoubi himself — 31 years on, he looks like a nasty but fairly run-of-the-mill criminal. Was it strictly coincidental that he became the last man executed?

It was absolutely random fate. It was really odd – during the 1970s, the death penalty debate was raging in France and most capital cases became national news. But the Djandoubi case went completely under the radar, partly because his lawyer didn’t drum up any attention and partly because his victim was a presumed prostitute and the media prefers ‘sexier’ victims – the elderly, little children, a dentist of good standing walking her dog at night.

Even odder, if you surveyed most French people today, they would tell you that Christian Ranucci was the last man guillotined. Ranucci was a young white man who was accused of killing a little girl. He claimed his innocence, but was nonetheless executed in June 1976 (14 months before Djandoubi). Afterward, a best-selling book and major film were released that argued Ranucci was innocent so his name really sticks in the minds of the French.

Obviously, there’s plenty of tension with North African communities in France still today. Djandoubi was Tunisian, and he was convicted of murdering a white woman. How significant was racial marking in the way his case was handled, inside the courts and out?

This is really curious. In the 1960s and 1970s, the French courts were tainted by racism and one of the national papers even ran an editorial saying that it is better to be named “Marius than Mohamed” when appearing before a French judge. But, in this case, it was Djandoubi’s own lawyer who was a member of a far-right party and staunchly anti-Arab so his case was undermined even before it went to court.

It is one of those frustrating moments. You assume that a death penalty case is of such importance that top professionals are involved. Instead, Djandoubi chose the civil lawyer who negotiated his accident benefits after he had an accident at work and ended up with a very poor defence.

As I said above, his murder victim had worked as a prostitute, which diminished some of the public outrage. As well, his three rape victims were all Algerian girls aged 14 – 16. I guarantee you the case would have been much more explosive if those three girls had been white.

Your book is partly about Djandoubi himself, and partly about the history of the death penalty and especially the guillotine in France. How had the guillotine shifted in France’s identity by the time of this execution?

At first, when the guillotine was introduced, it was public sensation and executioners became celebrities with special edition postcards in their honour and fan mail and all that. As late as the 1860s, tour groups like Thomas Cook were actually organizing execution trips so English tourists could see the guillotine at work. But, bit by bit, the French became a little embarrassed by the fame of the machine. First, they removed the scaffolding that raised the guillotine above the crowds so that it would be brought down to earth and spectators’ views would be impaired; then, they stopped holding executions in the afternoon and held them at the less fan-friendly time of dawn; then, instead of guillotining people right downtown, they did it outside a prison in an obscure neighborhood at the edge of Paris; and, finally, in the 1930s they moved the guillotine inside the prison walls and it was no longer a public event. By the 1970s, the guillotine held such a low profile that many people thought it was defunct and that the French government was using the electric chair.

Interestingly enough, the fall from glory of the guillotine mirrors the general attitude toward capital punishment. By the late 1800s, many countries were already abolishing the death penalty and by the 1970s France was the last country in Western Europe to resort to capital punishment. In the end, the guillotine became the country’s dirty little secret that they kept hidden in their closet.

What are the bits of guillotine folklore you found most interesting?

The most popular stories involve the life in the head after it is severed from the body. It all began with the guillotining of Charlotte Corday, who had stabbed Jean-Paul Marat to death as he soaked in his bathtub. After she was guillotined, the executioner held her head up to the crowd and slapped her on the cheek. But, according to newspaper accounts, both cheeks reddened, as if Corday was indignant by this treatment. Suddenly, everyone began to wonder what a severed head can feel or think.

This curiosity became even more intense a few weeks later when the chief executioner, Charles Henri Sanson, guillotined two political rivals one after the other. He told friends that when he looked in the basket where he kept the heads, one politician’s head was biting the other politician’s head!

So, all this got the scientists really excited and the experiments began. One doctor, Dassy de Ligières, was allowed to take a head back to his laboratory where he connected it to a living dog and pumped blood back into it. He kept hoping the head would speak, but alas, no.

The definitive experiment was conducted in 1905 when Dr. Beaurieux was given permission to wait beside the guillotine and examine the head the moment it was cut. Dr. Beaurieux interviewed the condemned man in prison and came up with a pre-arranged set of signals. The day of the execution, the doctor had incredible luck –the head did a little twist when falling and landed on the stump, slowing the loss of blood. Dr. Beaurieux then called the man’s name three times. At 5 seconds, the man was able to look at the doctor and his recognize him; at 15 seconds, the man was able to look at the doctor but his eyes were unfocussed; and at 25 seconds, the man could barely glance at the doctor. So, to the best of our knowledge, a guillotined head maintains some level of consciousness for more than 20 seconds.

You’re working with Robert Badinter — tell us about him, and his upcoming tour in the U.S.

Robert Badinter is simply the greatest man I’ve ever had the honor of working with. He became a dedicated abolitionist after one of his clients was unjustly guillotined in 1972 and dedicated the next decade of his life to fighting the death penalty. In the end, he saved six lives and ultimately wrote the legislation that abolished the death penalty in 1981 when François Mitterrand named him Minister of Justice.

I interviewed Badinter for my own book in 2005 and he asked me if I could look into translating one of his books into English. When I had time in 2007, I set about the task and now Abolition has been released by Northeastern University Press.

Badinter’s Abolition, in French and in Mercer’s translation

To mark the book’s release, Badinter will be holding three conferences in America on the death penalty and strategies to abolish it:

Why, in your judgment, did France abolish the death penalty? And even before abolition, why did its use abate so dramatically in the postwar era?

For many people, it was a tremendous humiliation for France, the birthplace of human rights and the Enlightenment, to be the last country in Western Europe to use the death penalty. The abolition movement began when “>Portugal abolished the death penalty for common crimes in 1867 and by the late 1970s, nobody was using it in Europe. Even in Spain, one of the first things they did after the death of Franco was abolish the death penalty.

So, the use of the guillotine simply had to abate because the world was becoming aware that the death penalty is a flawed punishment: the risk of executing innocents, the cost of capital trials, the predominance of poor and minorities on death row, the lack of deterrence value. But, as long as there was a right-wing government in power in France, they couldn’t abolish the death penalty because they wanted to appear tough on crime and polls showed a majority of the French people wanted to keep the guillotine.

Once Mitterrand and the Socialists were elected in May 1981, it was clear the death penalty would be abolished, and sure enough, five months later it was gone

Where do you think the death penalty is going in America? And can one really think of worldwide abolition as a legitimate possibility?

I am absolutely convinced we will see almost worldwide abolition by 2050. There will always be a few rogue states, but the death penalty is such an obviously flawed form of punishment it will inevitably be eliminated.

In terms of America, Badinter and I have discussed it at length. He believes the country is ready for abolition and that all is needed is one trigger case: a middle class white guy with a reasonable claim to innocence who is about to executed. This would really instigate a debate on the penalty and as soon as you bring in all stats – the 130 plus people who have been exonerated while on death row, the work of the Innocence Project, the race bias, the cost of capital trials, the overworked public defenders etc etc – I think it would be a slam dunk.

Personally, I think people are selling the abolition the wrong way. Every time I meet a die-hard death penalty supporter who wants a serial killer or a child rapist killed, I ask him or her “Why are you so merciful?” Because, I honestly believe life in prison is a far worse punishment than being executed.

* Here’s a review of Mercer’s book.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Interviews,Milestones,Murder,Other Voices,Racial and Ethnic Minorities

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1977: Alphonse Massamba-Débat, Congolese Communist

Add comment March 25th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1977, the former president of the Congo, Alphonse Massamba-Debat, was summarily shot after his successor was assassinated.

A teacher by training and a member of the country’s powerful namesake tribe, Massamba-Debat (the link is to his French wikipedia page, which has considerably more information than the English entry) was a government minister who took power in a 1963 military coup that overthrew the former French territory’s first post-colonial government.

In a revolutionary age, Massamba-Debat swung with a Marxist-Leninist ideology. He ran a one-party state — winning a post-coup 1963 election by the comfortable margin of 100-0 — and met with Che Guevara during the latter’s African mission, while also setting up the first stirrings of industrialization.

The mix of true belief and opportunism in that formula is anyone’s guess; the brutality of his militias steadily eroded his “unanimous” popular support, and in 1968 he was toppled by another leftist, Marien Ngouabi.

That marked the end of Massamba-Debat’s meaningful political career.

Oddly, he was tried immediately after his overthrow for some of his regime’s notable political murders, but was acquitted and allowed to retire to his village: the new government plainly didn’t consider him much of a threat.

But when Ngouabi was assassinated in his turn on March 18, 1977 — for causes that remain unclear but that may have had to do with French energy interests in the region — the army seized control and purged numerous officials for supposed participation in the plot. Massamba-Debat, notwithstanding a dearth of evidence actually implicating him, was by virtue of being an overthrown former ruler far enough under the shadow of official distrust to find his name on that deadly list.

Massamba-Debat was officially rehabilitated in 1991, and is now far enough clear from the taint of treachery against his still-popular successor to have a stadium named after him. (the link is in French)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Congo (Brazzaville),Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Politicians,Posthumous Exonerations,Shot,Summary Executions,Treason

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