Tag Archives: christian ranucci

1977: Jerome Carrein, the second-last in France

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.

1976: Christian Ranucci, never yet rehabilitated

On this date in 1976, Christian Ranucci, 22, was guillotined in Marseilles … with the last words addressed to his attorneys, “RĂ©habilitez-moi”.

If that has not yet occurred, it has not been for want of trying.

Many people think Ranucci was the last person executed by France; in fact, this is not correct. But the confusion is understandable: Ranucci has persisted in the headlines and the public imagination owing to a running controversy over whether he was wrongly convicted. It’s a vexing case rife with ambiguous circumstantial evidence, and observers are usually able to see in it what they want to see.

On June 3, 1974, two incidents — a minor traffic accident, and the request by a young man of a local mushroomer to help his car out of a muddy gallery where it was stuck — placed a gray Peugeot 304 at La Pomme, outside Marseilles. This also happened to be the date that 8-year-old Maria-Dolores Rambla was abducted from St. Agnes by an unknown man in a red sweater reportedly driving a gray Simca 1100, a vehicle that would be possible to mix up with the Peugeot 304.

When news of the abduction broke on the radio the morning of June 4, the people who saw the Peugeot(s) later called it in as a tip.

Police got to the bespectacled young Ranucci (English Wikipedia entry | French; most of the links from here on out are French) via the accident. His car didn’t stop for the other motorist, but limped on down the road another kilometer. The other driver’s vehicle was inoperable, but that driver sent a passerby to follow the hit-and-run Peugeot’s path to see if he could track down a license plate number. Indeed he did do that.

And when that good citizen called police, he said he had seen the driver running into the nearby woods with either a sizable package or a small child. (The story has … evolved.) You can see where this is going: when the area was searched after the tip came in, poor Maria’s dead body was steps away from the spot the car stopped. She’d been knifed to death.

The mushroom-gallery, for its part, yielded up a red pullover sweater like the one the abductor wore, and a bloody knife.

After 17 hours’ grilling by the police, Ranucci broke down and confessed. He would later retract the confession, blaming police pressure. (Here in 2013, everybody does know — right? — that false confessions happen with alarming frequency, and that they’re widely associated with exonerations.)

As open-and-shut as this sounds, Ranucci’s many defenders have found a great deal wanting in the case

Journalist Gilles Perrault has been on about this case for decades. His L’ombre de Christian Ranucci drew a 50,000 euro judgment for defaming the Marseilles police.

Among the sticking-points for skeptics:

  • There’s the inconsistency in the reported make and model of the vehicle vis-a-vis what Ranucci was driving.
  • None of the eyewitnesses to the abduction could identify Ranucci in a lineup … until the lineup was pared down to make it a gimme. Sloppy lineup work has been a significant factor in wrongful convictions; on the other hand, eyewitnesses are extremely unreliable in general.
  • The recovered red pullover was much too small for Ranucci, possibly suggesting that this apparent link to the observed abductor did not reach all the way to the accused.
  • Mr. Red Pullover Simca 1100 was allegedly seen attempting other abductions at times and places that made it certain that he was not Christian Ranucci.
  • Questionable handling of physical evidence by investigators.

That’s basically just to scratch the surface. Here (pdf) is a much lengthier exegesis of the potentially exculpatory evidence, in French. Here’s an English summary covering the same stuff on a site whose resources are mostly also in French. (“We do not assert Christian Ranucci is innocent.”) Countless additional search hits en francais await the interested researcher.

Ranucci himself insisted against advice on pursuing an actual-innocence defense, rather than mounting a mitigation case focusing on avoiding the guillotine while conceding guilt. He was convicted on just a 9-3 jury vote.

But neither in his own time nor latterly has that case gained much purchase on the conscience of his prosecutors. The President who denied Ranucci’s clemency petition, ValĂ©ry Giscard d’Estaing, has recently given his 1976 decision a vote of confidence; the father of the victim feels likewise.