On this date in 1976, Christian Ranucci, 22, was guillotined in Marseilles … with the last words addressed to his attorneys, “Réhabilitez-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, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, has recently given his 1976 decision a vote of confidence; the father of the victim feels likewise.