The brutal killing, in 1991, of Ghislaine Marchal and the subsequent conviction of her Moroccan gardener, Omar Raddad, became one of France’s most enduring murder mysteries, capturing the popular imagination.
Now, three decades later, new DNA technology may lead to a second trial that supporters hope will exonerate Raddad, who has always maintained his innocence, and reopen a case that, though seemingly settled legally, has long unsettled France.
It has done so not only because of the violence that was visited upon an enclave of proud homes just north of Cannes, or because the protagonists were from diametrically opposed backgrounds. There was also the enigma of the locked room that was never satisfactorily unravelled. And there was the final message — which contained a grammatical error.
“Omar killed me,” Marchal appeared to have written in her dying moments. Or, in the original French, “Omar m’a tuer” — not “m’a tuée,” as it should have been. The mistake raised very French questions about class and language, primarily whether a woman of her station would make such a trivial error or if instead the gardener was being framed and was easily convicted because he was of Arab descent.
“Today, when you’re asked to give an example of wrongful conviction, people right away mention Omar Raddad,” said Henri Leclerc, the lawyer who represented the victim’s family in the 1994 trial that convicted the gardener. “There’s very little we can do today to change public opinion.”
In his original trial, Raddad was convicted and sentenced to 18 years in prison. But after a request from King Hassan II of Morocco, where the case was followed closely, and a partial pardon from France’s president at the time, Jacques Chirac, Raddad was freed after four years. But he was never cleared of the killing.
Today, Raddad, 59, is waiting for a ruling on his request to rehear his trial, which was filed in June. Still tormented, he rarely leaves home and “was no longer alive,” said Sylvie Noachovitch, who is Raddad’s lawyer and said he did not wish to be interviewed.
The victim’s family believes that Raddad is guilty and is opposed to a new trial.
“It’s not an event of the past that I’ve learned to live with,” said Sabine du Granrut, who is Marchal’s niece and also a lawyer, referring to her aunt’s killing. “It’s an event that always comes back to the present.”
Du Granrut, who said she was very close to her aunt, recalled talking to her by phone three days before the killing. “Her voice is still in my ear,” she said.
In 1991, Marchal, 65, was living by herself in a large villa whose garden was maintained by Raddad. She was born to a prominent family, to parents who had fought in the Resistance, and her second husband was the heir to an industrial fortune.
Raddad had grown up in Morocco, was unable to read or write and spoke little French. He had joined his father, who had worked for years as a gardener in the same community on the Côte d’Azur, and had a young family.
On a summer evening that year, after Marchal had failed to show up to two appointments with friends, the police found her dead, with multiple bruises and cuts, in the locked basement of an annex of her villa. Inside, a folding bed was blocking the door with the help of a metal tube.
“Omar m’a tuer” was written on a door inside the locked basement. On another door was a second message — “Omar m’a t” — also written in the victim’s blood. Over the years, handwriting experts disagreed on whether the messages were written by the victim.
Prosecutors and Marchal’s family argued that Raddad, who often played slot machines, assailed Marchal out of anger when she refused to give him an advance on his wages. After Raddad fled the basement and locked it from the outside, they said, Marchal survived long enough to identify her killer with a dying message. She barricaded the door out of fear that Raddad would return, they said. And money appeared to have been taken from her handbag, which was found empty on her bed.
But Raddad has said he is innocent and had no reason to kill Marchal, who had treated him well. His supporters argue that Marchal’s real killer was able to prop the bed against the door while leaving the basement and wrote the messages to avoid detection by framing the gardener.
An empty handbag was not proof of theft, they said, and no jewels or other valuables went missing. Most important, neither Raddad’s DNA nor his fingerprints were ever found at the crime scene.
In 2015, new DNA technology led to a discovery at the scene of the traces of four unknown men. An expert for Raddad subsequently identified the presence of 35 traces of DNA from one unknown man that was mixed with the second message written in the victim’s blood, said Noachovitch.
“This DNA must belong to the killer,” Noachovitch said, arguing that it was very unlikely that it came from investigators or others who contaminated the scene.
Du Granrut said she believed that evidence was handled with less care three decades ago and that the new DNA was contamination from an unrelated source.
Immediately after Raddad was convicted in 1994, some of the themes that had been in the background in court erupted into the open. His lawyer at the time, Jacques Vergès, who had become famous for embracing anti-colonial causes, conjured up the Dreyfus Affair. Like the Jewish officer wrongfully condemned because of his religion, the gardener’s only wrong was being an Arab, the lawyer said.
Inspired by Émile Zola’s defense of Captain Dreyfus, Jean-Marie Rouart, a novelist, formed a group to support Raddad and wrote a book, “Omar, the Making of a Culprit.”
“The dying woman who points at her own killer — it was like a bad novel by Agatha Christie,” Rouart said.
The class tensions continued to play out after the trial, sometimes in unexpected ways. For Rouart — who was also from a prominent family and the literary editor of Le Figaro, the newspaper of France’s conservative establishment — his advocacy pitted him against members of his own class.
Class, in fact, was at the heart of the debate over the grammatical mistake in the message supposedly left by the victim, “Omar m’a tuer.” Correct French would not have used the infinitive “tuer,” but rather the past participle, ending with an “e” to agree with the female writer, Marchal.
Leclerc recalled learning about the killing while listening to the radio in his car.
“The journalist said that the body of a woman was found in her locked basement and that she had left accusations against her gardener — and what was odd was that there was a spelling mistake,” Leclerc recalled.
It is a mistake common among schoolchildren, but would someone from her class make it?
Proper usage was long considered a privilege of the elite, said Anne Abeillé, an editor of a 2,628-page French grammar book. In 1901, a push to simplify spelling to make it more accessible was defeated for political reasons, she said.
“All these working-class youths had to be prevented from acquiring the same command of the language as the elite,” Abeillé said.
To Raddad’s supporters, the mistake was proof that the message was not written by Marchal, but by someone trying to frame the gardener.
Du Granrut said that her aunt, like many other women of her class and generation, did not go to college. Investigators also found other examples of her writing with the same past participle mistake.
“I’m not sure that in the moment she was writing, she bore in mind all her grammar and French syntax,” du Granrut said.
On this point, Rouart agreed. Prominent people — even members of the French Academy, the institution charged with protecting the French language — make spelling mistakes, said Rouart, a member of the academy since 1997.
Still, the spelling mistake took on a life of its own, resurfacing even decades later in book titles, newspaper headlines and social media to signal a miscarriage of justice.
That happened, du Granrut believed, partly because her family chose to remain silent about the killing. As public opinion turned against them, family members briefly discussed whether to speak out, but fell back on the discretion familiar to them and their social class, she said.
“And because we didn’t speak, it became more and more difficult to speak,” said du Granrut, who has finally given a few interviews in recent years. “I think it was too late.”
© 2021 The New York Times Company