In March 1976, Christian Ranucci was tried and condemned to death, for the murder of 8-year-old Marie-Dolorès Rembla, in June 1974. He had his request for pardon rejected by president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, and was executed on July 28th 1976, at 4.13 am. The death penalty was abolished by François Mittérand, in September 1981. Ranucci was one of the last victims of the infamous guillotine, and may have been executed for a crime that he did not commit. The case poses the question of whether the death penalty is any better than the crime that it is supposed to punish.
Capital punishment is contrary to the highest aspirations and the noblest dreams of humanity over the last two thousand years. It is, at the same time, contrary to the spirit of Christianity and the spirit of the Revolution.
– Jean Jaurès, 1908
Héloïse Mathon regularly brings white flowers to the grave, symbol of innocence. But unknown hands never get tired of depositing red flowers, and she presumes that it is to remind her that her son is a murderer.
– Gilles Perrault (Le Pullover Rouge – Editions Ramsay 1978)
Rehabilitate me! – Christian Ranucci’s last words, 28th July 1976
This is a story of a murder trial that divided the whole of France for many a day, and beyond. Rarely in French judicial history, has so much ink been spilt, have so many voices been heard, and have so many passions been fuelled. On July 28th 1976, Christian Ranucci, 22, joined the ranks of famous victims, including Louis XVIth, Marie-Antoinette, and Robespierre, succumbing to the sharp blade of the infamous guillotine. What happened to Ranucci may have been a combination of bad luck, a flawed investigation, his unwillingness to defend himself, and a president of France who preferred receiving gifts from dictators, rather than showing restraint in the presence of doubt. After a minor traffic accident, Ranucci may have found himself at the wrong time, in the wrong place.
The lacerated body of 8-year-old Marie-Dolorès Rembla was found on June 4th 1974, on the edge of dense woods. The area comprised several creeks, and was being used for a mushroom farm. According to the police, she had not been sexually assaulted. Shortly after having discovered the body, the police came across a red pullover, hidden behind some loose panels in one of the creeks. The scent of the pullover enabled police sniffer dogs to confirm its association with the body of the girl, buried under leaves and branches, about 400 metres from where the pullover was found. A brown shoe, corresponding to the ones Marie-Dolorès was wearing, was also found by the body.
A tale of two cars
On June 3rd, Marie-Dolorès was playing with her 6-year-old brother, Jean-Baptiste, on a council estate in a suburb of Marseilles. They were both accosted by a stranger in a car, a Simca 1100. He stepped out and asked them to help him find his black dog. Jean-Baptiste went looking round the building and, when he came back, the stranger had driven off with Marie-Dolorès. That same afternoon, Christian Ranucci was driving a grey Peugeot 304 and was involved in a minor collision after having ignored a “stop” sign at a crossroad. For reasons that remain unclear, Ranucci immediately drove away from the scene of the accident. He was followed by the Aubert’s, witnesses of the collision, who caught up with the Peugeot. The car was parked on the side of the road, a couple of kilometres or so from the crossroad, at about 700 metres from the entrance to the mushroom farm.
The witnesses: the Aubert’s, Jean-Baptiste, and Eugène Spinelli
When the missing child was first reported to the police, Jean-Baptiste identified the car as being a Simca 1100. Although only 6, he was a car fanatic and could recognise and identify correctly a great number of different makes and models. The investigators did not take him seriously, even though his identification of the car was later corroborated by Eugène Spinelli, a neighbour and car mechanic by trade, who also testified seeing Marie-Dolorès climb, of her own free-will, into the car. The young boy was shown into the police courtyard, where Ranucci’s car was parked amongst others belonging to police personnel. Disappointingly from the investigators’ point of view, he did not recognise the car. Worse still, neither did Spinelli. However, in an “edited” version of the written statement, Spinelli “agrees” to having said that he could have made a mistake, being at 40 meters from the incident, having only seen the rear of the car, and “not having paid particular attention”.
Having heard about Marie-Dolorès’ disappearance, the Aubert’s testimony changed significantly, and suddenly became more detailed. Having originally stated that they drove up to Ranucci’s parked car to check the number plate, before returning to the crossroad, they testified, a day later, to having seen a man heading into the woods, “carrying a voluminous package”. Later, their testimony changed yet again. This time, they testified that Ranucci went into the woods, accompanied by a child whom “he pulled out of the car”, and that they had spoken to Ranucci, who answered back. The Aubert’s asked him to return to the crossroad where the collision had taken place, and that “there was nothing to worry about“. This last statement differs considerably from their original statement, which made no mention of Ranucci or a child. What is even more incredible, is the Aubert’s sudden recognition of Ranucci, during a highly controversial procedure, where they were independently brought face-to-face with Ranucci. They had failed to recognise him during a more “conventional” identification parade, where Ranucci was standing amongst four other men. One may question whether the Aubert’s were actually in a position to recognise Ranucci at the time of the accident. They were at some distance from the car as he was heading towards the woods.
At first, Ranucci denied having abducted the girl and brutally murdering her. However, in an extraordinary turn of events, he went back on his statement, and confessed that he asked Marie-Dolorès to climb in the car “to go for a ride”. After the accident, they both found themselves in the woods, where the girl became hysterical and started shouting. Ranucci panicked and it was then that he brutally attacked her. We will never know why he suddenly admitted to having murdered the child, but it seems to be related to the Aubert’s having recognised him. What is more intriguing, is why his statement contains so many inconsistencies with what the witnesses saw and reported. One notable inconsistency is that Ranucci claimed that only the passenger door could be opened, meaning that Marie-Dolorès got out of the car before he did. The Aubert’s statement of having seen Ranucci pulling the girl out of the car, is only possible if he got out before she did. Another event that makes no sense is why Ranucci drove into the mushroom farm, in the first place. His car got stuck in one of the creeks and he had to get help from the owner of the farm. Ranucci states that he drove into the mushroom farm to unblock a wheel that was rubbing against the bodywork of the car. Was it to repair the car or hide the girl’s dead body?
In admitting to having used his knife to attack the girl, Ranucci told the police its exact location and how he hid it there. It took the police two hours to locate the knife with a metal detector, because they started the search more that one kilometre away from the spot that Ranucci had indicated. Furthermore, in the signed statement that was written during Ranucci’s interrogation, the police confirmed that they were in possession of the knife and had put it under seal. They gave a detailed description of a knife which they did not yet have, and could not seal. This knife was probably the one piece of evidence that sunk Christian Ranucci.
The red pullover
In admitting to having killed Marie-Dolorès and hiding her body, why would he lie about the red pullover? On this point, Ranucci was adamant – the red pullover did not belong to him. The denial was made more salient by reports from Marseilles, before Marie-Dolorès’ abduction. A man wearing a red pullover had been seen molesting children and enticing them to get into his car – a Simca 1100.
Héloïse Mathon, Ranucci’s mother was also heard by the police shortly after his arrest. She was able to collect some of his belongings and also spoke to him for a few minutes. She could not believe that her own son could have committed such a crime. When she was shown the red pullover, that the police presumed belonged to Ranucci, she immediately denied that it was his. She didn’t think that it was necessary to specify that Ranucci hated red and would never have worn such a pullover. There were witnesses who could have confirmed his profound dislike of the colour. Furthermore, in Ranucci’s meagre wardrobe, there were no red clothes to be seen. It seems quite incredible that Ranucci’s mother remained so calm and passive, although it could have been the shock that prevented her from reacting.
The pullover found at the scene of the murder did not belong to Ranucci not only due to its colour, but also because it was way too large. The garment was sealed, put in a police cupboard, and forgotten about.
For the press, Christian Ranucci was not suspected of having killed Marie-Dolorès Rembla, but was, without doubt, the murderer. Several local papers published editorials, the day after his arrest, more concerned that he would escape execution, the ultimate punishment, than whether he was really guilty. When trying to discover the dark side of Ranucci, journalists only found that he was loved and appreciated by all who knew him. Having nothing to go by, one paper reported that Ranucci had been “brought up as a girl”.
The country at large
There is something profoundly intriguing about the show of solidarity of the general public to the victims of “out of the ordinary” crimes. Whilst not underestimating the barbaric nature of the murder, especially when it involves an 8-year-old girl, anonymous people react as if it were a member of their own family who had been murdered. This is in stark contrast with the anonymity and individualism that is so characteristic of everyday life. More than one thousand people attended Marie-Dolorès Rembla’s funeral, on a scorching June afternoon. All her classmates were gathered around the coffin, making the ceremony even more heart-breaking than it already was. Escorting Marie-Dolorès’ coffin to its last resting place, shouts of “kill the monster, kill the human beast” and “off with his head”, were heard emanating from the crowd. Hatred is not only a feeling, it is a climate. It is probable that Christian Ranucci’s fate had been sealed on the day of the funeral. If not, it was certainly sealed in 1976, a few weeks before the trial, when the body of a dead boy was discovered under a bed, in an apartment rented by Patrick Henry.