Cold Justice: “The Red Pullover” – Part II: The Trial


On 6th November 1975, Christian Ranucci was officially charged with the abduction and murder of 8-year-old Marie-Dolorès Rembla, in June 1974. The official investigation was characterised by numerous “potential” irregularities, including the “rejection” of a last-minute testimony from a witness favouring Ranucci’s innocence. The two major controversies related to the investigation were Ranucci’s sudden U-turn on his written statement, and the overlooking of witness accounts concerning a man wearing a red pullover, molesting children in Marseilles. Ranucci heard that although the blood found on a pair of trousers in his car matched that of the victim, witnesses had testified to having seen a potential suspect. Ranucci was now adamant that he was innocent.

It is quite noteworthy that whereas the inquest lasted more than a year, the actual trial lasted a mere 48 hours, and Ranucci was emphatically found guilty and condemned to death by the jury. In retrospect, it is fair to say that the trial was just a formality, whose only purpose was to confirm Ranucci’s guilt and to ensure that he did not escape the death penalty. The general hysteria relating to Ranucci’s trial, the unanimous hatred of the accused and his lawyers, made the whole trial more akin to the burning of heretics in the Middle-Ages, than modern-day justice. Even if Ranucci had been acquitted, he would have probably been hanged in the courtyard of the Palais de Justice.

In fact, Ranucci’s fate was most probably sealed a few weeks before the trial started. The insecurity felt by a vast majority of parents, concerning the safety of their children, was fuelled by another case of child abduction that took place in January 1975, just three months before Ranucci’s trial was to begin. The French media played no small part in making sure that this feeling of insecurity was as widespread as possible. On prime time television news bulletins, a “national state of psychosis” was imposed. In the northern town of Troyes, the body of 7-year-old Philippe Bertrand was discovered in an apartment rented by Patrick Henry. The boy had been kidnapped by Henry on January 30th, and a ransom had been asked.

France is frightened. I think that we can say it as clearly as that. France has encountered panic, ever since we learned last night, 20 minutes after this bulletin, this horror: a child is dead. Each father, each mother, has a lump in the throat, thinking about what has happened in Troyes.

(Roger Gicquel,  8 o’clock News bulletin – TF1, January 1975)

Senior political figures were also fuelling the debate over the death penalty for child-murderers. When asked if the perpetrators of such crimes should be executed, the interior minister Michel Poniatowski responded:

Justice must decide. It will be justice carried out by a popular jury. If I were part of the jury I would pronounce in favour of the death penalty.

It is true that the conduct of Henry during the investigation into the murder of Philippe Bertrand was extremely cynical. Henry was released after a first arrest and, claiming his innocence, said that if ever the murderer was caught, he would merit the death penalty.

It can be argued that the response to the isolated abduction and murder of a child, although atrocious and unbearable for those involved, should be put into perspective, when compared to what goes on elsewhere in the country. In 1975 and 1976, 27,000 people died on French roads, including many children. At the time, although loudly condemned, these figures seemed to be part of the French way of life, and were far from causing mass hysteria. But this case was different. This was the opportunity for France to take revenge on the absurd, on the inherent evilness of deranged human beings. The fact that drunken drivers, at the helm of speeding death-traps, were responsible for the deaths of others, was totally irrelevant. It is the sign of a pathetic tragedy that Christian Ranucci also wanted revenge. He not only was convinced of his innocence, but wanted compensation once the trial was over and he was acquitted. He had already made plans to emigrate to America with his mother. His appearance in the court-room underscored his complacency towards what was happening, and his lack of understanding of the mood for revenge that was reigning in France.

Public opinion, Christian Ranucci: two blind persons hurtling towards one another on a motorway, convinced that no obstacle could come their way. The collision would cause one death. – Gilles Perrault, Le Pullover Rouge, 1978

Christian Ranucci’s conduct during his trial reminds me, in certain ways, of the trial of Socrates, in Ancient Greece. Both were not conscious of the grave nature of the accusations brought against them. Socrates was arrogant during his trial and attracted the disdain of his jury. Instead of fixing his own sentence, which he had the opportunity to do, Socrates joked by saying that the Athenians should have been grateful to have him amongst them, and that he should be rewarded. Socrates was condemned to death. Ranucci was no philosopher, of course, far from it. But I can’t but help making a parallel between the two, when I read the account of the trial that condemned Ranucci to death. Ranucci was also laughing sarcastically and giving the impression that he knew more than the presiding judge. It was as though he did everything to alienate the jury, and shock the press. He obviously did not know what was at stake, such was his conviction that the case for the prosecution would collapse before his very eyes. Ranucci became uncontrollable in the box, accusing the police of having tortured him, to obtain a confession. The details of the alleged torture that Ranucci gave were not even known by his own lawyers.

To be fair, Ranucci’s defence lawyers also underestimated the opposition and hatred that they were facing. In pleading Ranucci’s innocence, they could not use the one area of doubt that, if not saving Ranucci from imprisonment, might have saved him from the gallows. The psychiatrists who compiled a psychological profile on Ranucci during the investigation were adamant in their conclusions. Although they concluded that Ranucci was “normal”, he was probably not in control of his actions at the time of the abduction, leading up to the murder. “Could a normal person have committed such an atrocious crime?” was the only question the defence lawyers asked, to which they got an affirmative answer. Long after the trial, professor Sutter, a university psychiatrist who testified for the prosecution, still related his surprise towards the attitude of Ranucci’s defence lawyers. There was, in the report, enough data for Ranucci to be able to benefit from attenuating circumstances.

I cannot judge whether Christian Ranucci was guilty or innocent. Even he did not seem to know what really happened. What is true, is that his attitude in the courtroom was irresponsible and contributed greatly to his condemnation. The fact also remains that he admitted his crime when in custody, even though he claimed that he was tortured into doing so. What is more worrying, are the testimonies of witnesses who reported a man inciting children to get into a car to look for a black dog. The witnesses comprised (i) Marie-Dolorès’ brother and a neighbour, on the day of the abduction and, (ii) three independent witnesses also testifying to a man wearing a red pullover and driving a Simca 1100 – not a Peugeot 304. These last testimonies appeared to have “been lost” and did not appear in the police records. It appears strange that the possibility of doubt, emanating from these witnesses, had not taken seriously during the trial, especially in the context of the sentence that was to be passed.

The trial was not only about Ranucci and the abominable crime that he may or may not have committed. The trial was about sentencing a young man to death. In doing so, the jury ignored the faint possibility of subsisting doubt. The principle lawyer for the defence, Paul Lombard, realised this. However, he probably used the wrong strategy in an attempt to avoid Ranucci’s sentencing to death. Lombard’s reasoning was that, either Ranucci was innocent but presented signs of diminished responsibility when confessing to the murder; or he was guilty but was not in control of his actions when he committed the murder. In the end, the strategy back-fired and, truth be said, had little chance of succeeding, such was the animosity directed towards Ranucci. As a witness to the trial conceded, “Lombard, he pleaded very well, but it wasn’t possible.”

Paul Lombard did plead exceptionally well. I have managed to find the text in French, and it makes for fascinating reading.

You clean blood with tears, not blood. As long as the death penalty will exist, night will reign over the criminal court.  – Paul Lombard, 10th March 1976

The jury did not listen, and took a few hours to decide that Ranucci was guilty without benefiting from diminished responsibility, and was sentenced to death. In June, Ranucci lost his appeal, and in July, French president, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, rejected a plea for pardon. On 29th July 1976, at 4.13 am, Christian Ranucci’s head bounced twice on the floor of the execution room at the Beaumettes prison.

Part I