French court reopens high-profile murder case three decades after crime

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A case involving a murdered socialite, her Moroccan-born gardener and a bloodied message scrawled across the crime scene dating back to 1991 has been reopened for investigation. Twenty-seven years after being convicted for a crime he says he didn’t commit, Omar Raddad has come one step closer to clearing his name thanks to new DNA evidence.

The 1991 murder of Ghislaine Marchal, a wealthy widow of a car manufacturer, was made famous by a simple grammatical mistake.

When police found the 65-year-old stabbed to death in the cellar of her villa on the French Riviera, they discovered two messages scrawled on a door in Marchal’s blood that read: “Omar m’a tuer” and “Omar m’a t-” (“Omar killed me”). But instead of using the past participle for the word “killed”, the inscription used the infinitive.

For prosecutors, the message was enough to incriminate Omar Raddad, Marchal’s gardener at the time. But defence lawyers argued it was highly unlikely that Marchal, a wealthy and educated widow, would make such a mistake, fuelling intense speculation that Raddad – who was found guilty and sentenced to 18 years in jail – had been framed.

The case quickly took on a sociopolitical dimension, pitting two diametrically opposed worlds against each other: On the one hand, a poor Moroccan immigrant who spoke halting French, and on the other, a wealthy family from the Côte d'Azur.

A symbol of discrimination

At the time of Raddad’s conviction in 1994, his legal counsel, celebrity French lawyer Jacques Vergès, caused an uproar by comparing his client's case to the Dreyfus affair, in which a Jewish army captain was accused of spying for Germany during a period of heightened anti-Jewish sentiment in France.

"A hundred years ago, an officer was condemned because he was Jewish, today a gardener is condemned because he is North African," said Vergès, who was known for his sensational media appearances.

Many people saw the gardener's conviction as a symbol of the discrimination and injustice suffered by immigrants in France.

When Raddad's wife said that her husband was incapable of harming a fly, the judge retorted: "Yes, but that doesn't prevent him from knowing how to slit the throat of a sheep," recalled lawyer Najwa El Haïté in an interview with FRANCE 24, an apparent reference to the killing of an animal for food during the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha.

Eventually, amid mounting public pressure, including from Morocco’s King Hassan II, Raddad was pardoned by former French president Jacques Chirac in 1996. Two years later, his sentence was partially commuted and he was freed from prison.

Since his release, Raddad’s name has never been cleared. But on Thursday, the defendant finally won a bid to reopen his case thanks to new DNA evidence presented by his lawyers.

The devil is in the DNA

Back in 2014, Raddad’s lawyer Sylvie Noachovitch successfully petitioned judges to authorise an investigation by forensic experts, who extracted DNA fingerprints from the bloodied cellar and door where the famous “Omar m’a tuer” message was found.

Using new technology, the experts uncovered traces of four unknown people at the crime scene. The fingerprints of Mr. Raddad, however, were nowhere to be seen.

Another 35 traces from an unknown man were subsequently identified in the bloodied inscriptions in 2019, as a DNA report released by French newspaper Le Monde revealed. The findings prompted Raddad’s defence to issue a request for a retrial on June 24, 2021.

The French court’s committee has now ordered an inquiry into the analysis of this new DNA evidence, a “step towards a retrial” for Noachovitch. Hoping this will inch Haddad closer to exoneration, she added: “The battle is not over.”

However, reviews of criminal convictions remain rare in France. Since 1945, only about 10 defendants have benefited from a review and have been acquitted by a retrial during their lifetimes.

(with AFP)

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