Death penalty: prison guards, lawyers, jury members, they remember – 40 years since the abolition of the death penalty



“The crowd applauded”

Genevieve Donadini was 35 in March 1976 when she was drawn to be a juror in the trial of Christian Ranucci, tried for the kidnapping and murder of a young girl in Marseille. “The first day of the trial was a shock,” she says. In front of the courthouse, “a compact crowd” of onlookers shouts “death, death, death!” »

In the “full” courtroom, an “atmosphere of revenge, of hatred”. She still has in mind the words of the Advocate General who requires the death penalty: “Ranucci, may God assist you, for you are beyond the pity of men”. Of the deliberations of which she is bound to secrecy, she will say nothing. Ranucci was sentenced to death “by a majority of at least eight votes”.

Outside, “the crowd cheered. Coming out to cheers because you have sentenced a man to death is hard, ”confesses Geneviève Donadini, now 81 years old. “And then you go home. I cried the whole way back”. In 1981 the abolition of the death penalty is “a great happiness”, she acknowledges. “No one will have to go through what I went through anymore (…) condemning someone to death is a trauma”.


“2m50 above”

Aimee Fauroux entered the prison administration in March 1976, at the Baumettes prison in Marseille. “I was 19 and a half.” When Christian Ranucci was executed there four months later, he was on night duty. “We had been warned, we knew it would happen around 4 a.m.”.

In the long corridor between the condemned man’s cell and the inner courtyard where he will be executed, they put “blankets everywhere on the ground” to muffle the sound of the footsteps of the magistrates and lawyers who will come to watch the execution. The guillotine’s covered truck had arrived the day before.

“He (the convict) is 22 years old, barely two years older than me, he is in good health and he is going to have his head cut off”, remembers having thought Aimé Fauroux, now 65 years old. “I was stationed at a window, exactly 2m50 above. I said to myself: am I looking, am I not looking? And I was stuck.”

The sequel “goes very quickly”. “The head falls into one basket”, the body is “swung” into another, the garden hose erases the traces of blood. “The avocados were white as snow.” Supervisors and executors meet in the canteen, “for a snack”. Before “I didn’t really know if I was for or against it, but there… It was barbaric”.


“24 hours a day”

Jean Pierre Ricard was in charge of two prisoners sentenced to death in transit for a few weeks at the Nice remand center, where he worked. At 25, he is the youngest supervisor. “It is you who will spend the days with them,” they tell him. “I didn’t ask myself the question of having an opinion on the death penalty, I had to do my duty”.

Those sentenced to death are monitored “24 hours a day” – to ensure that “they arrive at the guillotine alive”, says Jean-Pierre Ricard, now 74 years old. They eat better than the others, and he is asked to talk to them “as often as possible”.

He imagined them “full of fury” and was surprised at their “inertia”. “A great detachment inhabited them, or else it was resignation”. He discusses everything and nothing, “refrains from asking questions” about why they are there or what awaits them.

One will be executed, the other pardoned. Chance of mutations, he will find the second in another prison ten years later. “It almost jumps around my neck,” he smiles.


“We live again”

“I’m remarkably lucky, I’ve never had a client on death row,” admits Henry Leclerc, 87, who recently hung up her lawyer’s robe. During “a twenty-five-year career” before abolition, “I had to plead 5-6 times against the death penalty, 3-4 times when I was really afraid that it would be pronounced”. Not all cases are “spectacular” but “take you from head to toe”.

Each time the facts were recognized. “Horrible facts, of incredible violence and it was still necessary that they were not condemned to death”. To “make the one we defend reappear as a human being”, “we put everything we are”, he sums up.

“The worst moment is undoubtedly the deliberation”. “You have to wait for the last question, the only one that interests you”, the one that will avoid the death penalty: are there any mitigating circumstances? In Me Leclerc’s business, the answer has always been “yes”. “We are freed from an enormous weight, we live again”.

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