the improbable friendship of a lawyer and his client, saved from the guillotine

40 years ago to the day, the death penalty was abolished in France. We come back to it through a story of improbable friendship between Maurice Hincellin, alias Titisse, a little thug turned killer, and his lawyer Alain Fraitag, who saved his head nearly half a century ago. This is Release who tells us their story…

Between 1968 and 1978, the death penalty was demanded an average of 15 times a year. For Maurice Hincelin, it was in 1972, at the assizes of the Aisne. He experienced the vertigo described by Robert Badinter: “What is the death penalty? Twelve men and women, two days of hearing, the impossibility of getting to the bottom of things and the law, or the terrible duty to decide the life or death of another being.”

His life at Titisse had started rather badly. At the assizes, a psychiatrist compared it to a “failed mayonnaise”: the ingredients were there, but we had not been able to make them “take”. One day, everything goes wrong.

“A thug who will stop at nothing”

In a bar in Laon, the young man is caught in a fight, he takes out his knife. Result: one injured and one dead. Suddenly, Titisse becomes the beast, the terror of Laon… At the assizes, he is remade the portrait: he is “a thug who does not shrink from anything”. He is 28 years old. His lawyer is only five years older.

Alain Fraitag has not succeeded in having the facts reclassified as “willful violence resulting in death without the intention of giving it”, so he fears the worst. Especially since a case of recidivism is making headlines at the same time. The Advocate General makes an example of this: “And if in twenty or twenty-five years, Hincellin committed another murder? As for me, I would be remorseful if I did not claim capital punishment.”

“I was terrified”, admits the lawyer

Even today, in his office, Alain Fraitag shudders. “I was terrified,” he said, “it was my first affair of this magnitude, I had sympathized with Maurice, I felt the full importance of what was my mission.” He no longer remembers his argument, except that it lasted two and a half hours. According to the press at the time, he ended in tears: “a human being must always be saved”. When the verdict fell, Alain Fraitag fell too, and it was Maurice who retained him: “Hey get over it, you just saved my life!”. “These words,” said the lawyer, “I will never forget them. Never.”

Titisse took life. In truth, he spent 15 years behind bars, 15 years of uninterrupted correspondence. “My dear Alain”, “my little Titisse”. “That says it all about the affection that unites them and the world that separates them,” writes Freed. They share everything, their hopes, their disappointments, their heart stories. Alain Fraitag sends pieces of freedom, sunset postcards, photos of his dog.

“Maurice has always dreamed of the guillotine”

And then on March 26, 1987, he wrote: “Very unofficially, I can tell you that you will be free at the end of April. Signed: Your friend (overjoyed)“. In his cell, Maurice “cries like a kid”. When he gets out, a fiancée is waiting for him. They get married a month later, they will have three children. “But during our 27 years of marriage, Maurice has always dreamed of from the guillotine, sighs Claudine. I’ve seen him so often wake up sweating.”

This story is not a fairy tale. There is no happy reintegration but a series of failures, closed doors, again and then cancer, and then alcohol. Maurice committed suicide in 2014 in his Breton home. He was 70 years old. Alain kept all the letters, in a cardboard box marked Titisse. He had started a book about his friend. As he is retiring, he intends to finish it…

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