A request for a retrial will be filed Thursday by the lawyers of a Moroccan-born gardener who was convicted for the 1991 murder of his wealthy boss in a case that shook France and resurfaced uncomfortable questions on justice, race and anti-immigrant bias. The Omar Raddad case has haunted the country’s collective unconscious for 30 years despite a presidential pardon a quarter-century ago.
It’s a murder mystery worthy of an Agatha Christie novel with a high-profile decades-long legal process that has been compared to the O.J. Simpson case in the United States. The filing of a formal request for a retrial is likely to reopen the old debates and divisions that were put on the back burner but which were never really erased from the French public consciousness.
The case dates back to the June 23, 1991, murder of heiress Ghislaine Marchal, the 65-year-old widow of a car manufacturer. She was found bathed in blood in the cellar of her property in Mougins in the south of France.
At the crime scene, investigators discovered inscriptions written on two doors in the victim’s blood: “Omar m’a tuer” (sic) and “Omar m’a t” – or, “Omar killed me”. This was considered sufficient evidence for the prosecutor’s office, which immediately charged Omar Raddad, Marchal’s then 27-year-old gardener. A Moroccan immigrant with a clean criminal record, Raddard was described as an upright family man, but also a casino and slot-machine enthusiast.
The inscriptions in blood became among the most famous details in French criminal history – and the title of a 2011 Oscar-shortlisted film featuring award-winning actor Sami Bouajila in the lead role.
The grammatically incorrect inscription was also the subject of careful scrutiny in a country obsessed with the proper use of the French language. Debates raged over whether a wealthy, well-educated woman would write “Omar m’a tuer” using the infinitive instead of the correct “Omar m’a tué” in the past tense, and the phrase has since become something of a buzzword in France.
A new request for a retrial will be filed on Thursday, June 24, by the defence of the former gardener, who now lives in the southern French city of Toulon.
The request is based on an expert analysis done in 2019, but was revealed Monday by the leading French daily Le Monde. The expert found around 30 complete male DNA traces not belonging to the gardener that were also found in one of the bloody inscriptions at the crime scene.
In an interview with French radio station RTL this week, Raddad’s lawyer explained that her client, now 59, never managed to reclaim the life he had before the incident but has regained some hope with the latest legal development.
“For 30 years, he has been waiting for this review. That’s been his life. It’s true that he is depressed, but today he has regained hope,” Sylvie Noachovitch told RTL.
Pardoned, not cleared
In the eyes of French justice, Raddad, who has always proclaimed his innocence, remains guilty of Marchal’s murder even though he received a presidential pardon in 1996 by then French president Jacques Chirac, under pressure from Morocco’s King Hassan II.
While Raddad was released from prison in 1998, he has repeatedly said that a pardon does not establish innocence. “I was pardoned. I was not cleared. I want to clear my name,” he told reporters during the 2011 release of the film, “Omar m’a tuer”.
Several leading French personalities have long denounced the judicial process in the case while several investigative books have highlighted the dysfunctions of an investigation focused on the gardener.
Critics point to the prosecution’s weak claim of motive: an argument between the heiress and the gardener over a modest sum of money. Finally, evidence used in the case continues to raise questions, including the infamous inscriptions in blood.
“How an elderly woman, knocked out and gravely injured with 16 stab wounds, could drag herself from one end of the room to the other to write, ‘Omar killed me’ – twice – is something I’ve tried to visualise in my prison cell a thousand times in the dark. It’s impossible!” Raddad said in a 2010 interview with the French weekly Journal du Dimanche.
Dreyfus analogy by a celebrity lawyer sparks uproar
The Omar Raddad 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.
On February 2, 1994, as Raddad was sentenced to 18 years in prison, his legal counsel, celebrity French lawyer, Jacques Vergès, caused an uproar by comparing his client’s case to the Dreyfus affair. “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 is known for his sensational media appearances, many of them captured in the 2007 award-winning documentary, “Terror’s Advocate”.
Many people saw the gardener’s conviction as a symbol of the discrimination and injustice suffered by immigrants in France. During the trial, some of the comments made by the presiding judge, Armand Djian, were surprisingly aggressive and came under intense scrutiny.
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.
“This was a terrible statement. It targeted Muslims by making them look like potential murderers,” explained El Haïté who, as a member of the NGO Dynamic Morocco, has been mobilising for years to obtain a retrial for the gardener whose family has also borne the trauma of the ordeal.
“At the time, some French Muslims felt concerned and identified with Omar Raddad. This case was like a mirror of the discrimination suffered by some.”
El Haïté these days is optimistic about the prospect of a new trial. “There are new elements that should allow for a referral to the appeals court,” she explained.
Other traces of DNA not matching those of the gardener had already been found at the crime scene. But in 2002, the appeals court refused a retrial. Since then, a 2014 law has relaxed the conditions for a criminal review, paving the way for new investigations in recent years.
However, reviews of criminal convictions remain rare in France: Since 1945, only about 10 defendants have benefited from a review and have been acquittal by a retrial during their lifetimes.
This article has been translated from the original in French.