January 25, 2009
Céline Jourdan, age 6, went missing from her home in the tiny village of La-Motte-du-Caire
Homophobia had a field day at the trial of young Céline.
One hot summer's evening in 1988, little Céline Jourdan went missing. Her father raised the alarm at 9 p.m. but her body was not discovered until the following afternoon, only a few hundred yards from the village. The pathetic corpse had been clumsily hidden under branches alongside a peaceful mountain brook. Céline had been raped and her skull smashed with a rock. It was the 27th of July, only weeks before her seventh birthday.
In the tiny Provençale village of La-Motte-du-Caire (population 350) feelings ran high. Gilbert Jourdan was well-known and popular, the owner of the local bar. He was separated from Céline's mother and the little girl was spending part of the summer vacation with him.
From information given by a witness, who had seen him playing flipper (pin-ball) with Céline in her father's bar, the gendarmes arrested 25-year-old Didier Gentil, who had recently arrived in the area. He was what the French call a propre-à-rien (good-for-nothing), a hobo with previous convictions involving sex and violence. Born of alcoholic and violent parents, he was the archetypal criminal. It was as if his life history had been pre-programmed: petty crime, mindless violence, sexual deviancy. A psychiatrist described him as being "at the limit of mental debility" and as a character incapable of coping with any thwarting of his immediate desires. Paradoxically his surname means "nice" in English.
Following accusations from villagers the Gendarmerie also arrested and charged 29-year-old Richard Roman, a goatherd – recluse, homosexual, vagrant, and sadomasochist. Roman, nicknamed "The Red Indian", was the ideal suspect: anti-social, deviant; an intelligent (IQ 130), an educated man who had squandered his opportunities by dropping out of university and becoming a hobo. But nothing was "known" against him. In fact, the only way they could keep him in custody was to charge him with possession of a few grams of marijuana.
Each prisoner accused the other. Gentil admitted the rape (forced to do so, he claimed, under pressure from Roman) but accused Roman of the actual killing. Under intensive questioning – including, he claimed, a beating – Roman cracked and signed a statement admitting to both crimes. A psychiatrist described him as a self-destructive personality who took a grim pleasure in being disliked. He later withdrew the confession after a journalist who had interviewed him in prison smuggled out a statement to defense counsel proclaiming confidence that DNA tests would clear him of the charges.
The press unleashed a campaign of fury against the two accused and the public responded with predictably blind prejudice. In and around La-Motte-du-Caire there was unanimous support for Gilbert Jourdan, and locals swore vengeance. Céline's uncle, a magazine editor, used his publication to launch a call for the return of capital punishment. A reconstruction of the crime had to be cancelled when an angry mob tried to lynch the defense barristers and when magistrate Yves Bonnet, convinced of Roman's innocence, released him on bail in 1990, a gang led by Céline's uncle stoned the courthouse.
While not condoning this behavior, one can readily understand their anger. Such a crime against an innocent child is repulsive, almost impossible to accept, and people experience the need for an indignant and violent reaction. Céline's father himself, apart from the grief and disgust at losing his daughter so brutally, must – subconsciously at least – have been suffering torments of guilt. The little girl had been in his care and he had failed to protect her. He desperately needed the cathartic outburst of hatred against her supposed killer in order to try to wipe out the inadmissible blame and shame.
Most of the vehemence was aimed at Roman. Even though Gentil was an unpleasant character, people could easily understand why he had become a criminal and had ended up a rapist and murderer. He was of low intelligence and had experienced a dreadful childhood under a violent and alcoholic father and an incapable and neglectful mother. He was unemployed – unemployable even – and had nothing going for him. While no one exactly sympathized with him they could see why he had become what he was. As for Roman, on the other hand, he had enjoyed all the benefits of a middle-class upbringing – good education, comfortable and loving home background – and had thrown it back in society's face. Such waste deserved punishment in itself.
An incongruously farcical aspect was introduced into the case when Roman, freed pending the trial, was assaulted and accused Gilbert Jourdan. The latter, in turn, sued Roman for slander.
The judicial procedure was intolerably ponderous. Although, as in the United States, each defendant has the right to a speedy trial, in France an overload of work, administrative errors and plain incompetence often drag things out. Five different juges d'instruction (examining magistrates) conducted the case in turn and it was four years before the case eventually came to court. In an attempt to take the heat out of the situation, in view of local animosity, the trial was heard at distant Grenoble instead of at the local courthouse of Digne. Ironically, this in fact only served to increase the already bitter resentment felt by the locals.
From the start it was obvious that the chances of a fair trial were slim. Gentil – and particularly Roman – were considered guilty before being tried. During interrogation by both the Gendarmerie and examining magistrates (with the exception of Bonnet) there was no question of the presumption of innocence and Richard Roman was forced into the position of proving he was not guilty. According to one sympathetic journalist, the pieces of the jigsaw were put in whether they fitted or not.
The trial itself soon turned into a condemnation of homosexuality rather than of murder. It was alleged that there was a sexual relationship between Gentil and Roman, and the prosecution line became "homo=pædo=pervert=killer". At one point, Gendarmerie evidence even gave details of the size of the two prisoners' erect penises, at which the Président (Judge) lost patience and demanded to know who had ordered such data to be collected. He also felt constrained to point out to the jury that one could be homosexual without murdering children. It was refreshingly clear that one person, at least, in the courtroom was not prepared to be influenced by bigotry.
Despite this unexpected ally, things looked black for Roman in the face of such unbridled prejudice, even though the only hard evidence produced against the pair was Gentil's sperm found on the victim. There was nothing tangible whatever to incriminate the goatherd. Gentil's evidence had been full of vagueness and contradictions whereas Roman steadfastly claimed his innocence. But all hope seemed lost as the trial entered its last day, the time for summing up by prosecution and defense lawyers.
Suddenly, after weeks of seeming like a particularly sordid but straightforward murder case, the trial turned to drama. At the resumption of the hearing, Gentil requested, and was granted, permission to address the court. He started by apologizing for having wasted the court's time, his excuse being that he was a pauvre type (a weak-minded and irresponsible person). And then, to everybody's stupefaction, he confessed to the charges against him, craved forgiveness from Céline's family and exonerated Roman completely.
He claimed another psychiatric examination as he now believed there was a possibility that he had only dreamed about Roman's presence at the scene of the crime and of his participation in the murder and that he now realized he might have been mistaken.
The public reaction was predictably melodramatic: Céline's mother broke down in tears and begged the two accused to tell which of them had killed her child. Gilbert Jourdan called on the judge to force the truth out of Roman while André Jourdan, Céline's grandfather, yelled at Roman, "Confess, you bastard!" This triggered off such pandemonium that the judge had to clear the court. It was clear that the disruption was due not so much to the acknowledgement of Gentil's guilt but to the unimaginable concept of Roman's innocence.
When everyone had calmed down and the proceedings could resume, Rosemarie Jourdan, the grandmother, called for a minute's silence in order that Céline's memory should not be sullied. This courageous action took the sting out of the situation. In the midst of all the disturbance, Richard Roman had remained silent but at this point he turned to the old lady and said with quiet dignity, "I understand your distress but I am entirely innocent."
After such a turn-around, the summing-up and sentencing constituted an anti-climax. Gentil was condemned to 30 years imprisonment and Roman was cleared of all charges.
This case was just one of many that raised serious concern about the functioning of French justice: an investigation too prolonged and laborious, too much credit given to spurious evidence from supposedly expert witnesses such as gendarmes or psychiatrists, the influence of press campaigns and local rumor and above all the anti-gay prejudice. Worst of all, no lessons were drawn from a history of legal injustice and later cases were to show that this judicial blindness was to continue.
As if to emphasize the total wrongness of this case, in 1997 Gentil was charged with a murder committed two years before that of Céline; his victim, a young man, had been raped and his skull crushed with a rock. Then in 2004 a television documentary claimed the existence of an anonymous letter written in 1988 by a doctor, which had not been used in evidence, but which seemed to implicate Roman in the rape and murder. Despite this evidence Céline's father has been unable to succeed in getting the case re-heard. It is now unlikely that he will ever be able to do so as Richard Roman died from an accidental overdose of drugs on June 23, 2008.
In France, when a serious crime such as murder is committed, the Procureur (District Attorney) appoints a juge d'instruction (something like a one-man Grand Jury) whose function is to conduct the inquiry and instruct the police as to which witnesses to interview, what evidence to gather and which suspects to interrogate and arrest.