On 9 March 1976, the trial of Christian Ranucci began. The entire country was focused on the 22-year-old, accused of abducting and murdering an 8-year-old girl. Two days later, he was sentenced to death to the great satisfaction of the general public. Genevieve Donadini was a member of the jury which returned that decision. Her book, The Trial of Ranucci (published by Harmattan), is an account of her experience and the trauma which still lingers 40 years after the trial.

Your book is invaluable because it allows us to enter the world of the death penalty properly by following the legal process leading to the execution of Christian Ranucci in 1976.

Indeed. For me and many others, the death penalty was an idea. You were for it or against it; some people had arguments for, others had arguments against. It was understandable. At the time, I was actually against the death penalty but, well, just like that, without ever actually having been involved in the justice system…And when I found myself at that trial, participating in that verdict in spite of myself (and it was a collective verdict for which I take my share of the responsibility), I saw what the death penalty really was. When you have before you a young man of 22 and you say to yourself “but, you’re going to execute him! This young man here will have his head cut off!”, it’s not a small thing. As a member of the jury, you are, all nine of you, like a firing squad. You are going to pull the trigger and you don’t know who is going to be the one who kills because it’s kept secret. That is another reason why I wrote this book. To say: “You see, this is what the death penalty is.”

We often imagine that the jury is a group of citizens who can deliberate calmly, who are given some time to do so…but you say that there was almost no break between the end of the defence speeches and the verdict, that you could hear the crowd screaming outside…under those conditions, one might almost want to question the value of that verdict.

Especially in that trial. It lasted two days – that’s very short – with an endless flow of information. How can you remain unemotional when they are showing you the photo of the little girl who was killed, the knife, the little shoe? How, as a mother with a child of my own who was the same age at the time, how can I suppress my emotions to make a calm judgement? In addition, as you said, there was a dreadful atmosphere which I had not imagined, people screaming “Death! Death!” under the windows of the deliberation room. A huge, hateful crowd demanding revenge. It was vengeance, it was not a calm judgement.

It is also true that Christian Ranucci was very unlucky. There was Patrick Henry just before him, an atmosphere of violence had started to establish itself. It was not the violence we have now. Now, we live in a society of violence but at the time it wasn’t like that. It was just the beginning.

It’s true that when we watch again the presenter begin the news with “France is scared” for a human interest story…

The news is full of stories like that today!

It’s as if the whole of France almost forced you to sentence Ranucci to death.

Exactly. They gave us a mission. But I must be very clear. We were not influenced by the President of the Court. Not at all. What might, and I say might, have influenced us was everything that was going on. The witnesses, the exhibits…the atmosphere. We couldn’t make a calm judgement in that kind of atmosphere. It was impossible. When you get to the Court and you see written in black on the walls of the Court building “Death for Ranucci”…At the time, there were not as many tags as there are now and that one stood out!

At one point, you explain that it might have been different if you had not been the only woman on the jury.

I don’t know if that would have changed much but maybe we could have had a discussion. Although we didn’t have time. It must said, we did not have time to exchange three words with the other members of the jury except in the deliberation room. It’s different today. For a start, we no longer have the death penalty so nothing is fatal. Juries are smaller – there are six members now while there were nine of us. Trials are longer so you can go into things in more depth and I think the training members of the jury receive beforehand might be more detailed. It lasts longer than 15 minutes. Because when you get there and you’ve never been involved in the justice system, you have no idea how it’s going to work. It’s very theatrical, very organised, very codified…

At the last World Congress Against the Death Penalty, people talked a lot about the fact that the death penalty creates numerous victims, over and beyond the people actually executed. For example, the family and friends of the person executed, the children, etc. In your book, we discover that you too were a victim of that execution.

Indeed. After doing your duty as a citizen, you are almost punished for doing so. For a start, you can’t talk about it. It took me 40 years to be able to write what I did without betraying the secrecy of the deliberations naturally. No one knows what I voted. And I have assumed collective responsibility. You are left to your own devices with your conscience and your regrets if you have them. “What should I have said or not said, what should I have understood?” It is traumatic! And I think that even today when we no longer have the death penalty, there are trials which are hard with rapes and murders. The least we can do would be to offer members of the jury psychological assistance because it really is traumatic. Facing me is a young person, like you, and someone says to me: “because of you, he’s going to have his head cut off.” Any normal person would be disturbed by such a situation. When Mr Lombard said to us “Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, you are the most powerful people in the world, you have the power to have his head cut off”, that’s hard. Even 40 years later, I still feel emotional. That has never left me.

After the trial, I continued to live a full life. But there were always phrases which stayed in my mind, the face of that boy has stayed in my head. Like the photos of the little girl. For me, they are together.

You explain in your book that the hope of a presidential pardon could have had an effect on the jury’s decision…

I am choosing my words carefully: at the time, everyone, including us, thought he was guilty. At the time, there was no DNA, no appeal court. So there was only one hope for Christian Ranucci: presidential pardon. And maybe in some people’s minds that hope was always there, saying to yourself “There’s still the pardon”. Especially as Mr Giscard d’Estaing had said in his electoral campaign that he had a profound aversion to the death penalty. So we could hope for that. In the end, he did not pardon Christian Ranucci for political reasons and indeed there were two others after him who were sentenced to death. For someone who had a profound aversion…I’d rather be me than Giscard. We had collective responsibility but he had individual responsibility.

How did you react in 1981 when the death penalty was abolished?

I gave a cry of joy. I said to myself, “No one will ever have to go through what I did”. Especially as this was a courageous decision, taken against the tide of public opinion. When people tell me that some people might like to reintroduce the death penalty, I tell them that the death penalty is this, what I put in my book. If one day you have to be on a jury and vote for death, read the book first.

I have one anecdote in that regard: one day, some young people aged 15 and 16 asked me, “Madam, when you were young did the death penalty still exist?”
I told them “Yes, it still existed.”
“But how did it happen? Injection? Electric Chair? What?
“The guillotine.”
And they answered: “Really? Like Marie-Antoinette!”
For young people, the death penalty is something from the French Revolution. It wasn’t 40 years ago.

How do you feel about public opinion’s relationship with the death penalty in France?

I’m worried. There are signs that intolerance is growing in France with regard to foreigners, people who are not like you, who don’t think like you…and if you are the strongest, that kind of intolerance can make you want to demonstrate your strength.