PARIS. A wealthy socialite was found dead in the basement of her villa on the Cote d’Azur. The only door was locked from the outside, but also barricaded from the inside. The message, scrawled in the victim’s own blood, seemed to blame her gardener.
The brutal murder in 1991 by Ghislaine Marshal and the subsequent conviction of her Moroccan gardener, Omar Raddad, has become one of the most enduring murder mysteries in France, to capture the public imagination.
Now, three decades later, new DNA technology could lead to a second lawsuit that supporters hope will acquit Mr. , has long worried France.
This was not only due to the violence that took place in the enclave of proud houses north of Cannes, or due to the fact that the main characters were from diametrically opposed segments of society. There was also a locked room mystery that had never been solved. And there was the last message – which had a grammatical error.
“Omar killed me,” wrote Ms. Marshall at the last moment of her death. Or, in the original French, “Omar m’a tuer,” not “m’a tuée,” as it should have been. The mistake prompted very French questions about class and language, most notably whether the woman of her position would commit such a trivial mistake or whether the gardener was framed and easily condemned instead because he was of Arab descent.
“Today, when you are asked for an example of wrongful conviction, people immediately mention Omar Raddad,” said Henri Leclerc, a lawyer who represented the victim’s family in the 1994 trial in which the gardener was found guilty. “There is little we can do today to change public opinion.”
In the initial trial, Mr. Ruddad was found guilty and sentenced to 18 years in prison. But after the request of King Hassan II of Morocco, where the case was closely followed, and the partial pardon of then French President Jacques Chirac, Mr. Raddad was released four years later. But he was never released from the murder.
Today, Mr Ruddad, 59, is awaiting a decision on his request to rehearse his trial, which was filed in June. Still exhausted, he rarely leaves the house and “is no longer alive,” said Sylvie Noahovich, Mr Ruddad’s lawyer, and said he did not want to be interviewed.
The victim’s family believes Mr. Raddad is guilty and opposes a new trial.
“This is not a past event that I have learned to live with,” said Sabin du Granroux, Ms Marshal’s niece and also a lawyer, referring to her aunt’s murder. “This event always comes back to the present.”
Mme du Granroux, who said she was very close to her aunt, recalled talking to her on the phone three days before the murder. “Her voice is still in my ear,” she said.
In 1991, 65-year-old Ms. Marshall lived alone in a large villa whose garden was tended by Mr. Ruddad. She was born into a prominent family of parents who fought in the Resistance, and her second husband was the heir to an industrial fortune.
Mr. Raddad grew up in Morocco, could not read or write, and spoke little French. He joined his father, who for many years worked as a gardener in the same community on the Cote d’Azur, and had a young family.
On a summer evening of the same year, after Ms. Marshall did not show up for two meetings with friends, the police found her dead with many bruises and cuts in the locked basement of the annex to her villa. Inside, the cot covered the door with a metal tube.
Omar m’a tuer was written on the door of the locked cellar. On the other door there was a second message – “Omar m’a t”, also written in the blood of the victim. Over the years, handwriting experts have disagreed as to whether the messages were written by the victim.
Prosecutors and Ms. Marshall’s family argued that Mr. Ruddad, who often played slot machines, attacked Ms. Marshall out of anger when she refused to give him an advance on his wages. After Mr. Ruddad escaped from the basement and locked him outside, they said, Ms. Marshall survived long enough to identify her killer with a suicide message. According to them, she barricaded the door out of fear that Mr. Ruddad would return. And the money appears to have been taken from her purse, which was found empty on her bed.
But Mr. Ruddad said he was innocent and had no reason to kill Ms. Marshall, who treated him well. His supporters claim that Ms Marshall’s real killer was able to press the bed against the door as he left the basement and wrote messages to avoid detection by framing the gardener.
According to them, an empty purse is not evidence of theft, and no jewelry or other valuables are missing. Most importantly, neither Mr. Ruddad’s DNA nor his fingerprints were found at the crime scene.
In 2015, a new DNA technology led to the discovery of traces of four unidentified men at the scene. According to Ms Noahovich, Mr Ruddad’s lawyer, Mr Ruddad’s expert subsequently identified the presence of 35 DNA traces from one unidentified person, which were mixed with a second message written in the victim’s blood.
“This DNA must belong to the killer,” Ms Noakhovich said, arguing that it is unlikely that it came from investigators or others who contaminated the scene.
Ms du Granroux, the victim’s niece, said she believed the evidence had been handled with less caution three decades ago and that the new DNA had been contaminated from an outside source.
In the immediate aftermath of Mr Ruddad’s conviction in 1994, some of the themes that had been in the background at the trial surfaced openly. His then lawyer, Jacques Vergès, famous for supporting anti-colonial cases, conjured up the Dreyfus case. The lawyer said that, like a Jewish officer who was unjustly convicted because of his religion, the gardener’s only mistake was that he was an Arab.
Inspired by Emile Zola’s defense of Captain Dreyfus, writer Jean-Marie Rouard formed a support group for Mr. Ruddad and wrote the book Omar, The Creation of a Criminal.
“A dying woman pointing to her killer was like a bad Agatha Christie romance,” said Mr. Ruar.
Class tensions continued to mount after the trial, sometimes in unexpected ways. For M. Ruard, who was also from a prominent family and the literary editor of Le Figaro, the newspaper of the French conservative establishment, his defense pitted him against members of his own class.
The class, in fact, was at the center of the debate over a grammatical error in the message allegedly left by the victim, “Omar m’a tuer.” Correct French would not use the infinitive “tuer” but the past participle ending in “e” to agree with the female writer, Ms. Marshall.
Her family’s lawyer, Mr. Leclerc, recalled that he learned about the murder while listening to the radio in his car.
“The journalist said that the woman’s body was found in her locked basement and that she left charges against her gardener – and what was strange is that it was a spelling mistake,” recalls Mr. Leclerc.
This is a common mistake among schoolchildren, but can anyone in her class make it?
“The correct use of the language has long been considered the privilege of the elite,” said Anne Abeye, editor of the 2,628-page collection of French grammars. In 1901, she said, attempts to simplify the spelling to make it more accessible failed for political reasons.
“All these young people from the working class could not master the language in the same way as the elite,” said Ms Abeile.
For Mr Ruddad’s supporters, the mistake was proof that the message was not written by Ms Marshal, but by someone who was trying to frame the gardener.
Ms du Granroux said that her aunt, like many other women in her class and generation, did not go to college. The researchers also found other examples of her writing with the same past participle error.
“I’m not sure that the moment she wrote, she remembered all her grammar and French syntax,” said Ms. du Granroux.
The writer Mr. Ruar agreed with this. Royard, a member of the academy since 1997, says that notable people – even members of the Académie Française, the institution responsible for protecting the French language – make spelling mistakes.
Nonetheless, the misspelling took on a life of its own, surfacing even decades later in book titles, newspaper headlines, and social media to signal a miscarriage of justice.
This happened, according to Ms. du Granroux, in part because her family chose to remain silent about the murder. When public opinion turned against them, she said, family members briefly discussed whether to speak out, but resorted to discretion familiar to them and their social class.
“And since we weren’t talking, it got harder and harder to speak,” said Ms. du Granroux, who has finally given several interviews in recent years. “I think it was already too late.”