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Past Redemption

In his twenties, Philippe Maurice was sentenced to death by guillotine for murdering a policeman. Saved by a change of government, he transformed himself through prison study into one of France’s leading medieval historians. William Smith reports.

On October 28th, 1980, death sentence was passed at the Paris Cour d’Assizes (central criminal court), the first time the penalty had been applied in France for seventeen years. In the dock stood a young man of twenty-four, Philippe Maurice, indicted for the murder of a police officer. In summing up, the president of the court, reciting the penal code, informed the accused that ‘everyone condemned to death will have their head cut off’. Justice was seen to be done and, in a scene reminiscent of a revolutionary tribunal, part of the court stood up and applauded. All that remained was for the law to take its grim course.

Staff at the prison at Fresne, Val-de-Marne, where Maurice was held, prepared the scaffold where this recalcitrant’s life would soon end, by guillotine, unless his counsel could secure a presidential pardon. With hardliner Valéry Giscard d’Estaing as president, this was highly unlikely in view of public opinion at the time. Eighteen months previously, during 1979, a wave of violent crime had shaken Paris, provoking fierce debate about capital punishment. Matters came to a head one night in early December when two gendarmes were killed in an incident near the Rue Monge on the Left Bank. One of the malefactors, wanted for car theft, was gunned down after shooting one of the officers. Maurice, his accomplice, had returned fire, fatally wounding a second policeman before being injured himself and arrested. ‘I opened fire out of fear and killed without wanting to, for the only time in my life,’ he writes in his autobiography, De la haine à la vie (2001).

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