How France lifted death’s black canopy

Badinter helped convince a jury not to execute a man who kidnapped and murdered a seven-year-old boy, in a case that he turned into a trial of the death penalty itself.

PARIS (AFP) — On a bitingly cold morning on 28 November 1972, a Frenchman was guillotined for a murder he did not commit, in a case that so traumatized his lawyer he would spend the rest of his life campaigning to end the death penalty.

Roger Bontems, 36, was beheaded for being an accessory to the brutal murder of a nurse and a guard during a break-out attempt at a prison in eastern France.

Seven minutes after he was decapitated in the courtyard of La Sante prison in Paris, his co-conspirator Claude Buffet — a 39-year-old man convicted of a double murder that had sent shockwaves through France — met a similar end.

Among the witnesses of the executions was Robert Badinter, a crusading young lawyer who was haunted by his failure to save the life of his client Bontems.

In a 2002 interview, Badinter, who as justice minister famously defied a hostile French public to abolish capital punishment in 1981, revealed that for a long time after Bontems’s death, “on waking around dawn, I would obsessively mull over why we had failed.”

“They had accepted that he had not killed anyone. Why then did they sentence him to death?”

Knives made from spoons

In September 1971, Buffet, a hardened criminal serving a life sentence for murder at Clairvaux prison, convinced fellow inmate Roger Bontems, handed a 20-year term for assault and aggravated theft, to join him in a high-stakes escape attempt.

The pair faked illness and were taken to the infirmary where, armed with knives carved out of spoons, they took a nurse and a guard hostage. They threatened to execute their captives unless they are freed and given weapons.

This precipitated a standoff with the authorities that kept the French glued to their TV screens until police stormed the prison at dawn and found both hostages dead, their throats slit.

Heads to roll

The grisly murder of the nurse, a mother of two, and the prison warden, father of a one-year-old girl, sparked an impassioned debate about the death penalty, which has not been implemented since President Georges Pompidou, a pragmatic Gaullist, came to power two years earlier.

Hundreds of people baying for the men’s heads pack the streets outside the courthouse when they go on trial in Aube in 1972. The nurse’s husband and the warden’s family were among those attending.

Buffet, portrayed in the media as a heartless monster, admitted to killing the guard and stabbing the nurse, and defied the court to sentence him to death.

Bontems was found guilty of merely being an accessory. But he was also given the death penalty, amid intense pressure from prison wardens’ groups seeking revenge for their colleague’s death.

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