Controversy over U.S. lethal injections sparks interest in France’s last execution—in 1977

Matt Stroud

Over at The Verge, where I write about policy and policing for my day job, I spent some time last week digging into controversy over lethal injections in states such as Texas and Missouri. Medical professionals and pharmacists are beginning to take a bolder stance against the use of life-saving drugs as a means of executing people on death row. Predictably, Texas hasn’t changed policy in the face of the controversy. But Missouri has. On Friday, the state’s governor halted its next execution until more could be done to iron out issues with the pharmacies and drug companies that provide the state’s killer drug cocktail.

The story about execution drugs has been developing for a while. And either because of the ongoing controversy or sheer coincidence, French newspaper Le Monde last week decided to publish a scared and sober description of Hamida Djandoubi’s final moments. Djandoubi was the last person to be executed in France. He was guillotined in 1977 for the torture and murder of his 21-year-old girlfriend, Elisabeth Bousquet. You can read the original French here, or read a translation here via the Death Penalty News blog. Either way, it’s an interesting look into what we do when we allow the state to carryout murders.

9th September 1977

Execution of Djandoubi, Tunisian citizen.

At 3:0 p.m., [presiding] judge R. notified me that I had been appointed to assist with the execution. I feel repulsed, but I can’t get out of it. I thought about it all afternoon. My role will consist of taking note of the prisoner’s statements.

At 7:00 p.m., I went to the cinema with B. and B. B., then we had something to eat at hers and watched a late night movie until 1:00 a.m. I went home, I did some chores, then laid down on my bed. Mr. B. L. telephoned me at 3.15 a.m., as I requested. I got ready. A police car came to pick me up at 4:15 a.m. During the journey, no one said a word.

We arrived at Baumettes [a prison in Marseilles]. Everyone was there. The DA [avocat général] arrived last. A large group formed. 20 or 30 guards, the officials’. All along the path, brown blankets were spread on the ground to cover the sound of our footsteps. On the path, in three places, tables holding basins of water and towels.

The cell door was opened. I heard someone say that the prisoner was dozing, but not sleeping. He was made to get ready’. It took a long time, since he had an artificial leg and it had to be put on. We waited. No one spoke. I think this silence, and the apparent calmness of the prisoner, relieved those present. No one wouldn’t have wanted to hear crying or protests. The group reformed itself, and we took the path back. The blankets on the ground had been pushed to the side slightly, and we were no longer trying to avoid making too much noise with our steps.

The group stopped beside one of the tables. The prisoner was seated on a chair. His hands were locked behind his back with handcuffs. A guard gave him a filter cigarette. He started smoking without saying a thing. He was young. Very dark hair, neatly styled. His face was rather handsome, with even features, but he was pallid and had dark circles under his eyes. He looked neither stupid nor brutish. Simply a handsome young man. He smoked, and complained immediately that his handcuffs were too tight. A guard approached and tried to loosen them. He complained again. At this moment, I noticed the executioner standing behind him accompanied by two assistants. He was holding a cord.

Originally, it was intended to replace the handcuffs with the cord, but in the end it was decided to just remove them, and the executioner said something horrible and tragic: See, you’re free!’. It sent a shiver down the spine… The prisoner continued to smoke his cigarette, which was nearly finished, and he was given another. His hands were free and he smoked slowly. It was then that I saw he was starting to realize that it was all over - that he could not escape now - that there was his life, and that the moments that he still had would last as long as that cigarette did.

He requested his lawyers. Mr P. and Mr G. approached. He spoke to them as quietly as possible, because the executioner’s two assistants were standing right by him, and it was as if they wanted to steal his last moments as a living man. He gave a piece of paper to Mr P. who tore it at his request, and he gave an envelope to Mr G. He spoke to them very little. There was one on either side of him and they did not speak to each other either. The wait continued. He requested the prison director and asked him a question about what would happen to his possessions.

The second cigarette was finished. Quarter of an hour had already passed. A young and friendly guard approached with a bottle of rum and a glass. He asked the prisoner if he wanted a drink and poured him half a glass. The prisoner began to drink slowly. He understood then that his life would end when he had finished drinking. He spoke a little more with his lawyers. He called back the guard who gave him the rum and asked him to gather up the pieces of paper that Mr. P. had torn up and thrown to the ground. The guard bent down, picked up the pieces and gave back them to Mr P., who put them in his pocket.

It was at that moment that everything became confused. This man is going to die, he is aware; he knows that he can do nothing but delay the end by a few minutes. And he became almost like a child that will do anything to delay bedtime! A child who knows that he will be treated indulgently, and who makes use of it. The prisoner continued to drink his rum, slowly, in little sips. He called the Imam who came over and spoke to him in Arabic. He responded with a few words, also in Arabic.

The glass was nearly empty and, in a last attempt, he requested another cigarette: a Gauloise or a Gitane [unfiltered cigarette made with strong, dark tobacco], because he didn’t like the brand that he had been given. The request was made calmly, almost with dignity. But the executioner, who was becoming impatient, interrupted: We’ve already been nice with him - very humane - we have to get this over and done with.” In turn, the DA intervened to deny the cigarette, despite the prisoner repeating the request and adding very opportunely: It will be the last.” A sort of embarrassment came over the assistants. About 20 minutes had passed since the prisoner sat down on his chair. 20 minutes, so long and yet so short.

The request for this last cigarette brought back the reality, the identity’ of the time which had just passed. We had been patient, we had stood waiting for 20 minutes while the prisoner, seated, expressed wishes which we immediately granted. We had allowed him to be the master of that time. It was his possession. Now, another reality was appearing. That time was being taken back from him. The last cigarette was denied, and to get it over and done with, he was hurried him to finish his glass. He drank the last sip. Passed the glass to the guard. Immediately, one of the executioner’s assistants took a pair of scissors from his shirt pocket and began to cut off the collar of the prisoner’s blue shirt. The executioner signaled that the cut was not large enough. So, to simplify things, the assistant made two big cuts to the shoulders of the shirt and removed the entire shoulder section.

Quickly (before cutting the collar), his hands were tied behind his back with the cord. He was helped up. The guards opened a door in the corridor. The guillotine appeared, opposite the door. Almost without hesitating, I followed the guards who were pushing the prisoner and I entered the room (or, rather, a courtyard?) where the the machine’ stood. Beside it was an open brown wicker basket. Everything went very quickly. His body was practically thrown down but, at that moment, I turned away. Not out of fear, but by a sort of instinctive and deep-rooted modesty (I can’t find another word).

I heard a dull sound. I turned round - blood, lots of blood, very red blood - the body had toppled into the basket. In a second, a life had been cut. The man who had spoken less than a minute earlier was nothing more than blue pyjamas in a basket. A guard took out a hose. One has to erase the evidence of a crime quickly… I felt nauseous but I controlled myself. I had a feeling of cold indignation.

We went into the office where the DA was childishly fussing around to prepare the official report. D. carefully verified every part. It’s very important, the official report of an execution! At 5:10 a.m. I went home.

I write these lines. It is 6:10 a.m.

Monique Mabelly (Juge d’instruction)

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Matt Stroud is a former Innocence Network investigator who now covers the U.S. legal system, in all its glory and ugliness, as a freelance journalist. Follow him on Twitter @ssttrroouudd. Email him at stroudjournalism<at>gmail.com.
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