How A Prisoner Is Tried In France

One of the intriguing things about the Jack the Ripper mystery is, just how many police officers went on record to claim – or were quoted as claiming – that they knew the identity of the Whitechapel Murderer.

The only problem is that, in most cases, the officers in question named different suspects, and many of the claims they made about the veracity of a particular suspect tend to fall apart under close scrutiny.

SIR ROBERT ANDERSON

However, one man who was, most certainly, in a position to know whether, contrary to popular opinion, the police did, in fact, catch their man, was Sir Robert Anderson (1841 – 1918), who, at the time of the Whitechapel Murders, was the head of the Criminal Investigation Department at Scotland Yard, and, as such, was the highest ranking officer with direct responsibility for the case.

A photograph of Sir Robert Anderson.
Sir Robert Anderson.

UNDISCOVERED MURDERS ARE RARE

In 1910, Andreson published his memoirs, which he titled The Lighter Side of My Official Life.

One statement in those memoirs has been the source of endless speculation in the Ripperology community ever since.

Referring to the crimes attributed to the murderer widely known as “Jack the Ripper”, Anderson stated emphatically that:-

“…undiscovered murders’ are rare in London, and the Jack the Ripper crimes are not within that category…”

THE POLICE POWERS IN FRANCE

However, it is what Anderson goes on to say about the restrictions in securing a conviction foisted on the Metropolitan Police by the English criminal justice system that will form the subject of this article.

Having stated that the police did, in fact, know the murderer’s identity, Anderson went on to claim that the reason they couldn’t convict their suspect was that the English justice system prevented them from doing so.

He also stated that, had the murders occurred in France, then the result would have been a lot different:-

“…And if the police here had powers such as the French police possess, the murderer would have been brought to justice.”

WHAT WAS THE DIFFERENCE?

So, what was the difference between the English and French systems that would, according to Anderson, have secured his conviction had he been Jacques l’Eventreur?

Well, in 1907, a sensational murder case, that had taken place in Monte Carlo, was receiving a huge amount of coverage in the British press.

Emma Levin, a rich Danish widow, had been murdered by Irish tennis player and Wimbledon finalist, Vere Thomas Goold and his wife, Marie.

You can read a full account of the crime in this article.

The front cover of a French newspaper showing the Goold case.
From Le Petit Journal, August 25th, 1907.

HOW A CRIMINAL IS TRIED IN FRANCE

On Saturday, 31st August, 1907, The Newry Reporter published the following article on how a murder investigation and prosecution would be conducted in France.

This is, therefore, the justice system that Sir Robert Anderson was referring to in his memoirs, which would have resulted in the Whitechapel murderer being brought to justice.

The article read:-

“When we describe a French criminal case in an English newspaper, we talk of the Judge of Instruction as “the examining magistrate.” We use this quite inadequate expression because the Judge of Instruction does not exist in England. And Englishmen may thank their stars that he does not exist, for, of all the mistakes of the Napoleonic law code, none is so terrible as that one which created the Judge of Instruction.

His power, from the moment a prisoner is arrested on suspicion of a crime, is illimitable until he hands the case over to the court for judgment.

And even then his power is great, for judge and jury have to listen to the Judge of Instruction’s report of the crime before they listen to the evidence for or against the prisoner.

And this report not unnaturally influences them as much or more than any evidence.

THE MONTE CARLO MURDER CASE

You have been reading, in England, accounts of the Monte Carlo murder case, and you have read of the confession made by the prisoners.

I wonder if you realise how that confession has been obtained, or rather how it might have been obtained, for, in the case of the Goolds, the Judge of Instruction, M. Malavialle, appears to have exercised his influence comparatively gently.

GUILTY UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT

The Judge of Instruction acts from the outset on the assumption that his prisoner is guilty. Whereas, in England, every man is innocent until his guilt is proved.

In France, all prisoners are guilty till they have proved their innocence, and proved it to the hilt.

A TYPICAL CASE

We will take a typical case – the Goold case – and we will alter it a little to make it more typical still.

A woman has been murdered. Her body has been cut up and left on several doorsteps. The parcels of human remains have been found, and the doctors have declared that the remains are those of a woman who has met her death by murder at the hands of a person or persons unknown.

A man  – we will call him Pierre Lebrun (which is the French equivalent for Peter Brown) – has been arrested on suspicion.

He was seen loitering round one of the doorsteps on which the head of the victim was afterwards found. When seen he had an overcoat on. When arrested he had no overcoat, and the coat with bloodstains on it had been found not far front the doorstep where the remains had lain.

HANDED OVER TO THE JUDGE

The case is handed over to a Judge of Instruction, and Pierre Lebrun stands accused of the crime.

For three or four days he is left in prison, where he sees nobody, except two of his fellow-prisoners.

These may or may not be the criminals.

Whether they be so or not, they are creatures of the Judge of Instruction, and it is their duty to try and entrap Pierre Lebrun into a confession of his crime.

Pierre Lebrun, however, loudly protests his innocence.

PRESSURE TO CONFESS

By the Judge of Instruction’s orders, he is not too well fed, and whenever he complains of his food, or lack of it. as he pretty constantly does, his fellow-prisoners and the warders tell him that if he were to confess his crime and save trouble, everything would be much better for him in the end.

BEFORE THE JUDGE

After a few days of this kind of pressure, Pierre Lebrun is taken to a room where the Judge of Instruction and his clerk are seated. It is furnished like an ordinary office, the judge’s clerk sits at a table, writing, and the judge sits at another table, or walks about the room.

He says nothing to Pierre for about five minutes, and, if Pierre be at all a nervous man, five minutes of absolute silence with the eyes of these two strange men fixed on hint are not likely to set him at ease.

THE INTERROGATION

The Judge of Instruction stops in his walk, facing Pierre.

He takes a small pocket-knife out of his pocket and begins paring his nails.

Suddenly, he grips the knife and stabs downwards with it, as though it were a dagger.

“You killed your victim with a blow like that. We all know about it. You had better confess at once,” he says.

Now, of course, a good deal depends on Pierre.

It takes strong nerves to withstand much of this sort of thing. And he gets a good deal of it.

A CHANGE OF TACTICS

The Judge of Instruction changes his tactics.

He chats to him like a friend without alluding to the crime at all, then, suddenly, he changes his tone again and storms him.

ALLOWED TO LIE

The Judge of Instruction is allowed by law to lie.

He may tell a suspected criminal that accomplices have been caught and have confessed.

He may, in a word, draw a confession from his prisoner by every possible method, except that of physical torture, and even if he were to lose his temper and strike the prisoner, I am not certain that the result would not turn to the prisoner’s disadvantage rather than to his own.

BUILDING THE CASE

In the meanwhile, evidence is being collected by the police.

The Judge of Instruction builds up his theory of the case.

He allows people to see Pierre Lebrun or not, just as he pleases. He has him treated well or badly, as he thinks fit. He questions him as often or as seldom as he wishes. He may call him up in the middle of the night and examine him in his cell, or he may not go near him for a week or more.

THE JUDGE MAY DO AS HE LIKES

He may set him free, have him watched, and catch him again if he incriminates himself; in a word, he may do exactly as he likes with him, and he is responsible to no one and to nothing but his own conscience.

The Judge of Instruction may allow journalists to go and see the prisoner.

On the other hand, he may forbid him leave to see a dying mother, or to send a message to his wife.

He handles all his letters, and if he cares to have lying letters written to the prisoner with forged names of friends, so as to entrap him into a confession, he has a perfect right to do so.

THE JUDGE DECIDES

When, as the curious French phraseology has it, the Judge of Instruction has “formed his religion on the case,” he hands in his report.

If he believes the prisoner innocent, he finds him not guilty and lets him go.

If, on the other hand, he thinks there is a case, he says as much on paper, adds all the evidence he has collected to the dossier, and then sends the prisoner for trial.

It is constantly happening that a Judge of Instruction, with the best will in the world, makes a mistake, and sends the prisoner for trial with a report so dead against him that the court believes him guilty, and sentences the man or woman to a long term of penal servitude.

A MISCARRIAGE OF JUSTICE

Years afterwards perhaps the miscarriage of justice is discovered, and the man or woman is pardoned, and allowed to begin life again after it has been pretty thoroughly spoilt.

If he or she have by association with criminals, become a criminal by then, that’s his, or her, look-out.

The Judge of Instruction believed his prisoner guilty, the court follows his lead. The prisoner was sentenced and has suffered.”