July 19, 2011

Omar M’a Tuer

I took advantage of La Fête du Cinéma in order to practice my French oral comprehension. Seeing as movie tickets were only 3euros, I picked the only French movie that was out that didn’t look like a really bad comedy.

Besides the description provided by UGC lille,
1991. Omar Raddad est emprisonné pour le meurtre de Madame Marchal qui l'employait comme jardinier. Trois ans plus tard, un écrivain convaincu de son innocence décide de mener sa propre enquête. Les destins croisés de deux hommes que tout oppose."

I knew nothing about the Omar Raddad Affair, which was a very big deal in the 90s in France.

Long story short, a rich French woman was found murdered, locked in her pitch black basement. On the walls “Omar M’a Tuer” and “Omar M’a T" were written in her blood.

The police believed she had written this on the walls herself with her dying strength (in the absolute dark without making any mistakes..) and so they went to arrest Omar Raddad, her gardener, who is Moroccan. Despite the only evidence to implicate him being what is written on the walls, he is found guilty and is sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Three years later, Jacques Verges, a French writer, believing Omar to be innocent decides to investigate the crime himself. He then writes a book entitled Omar M’a Tuer: Histoire d’un crime. In his book, he basically shows how the judicial system screwed over Omar and brings to light new suspects.

In the end, then President Jacques Chirac reduces Omar’s sentence. In 1998, he is let out of jail after six and a half years spent in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. In 2001 they did DNA testing, and although they found two distinct sets of male DNA at the scene of the crime, Omar was not a match.

[Disclaimer: Although my French is pretty good, there were definitely some scenes I did not understand. If I got anything wrong do not hesitate to correct me, thanks!]

The Movie Trailer. It was a good movie and I recommend seeing it!

This movie made me terrified of the French judicial system.

I know America has probably sent its fair share of innocent people to jail for crimes they didn’t commit, but Omar was treated thusly for one simple reason: He is not French. He is Moroccan. He is a foreigner.

I think the hardest scene for me to watch was when they interrogate him after arresting him.

Despite saying several times that he does not speak French, they continue to yell at and harass him in French, accusing him of murdering his boss. After having photos of the murder shoved under his nose, he starts to understand what’s going on, but is unable to express himself in French.

Sometimes I forget my French words when I’m nervous because I’m meeting someone new. I can’t imagine how stressful it would be to try and communicate in French while the police are yelling at me in super speedy French while shoving pictures of murdered people under my nose. Plus, based on the movie's portrayal of him, I speak way better French than Omar.

It made me cringe to watch him treated that way. I spent most of the film cringing, actually.

The law has since changed. Now it is required that anyone being detained by the police get read their rights in a language they understand.

One thing that I find very interesting is that my French friends do not understand my fear. They all make the joke that since I’m not Arabic, I wont have these same types of problems.

While I realize there is a lot of racism towards Arabic people in France, there is also racism towards foreigners in general. A fellow American expat blogger living in Lille, Traveling Amber, has been dealing with racism towards American foreigners for a while now.

I am realistic and know that it is unlikely that I will be framed for murder, and put in jail with little to no evidence against me, but this film really opened my eyes to the differences between how I could expect to be treated by the American justice system as an American citizen, and how I could expect to be treated in France as a foreigner.

On the bright side, the movie was really well done; intriguing, thought provoking, and full of great characters. It was definitely worth those 3euros.

What do you think about the Omar Raddad Affair? Do you find it shocking at all? Is the French judicial system something to be afraid of? I'd love to hear how you feel about it.


  1. I haven't watched the film yet but I plan to. I was a teenager when the case burst and the whole thing had quite an impact on me because I was old enough to follow and understand it over a certain number of years. Although it's not perfect, I still tend to believe that our judicial system is not that bad. However, what scares me the most in my country is the police system. In lots of miscarry of justice cases, the initial malfunctioning didn't come from the judicial branch itself but from the examination of the suspects and accusers, as well as from the investigation process. And when police officers don't do they job properly, the whole legal system is plagued with inconsistencies that turn against the suspects, leading to aberrant outcomes like sending an innocent man to jail. I really hope that the Raddad's case will teach everyone a lesson. There's a lot to learn from it, both legally and socially.

    Changing the subject and provided that you're into "great" judicial cases, I advise you to watch a documentary made in the U.S. by French director, Jean-Xavier de Lestrade. It's called "The Staircase" and it's about a guy, Michael Peterson, who's accused of murdering his wife. Maybe you've heard about this (apparently famous) case but I won't tell how it ended. The only thing I can say is that although it's a documentary, I've rarely watched anything as captivating as this. There are 8 episodes and it's brilliantly done. Here's the description from Amazon:

    The Staircase chronicles a sensational North Carolina murder case from the crime to the verdict. When Kathleen Peterson was found dead in her Durham, NC mansion in December '01, her husband, novelist Michael Peterson, claimed she had fallen down a narrow staircase. The authorities disagreed, and Peterson was charged with first degree murder. Thereafter, director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade and his crew were given almost unrestricted access to the defendant (who remained free on bail) and his legal team, as well as to the district attorney and the prosecution crew, albeit to a lesser extent. There are countless meetings to map out defense strategy, dozens of interviews (including many with Peterson himself; he's not an especially sympathetic character), scenes of pre-trial home life, excerpts from Court TV coverage, and so on. The filmmakers follow the prosecution investigators to Texas, where we see a body exhumed; there's even a trip to Germany to look into a previous death in which Peterson may or may not have been involved.

    The result is both exhaustive and exhausting; indeed, it's not until the end of the fourth of the series' eight episodes (each is about 45 minutes long) that the actual trial begins. By then, various revelations about Peterson, ranging from surprising to unsavory to downright sordid, have proved once again that truth really is stranger than fiction.

    Link: http://www.amazon.com/Staircase-Michael-Peterson/dp/B000A1INIK/ref=sr_1_2?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1311078064&sr=1-2 (The reviews are impressive, by the way).

    Once you've started watching the first episode, you just can't stop watching the others! It's even better than a film, in my opinion!

    Anyway, I'll watch "Omar m'a tuer" as soon as I can. It was one of Jacques Vergès (who, besides being a writer, is a lawyer) biggest case. I can't say I like him since he's always trying to be in the spotlight by pleading polemical cases like. He defended, for instance, Klaus Barbie (a Gestapo member), as well as dictators and war criminals like Slobodan Milosevic, Omar Bongo, Laurent Gbagbo, Saddam Hussein, etc. Although even the worst criminals need lawyers, I don't have much consideration for the ones who always choose to be on the bad side of the profession. But that's another subject...

  2. Oops, I'm sorry for the length of my comment. It's hard for me to be concise!

  3. Honestly, I don't think it's just the French judicial system. For all the talk of "innocent until proven guilty" in the United States, why is it that people who have been in prison for decades are being released from prison for crimes they didn't commit? Is it because people allow their personal prejudices to blind them to the truth? Is it because there are quotas they have to meet? All speculative, of course, but it seems to have happened a lot. And continues to happen still.

  4. Emilie: Yeah I agree. If the police don't do their job properly it's really hard for the rest to work right! I also think that France has given way too much power to the police, especially compared to America.

    While I realize we also send people to jail for crimes they didn't commit in America, for me this film was really an eye opener in the differences of being a citizen somewhere and being a foreigner. I agree that the French system is better than most of the world, but that doesn't mean it's without flaws. It seems to me that France has already learned from the mistakes made during the Raddad affair by changing the law from only speaking in French to speaking in the language the other person understands. I'm sure there have been other changes to the laws since 1991 as well.

    I'll definitely check out that documentary. It sounds very interesting. Again, I know that America isn't perfect either, but I'm more comfortable with our justice system because I understand it better.

    Joshua: I completely agree it isn't just France. The US justice system definitely makes mistakes as well. Personally, I think a lot of it has to do with personal prejudices and stereotyping. This movie really made me think about the benefits of living in a country where you are a citizen compared to one where you are a foreigner though. At least in America I understand the judicial system and would know my rights. This film really brought up the fact that I'm ignorant about my rights in France. I guess that's what makes it even scarier to me. Time to start wikipedia-ing "rights in France," haha.

  5. Don't get in trouble Laura!

  6. Thanks, Linds! I'll try not to ;)

  7. Ooh, I don't think I would like this movie. I would be cringing just like you! I would hate to be accused of a crime while in Europe anywhere. Look what happened to the Knox girl in Italy.

    While our judicial system is one built on "innocent until proven guilty", we have accused and imprisoned many people based on a jury of our peers.

    Just recently, in Florida, a woman named Casey Anthony was accused of murdering her 2 1/2 year old little girl, Caylee. After following the 6 week trial on TV, and coming to the conclusion that she was guilty (me and thousands of others) she was acquitted by a jury of 12 people who said the prosecution did not meet the burden of proof.

    These jurors were sequestered for 6 or 7 weeks and when deliberating, only spent 10 hours and never once asked to see any of the evidence i.e. tapes, transcripts, pictures that the prosecution put forth. I ask you, how can it be that a mother, who waits 31 days to report her child missing, lies about it to the police, sends them on a wild goose chase, drinks, parties with friends, gets a tattoo "the beautiful life" the day after the child is missing not be accused of at least Manslaughter, All the while Texas EquSearch has 4,200 volunteers searching for the missing child who during the trial the defense said never was missing but drowned in the family pool. The evidence presented by the prosecution, while circumstantial was so overwhelming that I could not believe they would acquit her. They even found the little girls body 4 month later wrapped in a blanket that was from her bedroom and wrapped again in 3 garbage bags less than a mile from her house in a swampy area that is usually covered in water.

    When the jury went into deliberations, they deliberated 10 hours, did not request to review any of the evidence or tapes presented in this 6 week trial and found her "not guilty" of anything! So, in this case, justice was not served for the little girl that was thrown away like a bag of garbage. It made me ill and caused an outrage everywhere. It has caused me to wonder about our justice system and just how fair it really is.


  8. I heard about the Casey Anthony case. I was pretty shocked she was acquited too considering the pieces of evidence against her! And the public outcry over the Internet is pretty impressive. I don't really know what to think about it, to be honest. A jury trial seems to be a fair proceeding, though. I think I might understand the faulty mechanism when an innocent person is sentenced to jail because appearances are against him/her, but a murderer who is acquited because the jury didn't examine the evidence? What the hell? That proves that whatever the legal system, there will never be a perfect one since human beings are, by essence, biased and flawed...

  9. Kris: I didn't follow very closely the Casey Anthony case, but I did hear about the verdict. I think part of the problem has to do with the Jury making process. My dad's a lawyer, and he always says that you have to be pretty stupid not to figure out how to get out of jury duty! Hence the verdict with Casey. Although I thought Casey was found guilty of lying to police officers - obstruction of justice, and would have to serve 4 years for that. Personally, I have a bigger problem with innocent people going to jail than guilty people not going to jail.

    Emilie: Good point. I guess there will always be mistakes because to err is human. Kind of depressing, though. You'd like to think that in modern day democracies that innocent people don't go to jail and the guilty ones always do.

  10. http://sarahalaoui.blogspot.com/2010/04/race-relations-what-france-can-learn.html

  11. Laura,

    I think the jury, in this case, couldn't connect the dots and didn't understand the instructions given by the judge on the counts they were supposed to consider i.e. Murder in the first degree with the death penalty, Murder in the second degree, and two other different counts of manslaughter.

    Two of jurors spoke out and I got the impression they clearly didn't understand what they were supposed to do and somehow got wrapped up in considering the death penalty which they weren't supposed to consider...just if she was guilty or not guilty and of what counts. Later on, in the penalty phase they would decide on if the death penalty was appropriate or not.

    In any event, I agree with you on the fact that many people go to jail that are innocent and some have been imprisoned for 20 years. Two such cases are here in Texas. DNA cleared them. Sad that they spent all that time in prison.

  12. Bon, moi je parle français, parce qu'en Anglais ce n'est vraiment pas le top.
    Je découvre ton blog avec un grand plaisir, tu racontes un tas de choses super intéressantes et c'est drôle de voir ton point de vue.

    L'affaire Omar, je la connais parce qu'elle a fait la une pendant des lustres à la télé et dans les journaux. Je ne me permettrai pas de juger le système judiciaire français parce je ne le connais pas très bien (heureusement pour moi) mais je sais qu'il n'est pas forcément juste tout le temps. (Qui est à l'abri d'une erreur à la con judiciaire?) Bref!

    Tu passes quand tu veux sur Dunkerque, tu seras bienvenue chez moi! Et ce sera avec plaisir qu'on te montrera comme on est sympa chez nous :)

    Au plaisir de te lire!

  13. Ju: Merci beaucoup pour tous tes compliments! Je suis heureuse que tu l'aimes bien. Je te dirais si jamais je me trouve à Dunkerque ;) Bis

  14. Very interesting - in both the french system and the US system it is really important to have a good lawyer fighting for you. Unfortuantely, in both France and the US that is often about having the money to pay for it, whether guilty or innocent.


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