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

By Smith, William | History Today, January 2009 | Go to article overview

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


Smith, William, History Today


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 Valery 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 a la vie (2001).

The episode was Maurice's final undoing. It took the judge, Jean-Louis Bruguiere, just a few weeks to decide on sentence. Here was a defendant completely off the rails, the son, incredibly, of a police inspector and brother of a car thief, for whom Maurice had served time in 1977 for aiding his escape from prison. Given the murky history of this 'irrecuperable', as the judge pronounced him, exacerbated by the more serious crimes of possessing firearms and homicide, Bruguiere saw no alternative to the death penalty.

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Then fate intervened with the election of Francois Mitterrand as president on May 10th, 1981. The socialist Mitterrand was an avowed opponent of capital punishment and an architect of radical change. When Mitterrand's election victory was announced, Maurice knew that he had been spared, his sentence commuted to life imprisonment. The future would be hard, he was well aware, for police killers were often victimised behind bars, and he would certainly be no exception. Yet what followed was a remarkable transformation, the sort of personal renaissance usually found only in fiction.

Despite the privations and humiliations of prison life, which drove him on more than one occasion to the verge of suicide, Maurice applied himself to study. Learning Old French, Latin and palaeography, he obtained a degree in history, later preparing a doctoral thesis, La famille en Gevaudan au XVe siecle, 1380-1483 (1998). It was overseen by the University of Tours in December 1995, and received commendation from a panel of eminent medievalists. Developing Maurice's earlier work, also written in prison--Les relations familiales eu Rouergue et Gevaudan au XVe siecle, d'apres le tresor des Chartes (Societe des Lettres, Sciences et Arts de la Lozere, 1990)--the thesis was published by the Sorbonne in 1998 and remains an authoritative work in its field.

Maurice was released in 2000 after a campaign by leading academics, and is currently head of research at the Centre de Recherches Historiques in Paris, where he continues his study of family, religion and power in the late Middle Ages. He also remains active, through writing, lecturing and debating, on a cause close to his heart--the universal abolition of the death penalty and the rehabilitation of offenders in society.

Researched and written in prison, with neither academic contacts nor access to libraries, and relying solely on microfilm for primary sources, La famille en Gevaudan au XVe siecle was produced under conditions which, as Tours professor emeritus Bernard Chevalier writes in his preface, 'forcent l'admiration'. …

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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
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