His case greatly influenced the debate over capital punishment in France after the book Le Pull-over rouge (1978) was published by former lawyer and journalist Gilles Perrault. It called Ranucci's guilt into question, and had a notable impact on public opinion, having sold over 1 million copies.
Christian Ranucci was born in Avignon, France on April 6, 1954, to Jean Ranucci, a board painter and veteran of the Indochina War, and Héloïse Mathon, a caregiver.
When he was four years old, he witnessed his father slashing his mother in the face with a knife — similar to the one Ranucci would later use to commit murder — at the door of a court after their divorce had been pronounced. However, other sources, like Ranucci's father, testified that his son did not really witness this attack, but only saw his injured mother as a nursemaid was carrying him in her arms.
Mother and son soon fled, moving home numerous times, as Héloïse Mathon was afraid that her ex-husband would kill them both (although Jean never attempted to find his son). As a result of this experience, she became an overprotective mother. Years later, Ranucci, charged with Rambla's murder, confessed to the examining magistrate that he had lived his entire childhood with the constant fear that his father, depicted as violent by his mother, would eventually find and kill him.
During his school years, Ranucci was described as a mediocre pupil, repeating a year, but still earning his National Diploma (BEPC) at the age of 17. He was often violent towards his schoolmates, and remained immature and uncommunicative as a young man. Meanwhile, he worked as a waiter at a bar, Le Rio Bravo, owned by his mother, located in Saint-Jean-de-Moirans, near Voiron (Isère), which he ran when she was absent.
They had lived in Nice since 1970. Ranucci eventually went to Wittlich, Germany in order to complete his military service, which ended in March 1974. According to testimony by several comrades from his army days, his behaviour was impulsive, and his reactions were sometimes disproportionate. Later, as the murder case against him was unfolding, he was picked out as the abductor and offender of two children from Nice, but this was not pursued, nor formally proven. On May 24, 1974, he was hired by Ets COTTO, a company that made and sold air-conditioning equipment based in Nice, and began working as a door-to-door salesman.
As his mother refused to accompany him on a Pentecost weekend trip, Ranucci left Nice alone on June 2, 1974. After visiting the region, he arrived in Marseilles on the morning of June 3, 1974. Looking for the home of a former military service comrade, he stopped in the Cité Sainte-Agnès housing estate (4th arrondissement). Distracted by the sight of a group of children involved in numerous games, he came across Marie-Dolorès Rambla, eight years old, and her six-and-a-half year old brother Jean-Baptiste, along with two neighbouring children playing behind a building, in the car park of a local garage.
When the Rambla children were alone, around 11:10 am - 11:15 am, he moved his car to the car park, on the same level where the children were. Telling them he had lost a "big black dog", he asked for their help in searching for it. Sending the little boy off to track down the non-existent dog, he stayed with Marie-Dolorès, chatting for a few minutes, then persuaded her to get into his car - a grey Peugeot 304. According to his later confession, the girl was initially reluctant to go with him, making him repeat his offer; he eventually gained her trust by promising to return her home for lunch time.
After being arrested, he was not recognized by the two witnesses to the abduction, and the only physical evidence implicating him in this phase of the crime was a drawing showing the estate where the Rambla family lived; he made this drawing in police custody.
An hour later, arriving at a crossroads, he went through a stop sign and collided with another car, damaging both vehicles. He then turned round and fled in the direction of Marseilles, drove a few hundred metres before stopping at the bottom of a hill, exited from his car with the young girl, and climbed up to the thickets holding her left arm. Hearing Marie-Dolorès screaming and crying (she had just lost her right shoe and had to walk barefoot on ground's vegetation), he jammed her neck then subsequently lay her down and pushed her temple to the ground. He hit her head with stones then stabbed her in the throat with his flick knife (she reportedly received about fifteen blows). · Afterwards, he covered the body with prickly branches.
Returning to his car, he drove for a while, then hid in a mushroom bed in order to change his flat tyre, change his bloodied clothes, clean, and hide his knife. However, when leaving, he needed help from people to get his car out of the mud. After having accepted a cup of tea, he got back to his home, Corniche Fleurie (on the heights of Nice). ·
Ranucci was arrested two days after the murder as he was returning from his office to his home in Nice. The girl's corpse had been found shortly before by a squad of gendarmes. He had been identified by his licence plate number provided by witnesses to the car accident during his flight with the child. He confessed to the abduction and murder of Marie-Dolorès Rambla, and drew an accurate sketch of the kidnapping, then indicated the place where he disposed of the murder weapon, his bloodied flick knife, which was later found buried in a peat field stack by gendarmes.
Psychiatrists who heard Ranucci's conversation during sessions diagnosed him as having an "immature and backward sexuality". According to their report this, coupled with a need for company, had led to the desire to take children and spend time with them. He was not profiled as a pedophile, but rather as someone whose sexual identity remained undefined, though the psychiatrists asserted he showed "keen interest" in children. While confessing, Ranucci claimed he had no intention of harming the girl and only wished to go for a ride with her. He explained the murder was a result of panic and fear due to the accident.
His motive for the abduction still remain unclear, as no signs of rape or other sexual assault were found on the victim's body.
Months later, while incarcerated at Baumettes prison (9th arrondissement of Marseille), he repudiated his confession after learning he was of the same blood type as the little girl (bloodstains had been found on his pants seized in his car trunk), and hearing about a local pedophile who wore a red sweater similar to the one discovered near the mushroom bed where he had hidden after the murder.
André Fraticelli, Ranucci's lawyer, originally planned to plead mitigating circumstances, citing his client's difficult childhood, the sight of his father slashing his mother's face, and the numerous moves made across France as a defence in court. Fraticelli wanted the jury to consider Ranucci's state of mind and consciousness while committing murder, and whether he was really accountable for the crime, rather than his guilt. However, as Ranucci had retracted his confession, his other two lawyers conformed to his wishes, and chose to plead his innocence.
He was tried in Aix-en-Provence in southern France on March 9 and 10, 1976, just three weeks after Patrick Henry was arrested in Troyes for another child murder. Journalists described public opinion as sensitive to the point of hysteria, demanding death penalties for child murderers.
On the advice of his mother, Ranucci came to court dressed like a clergyman, sporting a large pectoral cross, which irritated most of the jury, and was interpreted by a few observers as an indication of his immaturity. Ranucci appeared arrogant during the trial, denying the crime and his guilt, despite the physical evidence and the details he had provided during his confession. · Found guilty on all counts on March 10, 1976, he was sentenced to death. During the last hearing, and after his advocate's plea, minutes were communicated at the last moment to the jury and the defence lawyers, which, while not unheard of or illegal, was an extremely rare procedure. This was later used as an argument before the Court of Cassation.
Again on his mother's advice, Ranucci wrote a 74-page document titled "Récapitulatif" ("Summary") while on death row, in which he summed up the case from his point of view, and attempted to prove he was innocent. Gérard Bouladou, who has written books about the case, observes signs of mythomania in this document and argues that Ranucci was trying to persuade himself of his own innocence. His appeal for a second trial was denied by the Court of Cassation on June 17, 1976.
Finally, on July 26, President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing refused a pardon for Ranucci. He was executed by guillotine in the courtyard of Baumettes prison, in Marseilles, on July 28, 1976, at 4:13 am. Two of his lawyers who witnessed the execution, claimed his last words were "Réhabilitez-moi!" ("Clear my name!"), but executioner André Obrecht wrote in his memoirs that the condemned said nothing before dying, his last word being a "Negative!" shouted at the chaplain when he refused to receive communion. His third lawyer, André Fraticelli, confirmed that Ranucci never asked to be rehabilitated. It is also specified in the minutes of the execution that Ranucci "made no statement".
A novel by Gilles Perrault entitled Le Pull-over rouge (The Red Sweater), disputed Ranucci's involvement in the crime, expressing the writer's doubts about his guilt. The title of the book refers to a red sweater found hidden in the mushroom bed where Ranucci hid after his car accident, which seemed similar to that worn by another man who sexually abused children in another Marseilles estate, just two days before Rambla's kidnapping and murder. During the inquiry, when asked about the sweater, Ranucci denied being its owner. In his book, Perrault took on board Ranucci's final defence, arguing that a concussion he allegedly suffered as a result of the accident, right at the bottom of the crime scene, caused Ranucci to become victim to manipulation and impersonation by the "real murderer". In this theory, the man is supposed to have carried the unconscious Ranucci, drove his car to the mushroom bed where he then hid his red sweater. However, nothing within the penal case could corroborate this version; Perrault himself had no explanation or rebuttal to the main evidence, in particular the hiding place of the murder weapon Ranucci revealed.
The victim's father, Pierre Rambla, vehemently opposed the book and the subsequent campaign that supported Perrault's theses, arguing it made his family suffer, especially his elder son Jean-Baptiste who almost witnessed Marie-Dolorès' abduction.
The book was made into a film by Michel Drach in 1979, starring Serge Avédikian as Ranucci. A television film about the case, L'affaire Christian Ranucci: Le combat d'une mère, starring Alexandre Hamidi and Catherine Frot as Christian Ranucci and his mother, was released in 2007. ·
The controversy next entered politics, influencing the debate on capital punishment in France, which culminated in criminal lawyer, and newly nominated Minister of Justice, Robert Badinter addressing the National Assembly in September 1981 to defend his bill to abolish capital punishment. He claimed, with regard to the Ranucci case, that there were: "too many questions about his case, and [that] these questions were sufficient [...] to condemn the death penalty". On the other hand, some journalists who covered the case refuted Perrault's miscarriage of justice theory. Christian Chardon, who covered the case for Détective, wrote an article for the newspaper Minute titled "Non ! L'affaire Ranucci n'est pas une erreur judiciaire" ("No! The Ranucci case was not a miscarriage of justice") in late 1978, in which he recapped the key points of the case and argued for Ranucci's guilt. Chardon denied that Ranucci had been tortured as claimed during his trial. (In particular, he had accused Commissioner Gérard Alessandra, chief of the criminal section "Nord" in the Hôtel de Police de Marseille, who was in charge of the inquiry.) In late 1979, Jean Laborde published an article in Paris-Match which he titled "Ranucci innocent ? Eh bien non !" ("Ranucci innocent? Well no!"), also refuting Perrault's theory of Ranucci's innocence.
In 1990, having accused the policemen in charge of the inquiry of "abuse of authority" in a 1985 TV program titled Qui a tué Christian Ranucci? (Who killed Christian Ranucci?), Gilles Perrault, as well as the presenter, was found guilty of defamation and fined 40,000 francs to be paid to each of the five policemen, a sentence confirmed and raised on appeals to 70,000 francs for each plaintiff. In 2008, Perrault and his publisher Fayard were found guilty of defamation against the Marseille police in another book, L'Ombre de Christian Ranucci, in which it was stated that the investigators behaved with "thoughtlessness and partisanship". Perrault was fined 5,000 euros and his publisher an equal sum for each policeman defamed, a decision confirmed and increased to 10,000 euro for each of the four policemen on appeal in 2009.
Since the publishing of Le Pull-over rouge, which was followed by the creation of the "Comité national pour la révision du procès Ranucci", there have been three requests for a review of the Ranucci trial, all of them ultimately rejected, the court arguing that no new facts had been presented. It was stressed that arguments presented before the Court of Cassation had already been cited previously by the defence during the criminal trial. Despite the creation of the association "Affaire Ranucci: Pourquoi réviser?" by four Parisian students in 2002, there have been no further attempts to seek reconsideration since 1991 - the rejection date of the last request. Although some rumors circulated in 2006 about the presence of serial killer Michel Fourniret near Marseilles in 1974, an anthropometric study concluded that photographs taken at Ranucci's trial in 1976 of a man who seemed at a first sight to look like Fourniret, did not match pictures of the real Fourniret at that time. On multiple occasions, former President of the Republic Giscard d'Estaing has said in interviews that he did not feel remorse regarding his role in the case; he mentioned to journalist Laurent Delahousse in 2010 that he did not regret his decision to decline clemency to Ranucci, claiming that he was indeed guilty and that "he had to be punished".
Héloïse Mathon died on March 14, 2013. She was buried in the graveyard of Saint-Véran, Avignon, alongside her son's ashes which she had followed as they were transported from the graveyard Saint-Pierre in Marseille to Saint-Véran after his execution.
In February 2005 Jean-Baptiste Rambla, Marie-Dolorès' brother, was arrested during the investigation into the disappearance of Corinne Beidl, his employer. Rambla had killed her as a result of a violent dispute about his salary. He was convicted of her murder and sentenced to an 18-year prison term in October 2008. According to his lawyers, his behaviour was influenced by drug addiction and the media coverage surrounding the guilt of his sister's murderer.