Sophie Toscan du Plantier: My First Post
From August 2021.
I was completely gripped by the Sky Studios documentary Murder at the Cottage by Jim Sheridan. But I learned later that many leads, and much information, had been withheld from the Sky documentary, including the possibility of as many as three additional suspects on top of the gigantic Englishman who features heavily in this series and also in the Netflix version. Netflix made their series in association with the victim’s family, which gives a different perspective. It was a friend who nudged me back towards the Audible Original podcast, West Cork, about the same case. I had been aware of this for some time, and even listened to the first episode when it came out, but it was the Sky documentary that hooked me. I think West Cork was recorded around 2016, about a murder that occurred in 1996, so this must have been some story to lay in the public consciousness for so long. It really was some story.
Several of the episodes of West Cork are hardly about the murder case or the victim at all. Some of the antics of the Irish police, especially the local force, are so outlandish and comical as to be horrifying. They accidentally wiretapped themselves. They tried to use a man who once met the English suspect as an informant, and plied him with cash and drugs. Their motives at one stage seem to amount to entrapment. Sheridan’s documentary suggests that Marie Farrell, a key witness, was asked to adjust her statements and read from the police script in court. She changed her story and actually supported the suspect in a civil case as recently as 2014.
West Cork has succeeded in gaining interviews with a far wider cast of characters than Sheridan, and it feels as though all of them are happy to join in the fantasy of the gigantic Englishman with a mad glint in his eye, who spends his nights howling at the moon in his underpants while shaking a giant staff. He has been seen with a book by Aleister Crowley. This caricature is laughable. But in large part, it is accounts of local neighbours which led to the Englishman becoming the prime suspect. These mad accounts led eventually, in 2019, to a conviction for murder in a French court. This is an unbelievable idea when laid out so briefly. When laid out in 14 podcast episodes, or 5 episodes on Sky, or 3 episodes on Netflix, it somehow seems fairly plausible. This has a lot to do with human nature and the nature of belief itself. And this helps to understand my thinking about justice being what you make of it.
My feeling about the nature of justice is this: in the UK and Ireland, and many Western countries (but not in France), the idea of guilt for a serious crime like murder is actually quite subjective. If twelve of your peers, as chosen by the court system, think you did it, then you did it, and you will be sentenced. In France, it is even less scientific, incidentally, because there is no jury. French justice considers hearsay evidence to have a value that no British judge or prosecutor would consider fair. The French were not interested in helping the Irish police, and yet they were quite content to trump up a few rumours and gossip and convict a man in his absence.
So the word justice, the idea of justice, is difficult to pin down. And yet most people think they know what it means, and they feel that they know it when they see it. Let’s look at justice in another way: justice means catching the killer. The correct killer. You may think the killer is someone else, in some cases, but no matter. If justice is done correctly, and if you believe in the process, you accept the result. If the man found guilty still protests, he is free to appeal. One way or another, one day or another, the truth will out. That’s a different view of justice, and perhaps is closer to what most people think.
This definition feels more objective, because it operates in a binary world of right and wrong. In reality, those who work in the criminal justice system seem less sure of their ground. They know that cases are not completely clean, that alibis are not always watertight, that people lie, that innocent people panic under pressure and do things that make them look guilty. You, as a distant member of the public, simply hope that something really bad does not happen to you as either victim or suspect. Justice is best served at a distance, to other people. God help you if you get into the wrong alley on the wrong night.
In a small, remote town that nobody had previously heard of, a place where the police never see a murder, a place where nobody locked their doors, a place where the night really is dark, and would be silent were it not for the raging ocean. In that kind of place, a place you might visit as a tourist, you can assume that if a body turns up, the locals will always suspect the blow-in, the outsider, before anyone else. And some of those locals will work for the police, and they will have the same idea. And in a world before mobile phones, before social media, before advanced forensic science, in a case where there are no witnesses and no fingerprints, the police will struggle. And when the victim is foreign, and from a wealthy background, the victim’s husband on friendly terms with the president of France, the pressure will rise inexorably. And when the pressure builds enough, the police will get impatient and try to put the frighteners on the locals. Under that sort of pressure, the locals will all point to the easy target: the gigantic Englishman who never really settled in, an eccentric, a drinker, a man with a booming voice. Make no mistake that the English giant is another victim of whoever caused harm to Sophie Toscan du Plantier. But he is not a totally innocent victim. He has made life difficult for himself. He is far from perfect. He has resolutely refused to live a quiet life, or to find another village to live quietly in, which is what Marie Farrell was forced to do. But the case remains open.
This case has been in the memory a long time: A Devil in the Hills from the New Yorker in January 2000.
Another book came out in May 2021 by Nick Foster.