The J.M. Deveaux Case: André Soulier, the lawyer who had the law changed
“He is one of the six lawyers who have had the greatest impact on justice over the last two centuries”: This is what another leading lawyer, Mr. Vergès, known for having defended Klaus Barbie, said about Mr. Soulier. He supported his statement by referring to a case that took place in the city of Bron a little more than 60 years ago, but which had a national echo because of its irreparable impact on the rights of people bearing the brunt of “injustice”.
The October 2022 issue of the municipal bulleting of the city of Bron includes an article on our founding partner and the famous Deveaux case.
This article is reproduced below and a courtesy English translation follows.
“The J.M. Deveaux Case
The lawyer who had the law changed
“He is one of the six lawyers who have had the greatest impact on justice over the last two centuries”: This is what another leading lawyer, Mr. Vergès, known for having defended Klaus Barbie, said about Mr. Soulier. He supported his statement by referring to a case that took place in the city of Bron a little more than 60 years ago, but which had a national echo because of its irreversible impact on the rights of people bearing the brunt of injustice. André Soulier played a key role in this event and extensively writes about it in “Mes mille et une vies”, his recently published memoirs.
On Friday, July 7, 1961, Dominique Bessard, a 7-year-old little girl, was found murdered in the basement of a low-income building in Parilly, avenue Saint-Exupéry. Her father, a butcher, had left her in the care of his butcher boy, Jean-Marie Deveaux, for a few hours. The young man, a simpleton and mythomaniac, was quickly suspected. He confessed after two nights in police custody: He was the perfect scapegoat. On September 4, André Soulier, a 23-year-old lawyer from Lyon, was appointed as legal aid lawyer. He was summoned to a hearing, without having been able to read the file, without even having been able to speak to the alleged culprit, who recanted his confession! When André Soulier studied the file, he discovered the findings of the four post-mortem examination reports: They all converged to describe an operating mode that was inconsistent with the statements of the accused. But the judge did not want to give up on his only possible ideal culprit and ordered an expert opinion from Parisian forensic experts who demolished the first theories without having attended the autopsy. It was on the basis of this single piece of evidence that the “murderer” was sentenced to a 20 years’ imprisonment! In 1962, with the “events in Algeria”, justice was swift.
Young but tenacious, André Soulier decided not to give up the case: He was convinced that the judicial system wanted to go (too) straightforward. He dug deeper and ended up making new findings: The prosecutor’s visit to the crime scene without informing the defense, the judge’s interference and, above all, the judge’s influence over the discussions with the experts and then the jurors.
In 1969, on the third appeal to the French Supreme Court, the defense obtained a new trial and the acquittal of Jean-Marie Deveaux!
The lawyer also discovered that another avenue of investigations concerning the presence of a potential criminal, seen by witnesses, had been “forgotten” by the investigators!
Outraged that innocent people were put back on the street without a cent – Justice arguing that “to err is human” – André Soulier got support from the press and obtained from the then Minister of Justice that a new piece of legislation be passed to create the first Compensation Board for victims of the judicial system. He had the honor of filing the first request for compensation and obtained more than 200,000 francs (value at that time) for his client. A revolution for Justice, a turning point for the victim, a success for the lawyer!”