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Opinion: 'There are some unsolved murders which dominate the public consciousness'

Ralph Riegel on why he wrote about the murder of Sophie Toscan du Plantier in a new book.

Ralph Riegel

UNSOLVED MURDERS TEND to generate media headlines.

Usually, those headlines are focused on occasional Garda appeals for information, cold case reviews or even key anniversaries involving the crime or the victim as the years pass.

For the police, keeping an old, unsolved case firmly in the public mind is absolutely vital amid hopes it might generate a vital breakthrough and a critical piece of new information.

However, there are some unsolved murders which, irrespective of the passage of time, dominate not only media attention but the public consciousness itself.

The brutal killing of French film executive Sophie Toscan du Plantier
(39) at her holiday home in Toormore, west Cork on December 23, 1996 is one such case.

My decision to write my book, A Dream of Death, was spurred not just by a suggestion from Gill Books that the case warranted a fresh, detailed look but by my own realisation that, of the dozens of people who regularly asked me about Sophie Toscan du Plantier, very few had more than a passing knowledge of the events since that awful December evening of 1996 when she met such an horrific, cruel and violent death.

I believed a forensic, chronological analysis of events and major developments in the case both in Ireland and France over the past 23 years was merited.

High profile

It ranks as arguably Ireland’s highest-profile unsolved murder.

It also ranks as one of the worst in terms of the shocking level of violence involved.

The case remains unsolved despite two garda cold case reviews, innumerable appeals for information and one of the biggest garda manhunts in the history of the force.

There were also two major garda internal reviews into the case.

Uniquely in Irish law, the case also prompted a 10-year investigation by another European police force once it was realised there would not be a prosecution in Ireland.

Magistrate Patrick Gachon led that 10-year investigation in France which, ultimately, led in turn to a murder prosecution in Paris in May 2019 of British freelance journalist, poet, market stall operator, law student and bodhrán maker, Ian Bailey.

Bailey – who was tried by the French in absentia for the crime that occurred in west Cork – has consistently protested his innocence and claimed that attempts were made to frame him for what happened.

He claimed that being wrongly associated with the crime has effectively destroyed his life.

In his own words, he said he has been “bonfired” over the past 23 years and claimed he was found guilty in France before the Paris trial was even mounted.

Twice since 2000 he has successfully fought extradition to France – and next month he will fight a third extradition bid from the French authorities in the High Court.

It is a testimony to how the murder of the French mother-of-one impacted on Ireland that today, with the 24th anniversary of the crime looming next December, the case is arguably generating more headlines now than in did after 1998.

Public interest

Public interest in the case is easy to understand.

Very few unsolved crimes have seen such precise details of the original murder case file enter the public domain as that of Sophie Toscan du Plantier.

That is largely down to a series of legal actions fought both in Ireland and France over the past 17 years.

In 2003, a libel action was taken by Bailey against eight Irish and UK newspapers.

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Then, in 2014/2015, he took a high-profile but ultimately unsuccessful High Court case for wrongful arrest against the State.

That was followed by a detailed complaint to the Garda Síochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC) from Bailey about his treatment.

The week-long French murder trial took place in May 2019 and the poet has now flagged a European Court of Human Rights challenge over that prosecution.

All of which combined to bring an extraordinary level of detail about the original investigation – and particularly the problems it was beset by – into the public domain.

With a High Court extradition hearing due next month (July) – and most likely another Supreme Court review of the proposed extradition – there is no likelihood of the case drifting from the headlines anytime soon.

In addition, next January, Academy Award-nominated director Jim Sheridan and investigative journalist Donal MacIntyre hope to have their eagerly-awaited documentary on the case ready for the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in Utah.

An update is also planned to an Audible-podcast series on the case, called West Cork, which was originally launched in 2018.

The tragedy for the French family of Sophie Toscan du Plantier is that, despite all the headlines, there appears little prospect of their near 24-year wait for justice in Ireland for their beloved daughter ever ending.

A Dream of Death by Ralph Riegel is published by Gill Books, priced €16.99.

Comments are closed as related cases are due before the courts.

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Ralph Riegel

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