Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Henri Landru

The Trial of Landru

There is little doubt that Landru's trial captivated his countrymen. Consider the time it occurred. He was arrested in April 1919 at his home in Paris with his mistress, 27-year-old Fernande Segret, whom he had picked up on an autobus in the city. France was still recovering from the bloodiest war in the history of civilization and the peace talks at Versailles were not going well for them. Shortages and economic depression abounded and a case that promised sex, gossip and gruesome killing was delightfully played up by the papers as a diversion from the dreary day-to-day life of post-war France.

Also, take into account that in 1919 there was no such term as "serial killer." Although multiple murder wasn't unknown in Europe, it was still a novelty (unlike present day, when the concept of a serial killer is as ubiquitous as a pickpocket was in the 19th century). The murders committed by Jack the Ripper across the English Channel were just 40 years prior and a human monster who could kill so many without remorse was still an aberrance to the French and English alike. The idea that a Frenchman, a Parisian no less, could be capable of such atrocities had a profound impact on the society.

Landru's trial began in November 1921 and lasted nearly a month.

The French system of justice had been instituted in 1848 and while not, as is commonly believed, assuming the guilt of the accused until innocence is proven, it is heavily weighted against the person on trial. Not only does the chief judge of the three-judge panel serve as an interrogator, the French allow questioning of the accused for the sake of investigation in front of the jury during the trial. The French system also allows relatives of the victim to bring suit for damages during the course of the trial, and the victims' legal counsel can question the accused and argue before the jury.

Landru testifies
Landru testifies

Clinging to his mistaken belief that he could not be convicted without evidence of a body, Landru's defense was essentially to stonewall the court. Time after time he would refuse to answer questions and would reply that it was no one else's business what he knew of their disappearances.

He also believed that because he had been judged sane enough to stand trial, his innocence was assured.

"In acknowledging I am sane, they are thus establishing my innocence," he told the media, which covered the trial with an enthusiasm unmatched for the time.

For days he stood before withering interrogation by the court without changing his story.

"I have nothing to say," he said over and over, much to the frustration of observers. Every time new evidence was unearthed, Landru merely shrugged his shoulders and denied everything or refused to discuss it.

Landru awaits the jury's verdict
Landru awaits the jury's
verdict

"What of your relationship with Madam Guillin?" he was asked in open court.

"I am a gallant man and will say nothing," Landru replied to the exasperated magistrate. "I cannot think of revealing the nature of my relations with Madam Guillin without the lady's permission."

During the course of the trial Landru's health began to fail. He began to provide statements of fact in response to questions, but the prosecution easily refuted his allegations. His strategy was a tactical blunder, wrote Lord Birkenhead. "Where explanations are obviously needed," he wrote, "unless an unfavourable inference is to be drawn, the failure to afford these explanations... will tend to confirm the inference."

Landru's impudence before the court clearly grated on the jury. His evasions and quickness to answer with sarcasm only succeeded in proving that he was the kind of man who would deceive women like his victims.

It took the jury just two hours — after nearly 25 days of testimony — to decide Landru had killed the 11 women. The penalty for such a crime was death.

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