Josacine is a brand of antibiotic that is sold in France. It takes the form of a powder to which one adds water to make it into a syrup. The active ingredient is josamycin, an antibiotic of the macrolide family. On June 11, 1994 Emilie Tanay, 9 years old, had been spending the weekend with a friend's parents, the Tocquevilles. She had had a bout of bronchitis and had been prescribed Josacine, which she had been taking for a few days. Before dropping her off at the Toquevilles, her mother had prepared a fresh bottle of the medicine. At 20.00 Emilie took a spoonful of Josacine, as prescribed. She collapsed at 20.15 and despite the best efforts of doctors was dead by 22.30.

Although the Josacine seemed normal when the little girl was taken to hospital, by the next morning it had changed colour from orange to yellow, appeared lumpy and smelled strongly of bitter almonds. Investigations revealed that the little girl's medicine had been laced with cyanide, however it was not clear how this had happened. Did the contamination occur where the medicine was produced, at the Tocquevilles' house or somewhere in between? Thousands and thousands of bottles of Josacine were recalled all around the country, although it was quickly established that the contamination had not occurred at the factory.

A Suspect

Jean Marc Deperrois was in many ways an ideal scapegoat, disliked by most of the inhabitants of the village and having recently purchased 1kg of sodium cyanide for the first time, as part of his work. As soon as he heard that cyanide poisoning was the cause of Emilie's death, he dumped all of the cyanide he possessed into the Seine. Additionally, he had had an affair with Mrs Toqueville a few months prior to Emilie's death. On the July 26, 1994, Deperrois was arrested, following the tapping of a 'phone call between him and the man that had supplied him with cyanide. It was claimed that Deperrois was trying to poison Mr Toqueville, but did not realise that the medicine was for Emilie. Deperrois claimed that he had disposed of the cyanide because he had panicked, due to his affair with Mrs Toqueville and the fact that he possessed cyanide. A classic case of revenge gone horribly wrong some said. A little too classic perhaps.

The Trial

In the absence of more conclusive evidence or a confession, the prosecution's case depended heavily on the claim that the cyanide used to poison Emilie was the same as the cyanide owned by the suspect. The scientists however never managed to establish this convincingly.

Initially it was thought that the Toquevilles' neighbours Mr and Mrs Madeleine might be key witnesses, as they claimed to have seen Deperrois lurking around and even entering the Toquevilles' home several weeks before Emilie's death. However Deperrois had a rock solid alibi for one of these sightings, and investigations revealed that Mrs Madeleine could not possibly have seen Jean-Marc leaving the Toquevilles' home from her bathroom window, as she had claimed. It is clear that the judge did not believe their testimony, he even went as far as reading out to them an extract of the "Code pénal" concerning perjury.

The Defence

A key element of the defence's strategy was the testimony of the Tanays' GP, Dr Vue. He claimed that Corinne Tanay had told him, that when preparing the medicine she had noticed a strange fizzing. This would have indicated that the contamination could not have occurred at the Toquevilles', annihilating the scenario put forward by the prosecution. However Mrs Tanay denied having ever said this and Dr Vue was further discredited by the fact that he did not seem to be able to recall anything else of their encounter. But what finished off Dr Vue's claims was the fact that no matter what they tried, the scientists never observed fizzing when adding water to a mixture of Josacine and cyanide. Things were far from clear cut though, as the mixtures they prepared invariably turned brown after a few days, something that never happened to the Josacine consumed by Emilie.

In the end, 2 things seemed to have played a major part in the jury's decision. The first was that Deperrois lied constantly, in a way that did not seem consistent with the behaviour of an innocent man. The second was the date at which he dumped his cyanide into the river. He claimed that he did this immediately after hearing that Emilie had died of cyanide poisoning. When asked the precise date, he replied "16th of June". The judge asked him again, whether he was sure of the date. He was. The problem was, that on the 16th of June it was not yet known that cyanide was the poison used. And of course in the minds of all the jurors was the fact that a 9 year old girl had been killed.

The trial was surrounded in controversy, with Jean-Marc never ceasing to claim his innocence. Many say that the media's coverage of the case was far from impartial, and the quality of the scientific analysis doubtful. The evidence was at best circumstantial, but the prosecution asked for him to be sentenced to 25 years of prison.

On the May 25, 1997, the Cour d'Assises of Rouen sentenced Jean-Marc to 20 years of imprisonment. Many were surprised at the verdict, thinking that although there was some evidence to support it, the court needed to establish beyond reasonable doubt that Deperrois was guilty, and that there was nowhere near enough evidence for that. The Tanays left the courthouse under a torrent of insults, whereas the Deperrois family was applauded.

In 1998, the Cour de cassation ruled not to overturn the judgement. The story does not end here however. Many continued to believe that Deperrois was innocent and that the Tanay family was in some way responsible for his sentencing. The Tanay were eventually forced to move house, tired of the constant harassment and discrimination. The Toquevilles received death threats that were eventually traced to Mr Madeleine. A stunning example of the kind of behaviour that the Tanays have had to put with, is the decision of a headmistress to turn away Emilie's brother from her school in September 2000, because she believe Deperrois was innocent.

The alternative theory

Jean-Michel Dumay, journalist at Le Monde never believed the prosecution's scenario. After the trial he went through the evidence himself and came up with the following idea, that Emilie's death was in fact an accident. He suggests that after taking her medicine unsupervised, Emilie washed it down with water from a bottle. Except that this bottle actually contained a weak solution of cyanide, possibly for poisoning rats.

In this scenario, after Mrs Toqueville left with the ambulance, Mr Toqueville would have added some of this cyanide to the Josacine, to make it seem like it was the medicine that was at fault. Mr and Mrs Toqueville denied owning any cyanide, although Dumay claims that at first Mrs Toqueville told him that they had previously owned some. Nothing was found at the Toquevilles' home, however it was two days before their house was searched. More than enough time to destroy or get rid of incriminating objects.

Another element that Dumay claims supports his theory, is a 'phone call between Mr Toqueville and Mr Lecointre (a close friend of his), made on the evening when it was announced that Emilie had died of cyanide poisoning. Mr Toqueville expresses relief at the announcement, but particularly striking is the phrase "Tout √† l'heure, tu vas passer à la télé, toi, avec ton produit qu't'as mis dans la Josacine", which can be translated as "You'll be on TV later with that product you put in the Josacine".

The Toquevilles claim that this was taken out of context, and at the time they were worried that one of their own children might have added something to the medicine, possibly sodium hydroxide (often used for unclogging drains), as for a while it was thought that Emilie had died of sodium hydroxide poisoning. According to Dumay, Emilie's death was in fact an accident dressed up as a bungled murder. Lecointre sued Le Monde over these allegations and won in December 2003. Le Monde appealed, a decision is expected by June 9, 2004

In November 2001, Deperrois' lawyers asked for a retrial based in part on the work done by Dumay and partly on the work of a scientist who claimed he could prove that the cyanide used to poison Emilie was not the cyanide owned by Deperrois. The request was denied and Deperrois is still in prison. Now half way through his sentence, he has never ceased claiming his innocence.

Sources: M6's excellent documentary Secrets d'actualité on the case,1-0@2-3226,36-357206,0.html

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