A former firefighter in France is on trial for the alleged murder of a 92-year-old woman whose property he had a ‘viager’ contract on - with the murder weapon said to be a madeleine cake.
The 63-year-old has appeared in court in Tours (Indre-et-Loire), accused of killing Yvette Brisset.
Ms Brisset, who had been living in an elderly care home, was found dead in her bed on May 13, 2019, with pieces of madeleine cake in her mouth.
The accused man, Alain J., had just visited her, and had brought a packet of the cakes from a well-known brand with him. Care home staff became suspicious, it is claimed, when they discovered he had locked the door to her room during a visit.
The autopsy showed the woman had died from choking on a foreign body, probably food, but investigations have not proven any third party involvement. Ms Brisset was not permitted to feed herself and was only able to eat food cut into very small pieces.
The accused denies the charges against him.
He said in court: “I maintain my innocence. I have just served 1,170 days in prison. Three years of humiliation, separated from my wife. I hope that the truth will come out and that my innocence will be recognised.”
In a letter to La Nouvelle République, he wrote: “I am not afraid of going to trial, but of dying before I can prove my innocence.”
He said that the viager link is a “millstone around my neck, and removes all credibility of the feelings I had for this lady, who was very kind and warm”. He claims that he regularly brought cakes and pastries to Ms Brisset, “just as he would have done for [his] own grandmother”.
The man’s lawyer, Abed Bendjador, said that he has been “living a nightmare”, and that the prosecution has not yet managed to find evidence of his client’s guilt. He said: “They have not defined the conditions or the way in which he could have suffocated this woman with a madeleine.”
The accused claims that the elderly woman was still alive when he left her room, and that he did not feed her any madeleine.
However, investigators claim that his story has changed several times, and that he was financially linked to the woman due to the viager property contract, which he had entered into in 1995. This system meant that he could not sell the property until Ms Brisset died, despite being close to retirement himself.
Mr J. had reportedly made contact with estate agents before Ms Brisset’s death, and had mentioned plans to sell the property and buy a piece of land in Bléré (Indre-et-Loire).
The man is also accused of increasing the frequency of his visits to Ms Brisset in the care home before her death and of having only a distant relationship with the woman until then.
Ms Brisset’s step-granddaughter (the granddaughter of her former spouse) will be present at the trial. She told La Nouvelle République that she would be there to “humanise” her grandmother’s name, as she was “full of love, always listening, and giving good advice”.
The trial is set to last until Friday May 13, with the accused risking life in prison if he is found guilty.
What does owning a property ‘en viager’ mean in France?
‘En viager’ translates as ‘for life’. It is a way of buying and selling a property based on estimates of the seller’s life expectancy.
In its most classic format, ‘viager occupé’, a sale involves the buyer paying part of the market value of the property to the seller as an upfront lump sum called the ‘bouquet’, often around 30% of the value.
The seller then maintains a lifetime right to use or live in the property whilst the buyer pays them a regular lifetime rent – rente viagère – on a monthly or three-monthly basis.
A ‘viager libre’ is similar, except the property is sold unoccupied (for example, if the owner is in a care home or lives elsewhere). The buyer can use it straight away, though they continue to pay a lifetime rent to the seller.
It can be a gamble for the two parties as the seller could live longer than average, meaning the buyer ends up paying more than anticipated. However, the seller might die earlier than expected, resulting in a possible bargain for the buyer.
If the seller dies within 20 days of the sale, their heirs can ask a court to annul the sale.
The buyer can usually not resell the property until the seller dies.