By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 16, 2009
PARIS, June 15 -- When South Korean authorities announced in 2006 that they had found the bodies of two newborns in the home freezer of a French expatriate couple, the first reaction among friends and family was disbelief.
Véronique Courjault, 41, on the surface a devoted mother of two sons, and her husband, Jean-Louis, 42, a shy engineer specializing in diesel motors, at first said they had nothing to do with the macabre discovery. But from a murder trial underway for the past 10 days in Tours, 100 miles southwest of Paris, a grisly truth has emerged. The courtroom version of how the couple lived has fascinated France and left many people in shock and wonder.
Véronique Courjault, by her own admission, smothered the two babies after giving birth to them secretly in Seoul, the first in 2002 and the second in 2003. She also has acknowledged killing a newborn and burning the body in her garden after a first secret pregnancy in 1999, before the couple left France.
Jean-Louis Courjault, French prosecutors ruled, was never aware of his wife's pregnancies, or her lonely deliveries in the family bathtub and the subsequent slayings of three infants. After a long investigation, he was not charged, leaving unanswered how he could have failed to notice his wife's condition. He has attended her trial with the goal, he told reporters, of offering all the support he can.
Day by day, reporters from the national newspapers in Paris lay out the details of Véronique Courjault's testimony. But they remain unable to offer any understanding of why she did what she did. As the trial enters its final days, the mystery has absorbed the country.
"Personally I am sad, really sad for this lady," commented a visitor to one of several news Web sites tracking the case. "Yes, what she did could be qualified as cruel or some other adjective. But first, what I would like to understand is why this woman went ahead with her pregnancies, what she believed in, what her hopes were."
A local paper, the Nouvelle République, has stationed two reporters inside the courtroom with laptop computers to relay instantaneous, near-verbatim reports to the paper's Web site. Court authorities had banned television broadcasts but bowed to the new technology.
France 24, the French government's all-news television station, got so carried away by Courjault's fate last week that it invited visitors to its Facebook site to place bets on the verdict. After an outcry from a journalists union, the station's management suspended the betting, citing a "violation of procedure."
The level of interest flows not only from the horror of what happened to the newborn children. Such crimes are not unknown in France or other countries. While the Tours trial was underway, for instance, a troubled woman was convicted with little notice in Brittany, in the country's western corner, for killing her infant last year and putting it in a freezer. She was sentenced to eight years in prison and ordered to undergo psychiatric treatment.
But Véronique Courjault has caught the imagination of many countrymen because she seemed so ordinary until her dark secret was discovered. She and her husband were well known in Seoul's tightknit French community. She worked as a teacher's aide at the French kindergarten. Her husband, her family and their many friends, in South Korea as well as France, described her as normal, friendly and exceptionally close to her first two sons, now 14 and 12.
South Korean police were initially called by Jean-Louis Courjault after he discovered the two little bodies in July 2006 while trying to find room for some mackerel given to him by a South Korean acquaintance. At that point, he said, his assumption and that of Seoul police was that someone outside the family had put the bodies in the freezer. After leaving genetic samples to aid in the investigation, he and Véronique left on a previously planned trip to France.
When South Korean authorities discovered the children were the Courjaults', they notified the French government, and police in Tours began their own investigation. The couple, held in France, denied any connection to the bodies and suggested South Korean authorities were mistaken. But after weeks of questioning, French police said, Véronique Courjault gradually broke down and, that October, admitted the killings and told police about the first infanticide.
In testimony last week, Véronique Courjault no longer sought to deny responsibility. But as the presiding judge pressed for an explanation -- the court will have to decide whether she knew what she was doing -- she offered only vague clues as to what was going through her mind at the time.
"What I did is so monstrous, without explanation," she responded, according to reports from the courtroom. "For me, those children did not have a real existence." Asked how she could carry the children for nine months and still feel they had no existence, she said, "I knew it, and then I no longer knew it."
Family members testified that Véronique Courjault, short and stocky, frequently gained and lost weight and, as a result, wore loose-fitting clothes. That may have contributed to her ability to conceal her pregnancies, they suggested. But they had no explanation for her conduct.
Jean-Louis Courjault, with a receding hairline and long, dark sideburns, seemed skittish and unsure of himself as he told the court he never noticed his wife was carrying a baby. Once he did wonder a little, he said, when she seemed to gain weight and fatigue easily during a vacation to Morocco in 1999, just before the first killing.
"You should stop trying to find a reason," he told the chief judge when pressed to explain how he could live with Véronique as a husband and overlook three pregnancies.