What made Christine Malevre take the lives of those in her care?
It was early May 1998.
A young woman ran herself a bath, then climbed in wearing her swimming costume.
She’d taken an overdose of sleeping pills.
Christine Malevre had decided to die.
The day before, on Tuesday 5 May 1998, she’d been suspended from her nursing job in the cancer ward of François Quesnay Hospital on the outskirts of Paris.
That job had meant everything to Christine. She lived for her patients… One of whom had died during her shift not a week before, on Sunday 3 May.
His name was Jacques Gutton. He was 71 and terminally ill with lung cancer.
All the same, he’d died a long time before the doctors had expected. Christine’s boss knew something wasn’t right.
So, Christine had been suspended while the hospital authorities looked into it. But if Christine had hoped to escape investigation and avoid the questions surrounding Jacques’ death by taking her own life, she failed.
She was found alive in the bath, taken to hospital, and then admitted to a psychiatric ward.
Two months later, on 6 July 1998, the inquiry into Jacques’ death opened. And Christine Malevre made a shocking admission.
‘I can’t remember exactly,’ she said. ‘But I must have done this to dozens of people…I decided to put an end to their suffering.’
At first, the French public was sympathetic. Christine’s patients were dying slow, agonising deaths. She’d released them from their pain.
And because euthanasia isn’t legal in France, she’d done so at great risk to herself.
People wrote to the hospital, wrote to papers and magazines to show their support. The French Minister of Health even appeared on a popular television show speaking in Christine’s defence.
She wasn’t a killer. She was an angel. She’d loved the patients she’d helped to die. She’d even attended their funerals.
A year on, in March 1999, while she was still suspended, Christine brought out a book, My Confession.
‘I helped a human being to die because he asked me,’ she wrote. ‘Was I a coward, was I weak? Who was I, this nurse who dared to hold the hand of a dying man and to shorten his suffering? I was the one he’d made promise. I was the one who helped him through his anguish.’
On the back of it, she even won the support of the ADMD, France’s Association for the Right to Die With Dignity.
But in that year, Christine’s story had changed. In July 1998, she’d said she’d killed ‘dozens’. Now, she was saying she’d killed four – with their permission.
And the hospital authorities had been busy carrying on their investigation. Since Christine had taken up her post in 1997, there’d been 83 deaths. Not surprising in a terminal cancer ward perhaps. Except that patients were found to be 150 per cent more likely to die on Christine’s shifts.
She was arrested.
Two separate psychiatric reports found Christine Malevre to be a woman without compassion, a megalomaniac who enjoyed exerting power over her patients.
Being a nurse had been Christine’s dream since she was a girl. Her sister Celine had really bad earaches, and a nurse had often been called out to the family home to treat her. A nurse Christine would describe as ‘so soft, so gentle, so pretty…’
One day, Christine promised herself, she’d be a nurse too.
Then, when Christine was 18, her grandmother died. She’d been really close to her gran, and the sight of her dead body, laid out in an open casket, haunted Christine for years.
Later, Christine had gone on a backpacking trip around Peru. There, she’d discovered the dead body of a young man lying by the side of the road.
When she’d started her nursing training soon after, Christine had suffered a panic attack when she’d attended a medical examination of a corpse.
It was the start of an obsession with death.
An obsession, some believed, that led to her choosing to work in palliative care and to take the lives of her terminally ill patients.
She’d acted not out of love for her patients, but because she’d got something out of seeing them die.
Evidence was found to charge her with seven murders, each killed with an overdose of morphine. But some believed Christine to have been responsible for as many as 30 deaths.
In 2003, she was convicted of six of them. No proof could be found that any of Christine’s patients had asked her to help them die.
‘She is unbalanced and deliberately overstepped her authority,’ the prosecution lawyer told TV journalists.
As the judge handed her a 10-year prison sentence, as well as a life-long ban from nursing, Christine Malevere sat stony-faced and silent. Then, quietly, she began to cry.
Perhaps in her own head, she’d been helping those patients. But she’d acted without their express wish, without the knowledge of their families or the hospital authorities.
Most importantly, she’d acted outside the law. Christine Malevre was a murderer – six times over.
Soon after, an appeal court increased her sentence to 12 years.
‘But I want to live,’ she cried in court. ‘I want to start a family.’
Four years later, in 2007, she got her chance. Christine Malevre was released from prison. She’s now married and has retrained as an accountant.
For the little girl who wanted to be a nurse, the dream was over. As were the lives of many patients.
A gripping case
In 2003, the same year as Christine’s trial, France was gripped by another court case. Elie Bendayan, a former police officer, had been charged with the murder of his wife. She’d been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and Elie described killing her as an ‘act of love’. He was found guilty, but given a two-year suspended sentence. At the time, a poll found 88 per cent of people in France supported legalising euthanasia under certain circumstances. It remains, however, against the law.