GRENOBLE, France (AP) — After three weeks of court testimony that has riveted France, a former soldier was found guilty on Friday of killing an 8-year-old girl after luring her from a wedding celebration in a French Alpine town as guests partied into the night.
Nordhal Lelandais was sentenced to life in prison with 22 years guaranteed behind bars. He also was found guilty of molesting two cousins, aged 4 and 6 - one of them two weeks before Maëlys’ death in August 2017.
He had already been convicted in 2021 of killing a young soldier.
The jury agreed with Grenoble prosecutor Jacques Dallest's demand for a maximum sentence, Dallest argued that Lelandais represents a “considerable social danger" despite efforts to rehabilitate himself in prison, including reading books on Buddhism.
Lelandais will not appeal the decision, his lawyer Alain Jakubowicz said, adding that he had told his client the girl’s family shouldn't have to suffer further.
The parents and sister of the victim, Maëlys de Araujo, kissed each other in the packed but silent courtroom.
Lelandais remained calm, but was seen mouthing to his mother, “It will be alright.”
Maëlys' age and a long investigation replete with gruesome details triggered huge public interest in the case. French media recounted every detail that led to the young girl's murder after Lelandais lured her into his car amid a wedding fete in small town in the Alps.
Maëlys’ face taken from a family photo her mother had clutched in court had become a staple on the nightly news. Maëlys’ parents wore black t-shirts on Friday bearing a picture of their daughter whose portrait stood outside the courtroom’s entrance.
Lelandais, a dog trainer, broke down in court and admitted to luring the young girl into his car and striking her violently “three or four times” when she cried. He said he had not meant to kill Maëlys, whom he invited at 2:40 a.m. to see his dogs. He himself was a last-minute guest at the wedding, providing cocaine to some guests.
He had earlier led investigators to the site where he buried Maëlys, several miles from the wedding fete. Investigators were never able to prove that the young girl was raped.
Lelandais, who turned 39 on the day of the verdict, has been described by psychiatric experts as psychopathic, narcissistic and a pathological liar.
In a statement before the court recessed to consider the verdict, Lelandais admitted all charges against him and offered an apology.
“I know the families will never accept my excuses, but I present them with the greatest sincerity,” he said, adding that he understood the “lengthy” period of introspection ahead of him which he said he has already started.
Lelandais' lawyer Alain Jakubowicz called his client's confession during the trial “a small ray of hope on the road to redemption,” and asked the court not to hand down a life sentence.
Lelandais was convicted in 2021 in the murder of a hitch-hiking soldier after he left a gay discotheque, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. It was Maely’s disappearance that put investigators probing the soldier’s disappearance on Lelandais' trail.
NICOLAS VAUX-MONTAGNY Associated Press
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