Monday, December 16, 2013

Denise Morelle -- Justice for "Dame Plume"

The popular Canadian actress (born in Montreal in 1927) was a versatile performer equally at home in films (Don't Let It Kill You, 1967; Once Upon a Time in the East, 1974; L'Amour bless, 1975; The Late Blossom, 1977) and theatrical productions (Bonjour, la, Bonjour, L'Impromptu de'Outremont).  It was, however, as the hysterical opera diva "Dame Plume" on the late 1960s children's afternoon television show, La Ribouldingue, that Morelle became an instantly recognizable and beloved figure in Quebec.  As a member of the National Arts Centre's French ensemble under director Andre Brassard, she was scheduled to appear in the premiere of Albertine, en cinqs temps in a role Michel Tremblay had written specially for her, when a tragic confluence of random coincidences resulted in Morelle's brutal death.

"Dame Plume"
On July 17, 1984, the 59-year-old actress visited a ground-floor flat she was considering renting on Sanguinet Street in central Montreal.  The landlord, unable to meet Morelle at the apartment, gave her permission to view the unlocked residence alone.  The next day, friends reported the actress missing to police after she failed to appear for her stage performance in Ste. Adele.  Authorities found Morelle's body in the empty flat savagely beaten with an iron bar which had shattered her nose, jaw and skull.  The killer had heated the bar on a gas stove and sadistically burned her before raping then strangling her to death with a rope.  Montreal police collected liquids from the scene and sent the specimens to a DNA bank in Ottawa where they failed to match any samples on file from known criminals.  Meanwhile, more than 1,000 friends, family, and mourners gathered at St. Clement's Roman Catholic Church in Montreal's east-end for a memorial service for the beloved actress.

Gaetan Bissonnette
The Morelle murder remained unsolved, but not forgotten, by Montreal police for 23 years until the department's collaboration in April 2007 with the producers of a French language television network documentary on the case aired and finally yielded the tip authorities needed to make an arrest in August 2007.  Using advancements in DNA, cold case detectives matched the sample taken at the Morelle crime scene in 1984 with a specimen in 2006 from a "solved" rape.  In both instances, the perpetrator was Gaetan Bissonnette, a 49-year-old lifelong junkie whose criminal career between 1976 and 2006 was comprised of an unbroken record of 19 convictions for offenses like theft and breaking and entering.  Two months after the discovery of Morelle's savaged body, Bissonnette was convicted of breaking into a woman's apartment and raping her at knife-point over a seven-hour period.  Remarkably, the career criminal received only a three year sentence, but the DNA sample from this case led to Bissonnette being charged for first-degree murder in the Morelle homicide.
 
Confronted with the irrefutable DNA evidence, Bissonnette accepted the Crown's offer to allow him to escape trial in exchange for a guilty plea to a second-degree murder with its mandatory life sentence, but with the possibility of parole.  As Bissonnette supplied details of his deadly 1984 encounter with the actress it became painfully aware to everyone that the murder had sprung from pure coincidence, a simple matter of a person having been in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Bissonnette, 26 at the time, was squatting in the vacant unlocked apartment when Morelle entered the flat to view it for possible rental.  While the Crown and Bissonnette's lawyer had previously agreed on the life sentence with no eligibility of parole for at least 14 years, Justice James Brunton took just twenty minutes to overturn the joint sentencing suggestion observing that it was not "harsh enough" given the seriousness of the crime.  In a later proceeding, Bissonnette was ordered to serve 20 years before the possibility of being declared parole eligible in 2027.

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