Two hunters accused of the manslaughter of a young man mistaken for a boar have gone on trial in the French town of Cahors in a case that also puts the wider culture and safety of French hunting in the dock.
Morgan Keane, 25, died after he was hit in the chest while cutting wood on his own land near Calvignac in the Lot, south-west France, in December 2020. The hunter who fired the fatal shot, Julien Féral, 35, said he mistook Keane for a wild boar.
The judge, outlining how the hunt – described by investigators as “totally disorganised” and “intrinsically dangerous” – had progressed during the day, said it was “a miracle” that an accident had not happened sooner.
In a breaking voice, Féral said: “I recognise my mistake and I regret it. I have always said that. I am sincerely sorry to the family. It is engraved in my head for life. There is not a day that passes that I don’t think about it. I can only say I am sorry.”
A second man, Laurent Lapergue, 51, who was directing the hunt and is also charged with manslaughter, denied responsibility. He said he had given all the hunters present that day the security rules before they set off, a claim denied by Féral and other witnesses.
“I repeated the rules as required but not everyone always listens,” Lapergue said. The hunt was “perfectly controlled”, he added, “but perhaps not 100%”.
Féral should not have been shooting from where he was and with a high hedge in front of him, he said. “To me this was impossible. You couldn’t see more than three metres,” Lapergue told the court.
“And yet a shot was fired,” said the judge. There was silence.
Morgan Keane and his brother Rowan, 24, had lived alone at the remote property overlooking the Lot River after the deaths of their French mother in 2016 and their British father, Michael, in 2019.
Rowan Keane’s lawyer, Benoît Coussy, reduced members of the public in court to tears as he described how the bullet passed through Morgan Keane’s lungs and heart. He said the charge should have been one of murder.
“He [Morgan] spent 15 minutes dying. The autopsy report makes for hard reading. The enormous bullet pierced his lungs and heart and he drowned in his blood. That’s the reality. For 15 minutes he was crying out.”
Coussy added: “Morgan’s life ended in the forest where he went to cut wood. But the story didn’t start there but several years before when Morgan’s father politely asked hunters to go elsewhere to shoot. He was a foreigner and at the same not a hunter and the hunting world is quite ferocious. If you are not a hunter it means you are against hunting.
“Morgan and Rowan’s father asked the hunt to go further away, but they came back, bigger and better time and time again. Why didn’t they go to the valley where there are kilometres to hunt?”
The president of the court, Philippe Clarissou, said he had discovered there were no national rules for hunting in France. Security rules are established by the hunting federation at départment level and approved by local prefects, meaning different rules apply in different areas.
“Everyone says ‘we are veteran hunters’. They say ‘we know what we are doing, we know the land, we don’t need to explain the rules, we perfectly understand them.’ But when asked, nobody can explain in detail what they are,” the judge said.
Féral told the court he had only had his hunting licence for four months before the fatal shooting and it was his sixth hunt. He had taken it up to “clear his head” after his young daughter was killed by a drink-driver. “I like nature and I didn’t have any other way to destress. I thought: why not?” he said.
The court heard that earlier in the day, Féral had fired four times at a wild boar but missed. “You shot when there were roads and houses everywhere? Four times?” asked the judge. “And nobody said anything. It wasn’t where the accident was but that was a miracle.”
Rowan Keane, 24, sat grim-faced on the front row of the court benches. Since losing his brother, he has joined the French navy.
Alexandre Rossi, the public prosecutor, said: “How can we not be sad and angry? We shouldn’t die aged 25.” He said the lack of security at the hunt was “absolutely clear”.
Charles Lagier, the lawyer for the Lot hunting federation, said there had been no negligence by hunters. “It was a hunting accident but this hearing is putting hunting in general on trial,” he said. “The pain of the family and friends is shared by the hunting community. It is not true that hunters can do what they want with impunity.”
Summing up, Rossi said Lapergue, a farmer, had expressed no regret or said sorry for what happened. He was responsible for the hunt but was “out of his depth”.
The prosecutor called for Féral to be given a two year sentence, 18 months suspended and Lapergue an 18-month sentence, 12 months suspended. He called for both men to be banned from hunting for life and stopped from owning a weapon for five years.
“Society will not understand for a single second that these two could continue to hunt,” he said.
Féral’s lawyer Sylvie Bros said her client had never tried to minimise what had happened or his role in it, that he should have had a clear map of where he could shoot, and – given his experience - should have been accompanied.
“Today Mr Féral is detested by anti-hunters, by hunters, by the friends and families. He is perfectly aware of his errors,” Bros said.
The verdict will be given on January 12, 2023.