In a move that seems counter-intuitive to public safety, an Italian appellate court overturned four major convictions tied to the Sicilian Cosa Nostra mafia, setting free four men who had been sentenced to between 8 and 12 years in prison.
The case goes back to Italy’s darkest hour, when anti-mafia magistrates Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were assassinated two months apart in bombings that killed 23 others in 1992. Three high level Carabinieri generals—Mario Mori, Antonio Subranni, and Giuseppe De Donno—and a close associate of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi—Forza Italia Senator Marcello Dell’Ultri—were convicted in 2018 of undermining the state to collude with mobsters.
The four admitted to secretly negotiating with top Cosa Nostra gangsters to stop the wave of violence that killed the two top judges. Thursday’s ruling amounts to a stamp of approval on those negotiations between the state and mafia, with presiding judge Angelo Pellino determining that the arrangement they made did not constitute a crime and that it is, in essence, just fine to cut a deal with the mob.
Berlusconi's associate agreed. “This acquittal is a turning point, not only for me but for Italian justice,” Dell’Ultri told reporters. “This trial was monstrous.”
Pellino did uphold the guilty verdict of convicted murderer Leoluca Bagarella, who worked for the notorious Corleone mafia clan, but reduced his sentence. He upheld the conviction and lengthy sentence of crime boss Nino Cina.
The shocking verdict drew immediate scorn from victims’ groups who say the original convictions had deterred many from supporting the syndicate and that the reversal instead legitimizes the Sicilian mafia as a group that has enough power to negotiate with the state.
Prosecutors who secured the original conviction had argued that in negotiating with gangsters, more bombings were carried out and the state was held captive to the criminals. Borsellino, who vocally opposed negotiating with the mob after his colleague and friend Falcone was killed, was fatally targeted two months later. In the year that followed, the Cosa Nostra also bombed cultural gems like the Uffizi Galleries in Florence and San Giovanni basilica in Rome, allegedly to get a better agreement from the state. The wave of attacks stopped mysteriously in 1993.
Prosecutors say they will consider taking the case to Italy’s supreme court for review.