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Criminal Justice, Italian-Style

Leo Sisti’s new book delves into the mysteries of Italian criminal trials and finds that 23 years after the new code of criminal procedure was enforced, the result has been disastrous.

Trial, Italian style (Processo all’italiana) is an account into the “mysteries” of the Italian trial, which since 1989 adopted a new code of criminal procedure trying to draw some lessons from the American model, based on the adversary system. This means that the old inquisitorial system, dating back to the Thirties, or the Fascist era ruled by dictator Benito Mussolini, was abandoned. This means also that a new method of collecting the evidence during the trial was worked out, together with the “cross examination” and the “plea bargaining” (which in Italy cuts the penalty by a third).

This is the framework I worked on with Piercamillo Davigo, now a judge of the Court of Cassation, and a former prosecutor of the Clean Hands investigation which ousted the old political class from power in early Nineties. 

The project of a book on the Italian justice system was drawn up two years ago when our publisher Laterza, a middle-size publishing house specializing in history books, asked us to work on it.

We spent six months in research and interviews. I ran interviews with Davigo on the main topics touched by the code of criminal procedure. During 20 hours of “questions and answers” we produced conversations resulting in 650 pages of transcripts. Subsequently I cut them, reducing that huge bunch of paper to 400 pages. Then I started writing every chapter with the technique used in my newsweekly magazine L’Espresso as if they were single stories. In other words, manic precision on details; chapters shaped as features of a magazine; and a narrative style.

The book includes also a collection of anecdotes on investigations and trials mentioned by Davigo during our interviews. We aimed at explaining with real examples how a trial works. I added too cases of famous trials based on law reports in newspapers and involving excellent politicians like the former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. As a result sometimes Davigo asked me to remove them by justifying: “These cases are still pending in Appeal and can come to me as judge of the Court of Cassation”. It’s a fact that the Italian justice system is based on a three-tier ruling system: First Instance, Appeal and Court of Cassation or Supreme Court.

The conclusion of our book is that after 23 years of enforcement of the new code of criminal procedure the result is almost a disaster.  Mixing the old system, “revisited” with elements of another system, has been unsuccessful. The Italian system is still a system of “Civil law” (like France, Germany and most European countries), compared to a system of “Common Law”, like the US and the UK, where precedents are the ruling method.

Also the “plea bargaining”, which settles 90 per cent of the American investigations, didn’t work in Italy, where now only 10 per cent of the investigations are settled before trial. It’s a fact that in many cases most people prefer facing a trial which lasts on average 4 years and nine months before be completed. Hence, just because of this failure, criminals try to benefit from the statute of limitations – which runs out after a certain number of years and allows indicted people to be acquitted – because there’s no matter to rule on, due to the lapse of time.

Trial, Italian style is not a manual of criminal procedure; it is written for readers not specialized on law matters.

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