Leonardo Vitale (June 27, 1941 in Palermo – December 2, 1984 in Palermo) was a member of the Sicilian Mafia who was one of the first to become an informant, or pentito, although originally his confessions were not taken seriously. Vitale was a man of honour or member of the Altarello di Baida cosca or family, Altarello being a small village just outside Palermo. The Vitale family had a long history of Mafia membership and Leonardo himself was groomed by his uncle and presented for membership into Cosa Nostra in order to continue his family's Mafia tradition.
He walked into a Palermo police station on the evening of March 29, 1973, and declared that he was a member of the Mafia and confessed to various acts of extortion, arson and two homicides. In front of dumbfounded police officers he explained how a Mafia family is organised and revealed the existence of the Mafia Commission, long before the pentito Tommaso Buscetta exposed Mafia secrets to judges who were prepared to listen.
Vitale said he joined the Mafia at nineteen at the behest of his uncle. He proved his willingness to kill by shooting a horse and subsequently he murdered a rival mafioso. He went on to take part in extorting and intimidating landowners and shopkeepers, and later carried out a second killing. Vitale would eventually rise to the rank of capo-decina or captain within the crime family, leading a crew of picciotti or soldati, otherwise known as soldiers. In explaining why he had turned himself in, something that was unheard of from a mafioso at that point, Vitale claimed to have had a spiritual crisis and wanted to unburden himself. Whilst held in custody he smeared excrement on himself and practised self mutilation as his own act of contrition.
While testifying against his fellow Mafiosi, Vitale reminisced about his life: "I have made a fool of my life, by the evil that has rained on me from the time I was a child... My sin was having being born into a Mafia family and of having lived in a society where everyone is a Mafioso and are respected for it; while those who are not are treated with contempt."
His case came to trial in 1977. Vitale's testimony lead to a number of alleged mobsters being indicted, but all were acquitted when their defence lawyers cast doubt on Vitale's mental state by pointing out his self-mutilation and other odd habits. In the end only Vitale and his mafioso uncle were imprisoned, and Vitale spent most of his time in a mental asylum.
In early 1984 Tommaso Buscetta became an informant and gave a vast amount of information on the Mafia in Sicily that subsequently backed up a lot of Vitale's own testimony.
In the light of this, Vitale was declared sane and released in June 1984. On December 2 that year he was shot dead as he left a church after attending Mass with his mother and sister. No-one was convicted of his murder but there remains little doubt the Mafia were behind it.
Vitale's original written testimony was used in the Maxi Trial several years later, where Magistrate Giovanni Falcone declared that "it is to be hoped that at least after his death Vitale will get the credence he deserved." According to Falcone the Mafia understood the importance of Vitale's revelations much better than the Italian justice system at the time and killed him when the moment was most opportune.
- Dickie, John (2004), Cosa Nostra. A history of the Sicilian Mafia, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, ISBN 1-4039-6696-6
- Stille, Alexander (1995). Excellent Cadavers. The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic, New York: Vintage ISBN 0-679-42579-9
- (Italian) Biographies of Mafia bosses
- (Italian) "L’importanza di Leonardo Vitale", by Giovanni Falcone, Antimafia duemila, June 2003.