The Maxi Trial (Italian: Maxiprocesso) was a criminal trial against the Sicilian Mafia that took place in Palermo in Sicily. It started on 10 February 1986 and lasted until 16 December 1987. The trial was held in a bunker-courthouse specially constructed for this purpose inside the walls of the prison of Palermo.
Sicilian prosecutors indicted 475 mafiosi for a multitude of crimes relating to Mafia activities, based primarily on testimonies given as evidence from former Mafia bosses turned informants, known as pentiti, in particular Tommaso Buscetta and Salvatore Contorno. Most were convicted to life imprisonment and, to the surprise of many, the convictions were upheld on 30 January 1992, after the final stage of appeal. The importance of the trial was that the existence of Cosa Nostra was finally judicially confirmed.
The existence and crimes of the Mafia had been denied or merely downplayed by many people in authority for decades, despite proof of its criminal activities dating back to the 19th century. This can be attributed in part to three particular methods used by the Mafia to provide an environment akin to near immunity - paying off key people, killing real or perceived leaks in their own organization, and threatening or even killing key people (judges, lawyers, witnesses, politicians) were used successfully to keep many prosecution efforts at bay. In fact it was only in 1980 that it was first seriously suggested that being a member of the Mafia should be a specific criminal offence by Communist politician Pio La Torre. The law only came into effect two years later - after La Torre had been gunned down for making that very suggestion.
During the early 1980s, the Second Mafia War had raged as Corleonesi boss Salvatore Riina devastated other Mafia Families, resulting in hundreds of murders, including several high-profile authority figures such as Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa, head of counter-terrorism who had arrested Red Brigades founders in 1974. The increasing public revulsion at the killing spree gave the necessary momentum for magistrates like Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino to try to deliver a serious blow to the far-reaching criminal organization on the island.
The groundwork for the Maxi Trial was done at the preliminary investigative phase by Palermo's Antimafia Pool, created by judge Rocco Chinnici and consisting of Falcone, Borsellino, Giuseppe Di Lello and Leonardo Guarnotta. After Chinnici’s murder in July 1983, his successor Antonino Caponnetto headed the pool. The Antimafia pool was a group of investigating magistrates who closely worked together sharing information on related cases to diffuse responsibility and to prevent one person from becoming the sole institutional memory and solitary target.
Location and defendants
The Maxi trial took place next to the Ucciardone, Palermo’s massive nineteenth-century Bourbon prison, in a bunker specially designed and built to try the defendants. It was a large octagonal building made from reinforced concrete that was able to withstand rocket attacks; inside there were cages built into the green walls holding the many defendants in large groups. There were over six hundred members of the press as well as many carabinieri wielding machine guns and a 24-hour air defense system keeping an eye on the defendants and would-be attackers attempting to thwart the efforts.
Never before in the history of the Mafia had so many Mafiosi been on trial at the same time. A total of 475 defendants were facing charges, although 119 of them were to be tried in absentia as they were fugitives and still on the run (Salvatore Riina was one of these absent defendants.) Amongst the defendants were all major Mafia bosses, including Luciano Leggio, the head of the Corleonesi, who acted as his own lawyer; Michele Greco, the head of the Mafia Commission, who was arrested while the trial had already started; Giuseppe "Pippo" Calò and others.
After several years of investigating by the Antimafia pool, the trial began on February 10, 1986. The presiding judge was Alfonso Giordano, flanked by two other judges who were 'alternates', should anything fatal happen to Giordano before the end of what was to be a lengthy trial. The charges faced by the defendants included 120 murders, drug trafficking, extortion and, of course, the new law that made it an offence to be a member of the Mafia, the first time that law would be put to the test.
Judge Giordano won a lot of praise for remaining patient and fair during such a mammoth case with so many defendants. Some of the defendants indulged in disruptive and rather alarming behaviour, such as one who literally stapled his mouth shut to signify his refusal to talk, another who feigned madness by frequently screaming and fighting with guards even when he was in a straitjacket and one who threatened to cut his own throat if a statement of his was not read out to the court.
Most of the crucial evidence came from Tommaso Buscetta, a Mafioso captured in 1982 in Brazil, where he had fled two years previously after escaping while on day release during a prison sentence for double-murder. He had lost many relatives during the Mafia war, including two sons, as well as many Mafiosi allies such as Stefano Bontade and Salvatore Inzerillo, and so had decided to cooperate with the Sicilian magistrates. The Corleonesi continued its vendetta against Buscetta by killing several more of his relatives. Testifying against the Corleonesi was the only way he had left of avenging his murdered family and friends.
Some evidence was also presented posthumously from Leonardo Vitale. Although Buscetta is widely regarded as the first of the pentiti (and was certainly the first to be taken seriously), back in 1973, 32-year-old Leonardo Vitale had turned himself in at a Palermo police station and confessed to being in the Mafia. He said he had committed many crimes for them, including two murders. He said he had been having a 'spiritual crisis' and felt remorse. However, his information was largely ignored because his unusual behaviour, such as self mutilation as a form of personal penitence, led many to regard him as being mentally ill and his detailed confessions to be therefore unworthy of being taken seriously. The only Mafiosi convicted by his testimony were Vitale himself and his Uncle. Vitale was held in a mental asylum then released in June 1984; six months later he was shot dead.
There were many critics of the Maxi Trial. Some implied that the defendants were being victimized as part of some sort of vendetta of the magistrates. The Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia said that: "There is nothing better for getting ahead in the magistracy than taking part in Mafia trials." Cardinal Pappalardo of the Catholic Church gave a controversial interview where he said that the Maxi Trial was "an oppressive show" and stated that abortion killed more people than the Mafia.
Other critics suggested that the word of informants - primarily Buscetta - was not the ideal way to judge other people, as even an informant who has truly repented is still a former criminal, liar and murderer and may still have a vested interest in modifying their testimony to suit their needs or even settle vendettas. It was also said that such a huge trial with so many defendants was not making allowances for the individuals, an attempt to "deliver justice in bulk" as one journalist put it.
The information that Buscetta gave judges Falcone and Borsellino was highly important, and was termed 'The Buscetta Theorem', in that the believability of his claims of the existence of the Mafia was central to the case. Buscetta gave a new understanding to how the Mafia functioned and how the clandestine groups of hierarchy in the Sicilian Cupola (the Sicilian Mafia Commission) actually agreed on policy and business. For the first time the Mafia had been prosecuted as an entity rather than a collection of individual crimes.
The trial ended on 16 December 1987, almost two years after it commenced. The verdicts were announced at 7:30 PM and took an hour to read through.
Of the 474 defendants - both those present and those tried in absentia - 360 were convicted. 2,665 years of prison sentences were shared out between the guilty, not including the life sentences handed to the nineteen leading Mafia bosses and killers, including Michele Greco, Giuseppe Marchese and - in absentia - Salvatore Riina, Giuseppe Lucchese and Bernardo Provenzano.
A number of those convicted in absentia were, unknown to the judiciary, deceased by the time of the verdicts. They included Filippo Marchese, Rosario Riccobono and Giuseppe Greco. Additionally Mario Prestifilippo was also on trial in absentia, but he was found shot dead in the streets while proceedings were still taking place.
A total of 114 defendants were acquitted, including Luciano Leggio, who had been charged with helping to run the Corleonesi Mafia Family from behind bars and for ordering the murder of Cesare Terranova, who had prosecuted him back in 1970. The jury decided there was not enough evidence. It made little difference to Leggio's position though; he was already serving a sentence of life imprisonment for a prior conviction for murder and remained behind bars until his death six years later.
The significant number of acquittals did manage to silence some of the critics who had believed that it was a show trial whereby nearly everyone would be convicted.
Of those who were acquitted, eighteen were later murdered by the Mafia, including one, Antoninio Ciulla, who was shot dead within an hour of being released as he drove home for a celebratory party.
The Maxi Trial was largely regarded as a success. However, the appeals process began on 25 September 1989 and ended on 12 November 1990: it resulted in a shocking number of successful appeals on minor technicalities.
By 1990, only 60 defendants remained behind bars, and many were not exactly doing hard-time, with several residing in prison hospitals and taking it easy while malingering with phantom illnesses. One convicted Mafioso had a private hospital ward to himself and had several common (non-Mafiosi) criminals as his servants, supposedly while suffering from a brain tumor that, suspiciously, did not show any symptoms whatsoever.
Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino complained about these events but found it hard to be taken seriously as, so it seemed, the state's anti-Mafia crusade lost momentum and their opinions went largely unheard. One informer later said that the Mafia tolerated the Maxi Trials because they assumed those convicted would soon be quietly released once the public had lost interest, and the Mafia could continue with business as usual. It seemed, for a while, that they were correct in this assumption.
The final passage was the pronouncement of the Supreme Court of Cassation.
Corrado Carnevale, a judge suspected of being in the pay of the Mafia, who was handed control over most of the appeals by the corrupt politician Salvatore Lima, could be appointed to carry out the trial. Carnevale was eventually nicknamed l'ammazza-sentenze - "The Sentence Killer" - because of his tendency to overturn Mafia convictions for technicalities. He threw out some drug-trafficking convictions, for example, because wiretapped conversations presented as evidence referred to the moving of "shirts" and "suits" instead of narcotics, even though it was well known that these were the codenames the members of that particular drug-ring employed for narcotics. He also released one Mafioso, who had been convicted of murder, on the grounds of ill health. Despite being supposedly at death's door, the mobster immediately fled to Brazil with his illicit fortune and his family.
However, Carnevale was not appointed as prosecutor and the final decision on the Maxi Trial was made by the judge Arnaldo Valente. The sentence was read on 30 January 1992: all the prison sentences were confirmed and most of the acquittals granted by the appeals process were cancelled. Another trial was held between 1993 and 1995 and all the defendants were convicted to life imprisonment.
In January 1992, Falcone and Borsellino managed to take charge of further Maxi Trial appeals. Not only did they turn many appeals down, they reversed previous successful ones, resulting in many Mafiosi who had recently swaggered out of prison after their convictions were overturned being unceremoniously rounded up and put back behind bars, in many cases for the rest of their lives. This naturally angered the Mafia bosses, particularly Salvatore Riina, who had been hoping his in absentia sentence for murder would be reversed and allow him to retire in peace with his immense criminal fortune.
That summer, Falcone and Borsellino were murdered in audacious bomb attacks. This resulted in public revulsion and a major crackdown against the Mafia that seriously weakened the organization.
Salvatore Riina was eventually captured, as were other Mafiosi like Giovanni Brusca. Corrado Carnevale, the "Sentence Killer", was sacked and imprisoned for being in league with the Mafia. However he was acquitted by the Corte di cassazione on 30 October 2002 and admitted in 2007 to work again as judge. Salvatore Lima would have probably faced a similar fate but he was murdered in 1992 for not preventing the reversal of the appeals at the start of that year.
Whether the Maxi Trial was a success or not is impossible to judge without taking into account subsequent events. The trial's primary success, at its very outset, was in holding the Mafia as an organization into account for its activities rather than just its individual members for isolated crimes (this approach was personified in the United States via the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act). Some may argue that the corrupted appeals process largely undid the work of the trial, but (and although it took several years and cost the lives of two judges), the Maxi Trial eventually set off a chain-reaction that lead to a severe weakening of the Mafia and the eventual capture of those who escaped the trial's initial net, such as Riina and Brusca.
- Giovanni Falcone, Paolo Borsellino and the Procura of Palermo, Peter Schneider & Jane Schneider, May 2002, essay is based on excerpts from Chapter Six of Jane Schneider and Peter Schneider, Reversible Destiny: Mafia, Antimafia and the Struggle for Palermo, Berkeley: U. of California Press
- Alfonso Giordano, Il maxiprocesso venticinque anni dopo - Memoriale del presidente, Pag.68, Bonanno Editore, 2011. ISBN 978-88-7796-845-6
- Italy: Putting the Finger on Il Papa, Time Magazine, March 3, 1986
- Italy Slicing Up the Beast, Time Magazine, February 24, 1986
- Schneider, Jane T. & Peter T. Schneider (2003). Reversible Destiny: Mafia, Antimafia, and the Struggle for Palermo, Berkeley: University of California Press ISBN 0-520-23609-2
- Dickie, John (2004). Cosa Nostra. A history of the Sicilian Mafia, London: Coronet, ISBN 0-340-82435-2 (Review in the Observer, February 15, 2004)
- Jamieson, Alison (2000). The Antimafia: Italy’s fight against organized crime, London: Macmillan, ISBN 0-333-80158-X.
- Stille, Alexander (1995). Excellent Cadavers: The Mafia and the Death of the First Italian Republic, New York: Vintage ISBN 0-09-959491-9
- (Italian) Buscetta e la Mafia sfila al Maxiprocesso di Palermo YouTube
- (Italian) Il maxiprocesso alla mafia - Palermo 1986 Teleacras on YouTube
- (Italian) Michele Greco il "papa" della mafia siciliana YouTube