Mafia turncoat's release from jail stirs up debate

Friday, May 23, 2003

ROME -- The release from jail this week of a Mafia boss turned state informant has reignited a long-standing debate over the use of turncoats in mob prosecutions, with many arguing the law is too benevolent toward criminals who have been convicted of hideous murders.

Enzo Brusca, the ex-boss put under house arrest Monday, was convicted of one of the most shocking Mafia crimes in recent years: the kidnap, murder and dissolution in acid of an 11-year-boy whose father, also a mobster, had cooperated with prosecutors.

Brusca was released from jail by a Rome tribunal after serving seven years of his 30-year prison term -- a reduced term because he too decided to cooperate with the state.

The ruling has led to "a feeling of anxiety and dismay" among the people, the Vatican daily, L'Osservatore Romano, wrote Wednesday.

"A state that accepts compromises with such a butcher cannot represent the Italian people," said Salvino Caputo, the mayor in the tiny village of Monreale, near Palermo, that was once dominated by the Brusca clan.

Bowing to public outcry, Justice Minister Roberto Castelli ordered ministry officials to carry out an investigation into the case.

"These things bewilder public opinion and undermine people's trust in justice," he said. "We are checking if everything has been done according to the law."

Many said the terms for the use of turncoats, or "pentiti," should be revised.

Today, an estimated 1,500 informants, as well as 4,500 of their family members, enjoy state protection.

Prosecutors started looking to turncoats for help in the 1980s, putting them under a protection program in return for their cooperation. The program expanded in the 1990s, when informants' testimony helped bring convictions in organized crime and the capture of some long-sought mobsters.

It was information from turncoat Baldassarre Di Maggio, for example, that led to the 1993 capture in Palermo of Salvatore "Toto" Riina, the reputed "boss of bosses" who had been a fugitive for some 20 years.

Brusca himself gave prosecutors information about dozens of murders and other crimes committed in the 1980s and 1990s. Prosecutors have said they considered his revelations trustworthy and often significant for their probes.

But criticism of the turncoat program started growing, too. News reports said some turncoats committed crimes while enjoying benefits funded by Italian taxpayers, and politicians denounced the program as out of control.

The current law requires convicted mobsters turned informants to have served at least a quarter of their prison terms, or at least 10 years if it's a life sentence. To be eligible for the program, mobsters must provide new and credible information, and must agree to say everything they know within six months starting from the moment they declare their willingness to cooperate.

The Brusca case got particular attention because the killing he was convicted of had shocked the nation.

Giuseppe Di Matteo was kidnapped in 1993 after his father began cooperating with authorities, accusing Brusca's brother, himself a top boss, of various crimes. The boy was held and tortured until he was strangled in 1996 and his body thrown into a vat of acid.

Prosecutors defended the decision to place Brusca under house arrest, saying Wednesday they had little choice but to apply the law.

"There is a law that gives a reward to the state informant who contributes advancing Cosa Nostra investigations through his revelations," said Palermo Prosecutor Pietro Grasso.

Alfonso Sabella, a former Palermo prosecutor whose probe led to the arrests of the Brusca brothers, said that using turncoats is too important in the fight against the Mafia to give it up.

"The choice to bet on the pentiti stems from a defeat of the state," Sabella told the Turin daily La Stampa. "It was a forced choice, when it was clear that the Mafia couldn't be brought to its knees through traditional means."

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