• U.S.

ITALY: The Injustice of Justice

5 minute read

At 4:37 p.m. on Dec. 12, 1969, a bomb exploded inside the crowded National Bank of Agriculture in downtown Milan. Thirteen people were killed and four died later of injuries. A few minutes later in Rome, another bomb damaged the main office of the National Bank of Labor, injuring 14 persons. That same afternoon, two bombs blew pieces of marble off Rome’s Victor Emmanuel monument; three pedestrians were hurt. Police in the two cities promptly went into action. Three days later in Milan, they arrested Pietro Valpreda, 37, a sometime ballet dancer and member of an anarchist group called “March 22” (after the 1968 rebellion of French students at Nanterre University); seven people affiliated with the organization were also picked up in Rome. Valpreda and two other March 22 members were subsequently charged with strage (massacre) in the Milan bombing, a crime that carries a life sentence.

Since then, Valpreda and his co-defendants have endured a Kafkaesque nightmare: nearly three years in prison without any resolution of their case. Their plight has focused attention on what Turin’s moderate newspaper La Stampa called “the injustice of justice” in Italy, and has drawn the sympathy of concerned citizens who have little use for terrorist bombings or anarchism.

The case against the anarchists is based on fairly thin circumstantial evidence. The day after Valpreda’s arrest, a Milan taxi driver told police that he recognized the suspect—from an old photograph—as the man with a briefcase whom he had driven 135 yards from a cabstand to the bank shortly before the explosion. He later testified that police told him the photograph “was the one I had to recognize.” The cabby, who happened to be an alcoholic, died of cirrhosis of the liver before Valpreda came to trial, leaving unanswered the question of why a terrorist would risk identification by riding a taxi for so short a distance. Also the driver’s testimony was given a futura memoria, “for use in future,” without Valpreda’s counsel being present, which in Italy is unconstitutional. Despite such striking deficiencies in the case against them, Valpreda and his colleagues were indicted and remanded to await trial.

It turned out to be a long wait. Fully 26 months passed before a trial was held in Rome, which claimed jurisdiction because the last bomb of the day had exploded there. After 16 days of inconclusive legal cavils, the Roman court suddenly declared itself “territorially incompetent.” The case, encumbered with 16,000 pages of testimony, 120 lawyers, 400 witnesses and 104 “injured parties” (relatives of the victims), was shifted to Milan. Eight months later, Milan’s attorney general requested a change of venue on the ground that the “public order” of the trial might be disrupted; the case was thereupon assigned to Catanzaro, on the southern tip of Italy.

Last month Catanzaro asked Italy’s Supreme Court of Appeal to transfer the case somewhere else because the town lacked facilities to handle the trial, but the court refused to grant yet another change of venue. The trial may not be scheduled to resume until May at the earliest, since it will take at least that long for the Catanzaro judges and prosecutors to acquaint themselves with the voluminous records.

In the midst of all this legal maneuvering, a number of potential witnesses have died under mysterious circumstances. A car carrying three of them—including a woman member of the March 22 group—was crushed in September 1970 by a truck that suddenly backed into it; the unknown driver of the vehicle escaped. Two others connected with the case, who were listed by police as suicides by gas, had suspicious bruises on their bodies. An anarchist named Giuseppe Pinelli fell to his death while being questioned about the bombings. His widow is suing seven policemen for homicide, based on evidence gathered at the autopsy.

Adding to the confusion is the recent discovery of evidence suggesting that Valpreda and his friends may be innocent. Last August district attorneys who were investigating other terrorist acts charged two neo-Fascists with the Milan bombing. A consignment of 50 clockwork timers, exactly like those used in the bombings, was traced to one of the suspects, a bookseller from Padua named Franco Freda. Furthermore, the briefcases in which the bombs were hidden were all purchased in a Padua store only a block from Freda’s bookshop. Worst of all, it now appears that high-ranking police officials tried to conceal some of this evidence.

Perhaps the single most shocking aspect of the case is that even if the Fascists are indicted, tried and convicted of the Milan massacre, Valpreda and his co-defendants can still be condemned for the same crime. This legal absurdity has had the positive effect of stirring up public pressure to reform Italy’s anachronistic penal laws; among other things, they allow some suspects to be held for up to four years before trial. Last week, the Council of Ministers approved a draft bill that, if voted into law by both houses of Parliament, would permit judges to grant Valpreda and the others provisional liberty. That would take several months at least.

Meanwhile, the anarchists are still in prison. Valpreda has summed up his harrowing experience in a collection of bitter letters called Letters from the Prison of the System. “In the movies,” he wrote, “[imprisonment] can be painful, but it’s always in a certain intellectualized way. In reality there’s only suffering, hate, stink, sickness. The blond hero who comes to lead his men after years in the dungeon doesn’t exist. What comes out is a tired person who stinks or is tubercular. That’s the reality.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com