Hopes wane that Italian trial will deal fatal blow to Mafia

The atmosphere in the bunker-like courtroom in Palermo, where Italy's largest-ever Mafia trial is being held, has visibly changed in the seven months since the proceedings started. When the presiding Judge Alfonso Giordano called the court to order yesterday morning after a month-long break, the excited throng of journalists originally on hand to record the minutiae of the trial of 470 Mafia suspects had dwindled to a handful. Interest in events inside the specially built $20 million courtroom has indeed waned. But so have hopes that the trial's enormous cost and the additional strain it has put on the overburdened judiciary system will produce commensurate results in Italy's fight against the Cosa Nostra.

The fact that the summer recess was shorter than usual underscored the judge's awareness that time is of the essence in the trial. Defense lawyers, evidently convinced that time is on their side, continued with delaying tactics at yesterday's session. Next month, 70 of their clients accused of lesser offenses will be eligible for release on their own recognizance. Should the trial drag on after next May, more than 50 defendants who face charges ranging from drug trafficking to involvement in 90 murders will be freed.

The timing of the trial's reopening was symbolic. It came one day after the fourth anniversary of the assassination of Gen. Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa and his wife. As Palermo's prefect, Dalla Chiesa began an intensive probe of a network of connections between high-level Sicilian politicians and the Mafia underworld.

The ceremonies commemorating the assassinations were tinged with a bitter irony, since only after Dalla Chiesa's death were laws enacted that made Mafia membership a crime, and that laid the foundation for the three-year pretrial investigation.

One heartening sign, however, is that Michele Greco, the man formally charged with ordering Dalla Chiesa's assassination and who is believed to control the entire Sicilian crime syndicate, is behind bars. He had been at large for four years.

The prosecution seems to have its hands full in nailing down specific charges against the Mafiosi on trial and keeping on track. The state's two star witnesses are Tommaso Busacetta and Salvatore Contorno. Mr. Buscetta is the highest ranking mobster to ever betray his organization.

The defense strategy in Palermo is aimed at chipping away at the credibility of the two witnesses, whose statements are critical in corroborating evidence presented by the prosecution.

Perhaps the most formidable obstacle the Palermo prosecution faces, however, is the monumental scale of the trial itself and the indifference it seems to have engendered.

The defense team alone is something of an army, with 400 lawyers. The sheer volume of paperwork in the trial is staggering, and some are beginning to wonder whether justice will be rendered under such conditions.

At the outset of the trial, Mafia experts clearly warned that even a block of guilty verdicts would not deal a deadly blow to the Cosa Nostra, which is entrenched in many levels of Sicilian society. Even today, when the tide of public opinion has decidedly turned against the Mafia, the organization seems to have little trouble finding fresh recruits among the island's 80,000 unemployed, half of whom are men under 29.

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