Nicholas Green

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The Nicholas Effect
 
The Nicholas Effect

   

Chapter Twenty-Two: Trial for Murder

"Will you hire a lawyer to represent you?" The first time a journalist asked this, we realized how little we knew about the rules governing the upcoming trial of the two men accused of killing Nicholas. He told us we had the right to have one if we wished. Suddenly everyone was asking, and we had no idea what the answer should be. A lawyer from Calabria sent a message that he would act without charging a fee. I consulted the obvious people. But, although everyone wanted to be helpful, these conversations contained so much of on the one hand this, and on the other hand that, only an octopus could have weighed them. The advice can be summed up as follows: the state will prosecute, but you have the right to appoint your own attorney, although you are not obliged to do so. We'd known that from the first phone call.

We inferred that you appointed a lawyer if you wanted to ask for damages or beef up a prosecutor you had doubts about. To this day, I'm not sure about any of this, but neither of us liked the sound of it. I'd mentioned our ignorance to a number of people, and some time before the trial began we received a letter from one of them, an interpreter whose father was a lawyer.

His opinion was given in one sentence. "If I felt deeply that they have to get the punishment the worst as possible, I would stay in the trial giving strength to the prosecutor; if I, on the contrary, would leave only the court deciding, I wouldn't enter the trial." It seemed the most we'd get, and without further discussion we decided against it.

It was a decision that caused some consternation in the Italian press, some of whom asked, "Are you serious about prosecuting these people?" For a while we wondered if we'd misunderstood the whole thing, and who knows what difference it would have made? But we weren't after damages, of course. What amount of money can make up a lost life? We didn't want the harshest punishment, but only what was customary. We did have confidence in the prosecutor's ability, and we didn't want an attorney having to justify his part in the proceedings by pandering to emotion. Patiently going through all this with the reporters who covered the trial, we eventually made the point we wanted to make: the trial was about justice, not revenge, and in the end I think that was generally accepted.

I'm pleased that it was. Anyone who applauded the concept of vengeance before the trial began must have had his beliefs severely strained. The trial revealed an underworld where double-crossing and betrayal, suspicion and fear, cruelty and deception were the rule. Friends played on each other's trust and turned on each other without regrets. In the peculiar intimacy of prison, cellmates manipulated each other to worm out secrets they could reveal in return for leniency for themselves. Lovers turned out to be informers. And when they were finally caught, killers, who had so little regard for other people's lives that they got rid of them as part of the day's work, ratted on whomever they could to save their own skins. It was a miserable life that greed and vendetta had created. Can anyone believe vengeance is a serious alternative to the conventional legal process?

This threadbare world contrasted vividly with the seriousness of the proceedings. I can't remember what I expected an Italian court to be like-rowdy probably, like the British House of Commons at question time, free-flowing certainly, plenty of latitude to all concerned and a great deal of emotion. There was scarcely any of that.

The prosecutor's office, headed by Alfredo Laudonio, was admirably correct. They took our depositions without a hint of the answers they wanted. There was no prompting, no indiscretions to point the way. "A light-colored car, probably white, you said on the night of the incident. Are you sure? You said you heard more than one shot. Can you be certain? What did the gun look like? What speed were you doing?" They asked each question as though it was equally important, and only much later, during the trial, did it become clear which were the critical ones.

One morning in February 1996, we got a telephone call from Italy telling us the trial was going to start soon. "How soon?" "In two weeks," came the reply. It was an absurdly short time to get ready-somehow an earlier message had gone astray-but it was clear we had to go. On our side, we had always kept at arm's length from the investigators, not wanting them to feel under pressure either to make an arrest or to move quickly to prosecute. We hadn't asked for details of the people they'd arrested, what evidence they'd found, or what their strategy in court was going to be. All these things would be revealed in time. The more deliberately they worked, without us peering over their shoulders, the more likely the right people would be caught and convicted. We'd always had an impression that the prosecution had done its job effectively. Now we would find out.

The courtroom was in the provincial capital of Catanzaro, in the big, forbidding-looking justice building, stern but fraying. Witnesses waited, and we waited for two days, in a chilling bare room as legal points were argued out. We were rigorously screened from the proceedings so as not to benefit from anyone else's testimony. For most of the two days we huddled in our coats, Maggie almost six months pregnant and Eleanor, six years old, all of us just waiting for time to pass. The police escort who were with us at all times did what they could, buying coffee and cakes and refusing all payment, and letting Eleanor win at tic-tac-toe. We read, talked in a desultory manner, walked into the cold corridor and back, and closed our minds to speculation.

When at last I was called, I went into a huge room, with an ornate ceiling and tiled floor, bare of floor or wall coverings, a place of little comfort for either the guilty or the innocent. At the head of the room the jury sat, men and women ranging in age, probably, from the late thirties to the sixties. They looked like dependable, solid citizens, most of them parents, I'd guess, and on the days I attended I never saw their attention wander. They seemed to follow every word, their eyes fixed on the attorney or witness who was speaking. They didn't talk or fidget or look about, even with sessions in that cold room lasting up to four hours. There were two other jury members, both professional magistrates, and I gathered they would have a considerable influence on the outcome. They made notes carefully. It was workmanlike and serious.

Along one side of the courtroom was a cage, and in it was a young man. The bars were half an inch thick. It was about thirty feet long and twelve feet high. This was Francesco Mesiano's place in court, but why exactly he was there I was never able to find out. I looked around for the other defendant, but for a long time couldn't see him. Only when I took the stand did I find myself staring into the face of the man who had admitted to killing four people, but denied killing Nicholas. He was sitting, but standing in a semicircle around him were half a dozen carabinieri, the special police force, screening him from, again, who knows what? This was twenty-nine-year-old Michele Iannello, said to be a small-time Mafia operator, who was "cooperating" with the police, providing information on other criminals and unsolved cases.

I liked the public prosecutor, Maurizio Salustro, from the start: an unassuming, honest, thoughtful man who, even when examining us in the privacy of his office, carried a sense of genuinely wanting to get at the truth rather than obtaining a conviction. In court he frequently wore sneakers. He carried the entire burden of the prosecution alone. The defense attorneys were a whole team, six or seven of them, expensively suited, well-groomed, and, when not cross-examining, affable. A couple of them were well-known throughout Italy.

Twenty-three-year-old Ignazio Carbone had been assigned as our interpreter for the trial. He was straight from university-he'd been at this job, his first, just one day when we arrived-but with the prosecution and defense ready to pounce on any error in translation, he was steady under fire. We got on well and sometimes, as we ate dinner together or chatted easily about our lives, it was hard to imagine that what had brought us together was the murder of my son.

When the clerk read out the charge, I heard my own name with surprise. In the focus we'd all put on Nicholas' death I'd almost forgotten the shot to the driver's window. The bullet that narrowly missed me, and then Maggie, was plainly murderous, indifferent at those speeds to the lives of any of us in the car. The name of the victim came as a surprise too: Nicholas William Green. It sounded too big for the small boy trustingly asleep with his sheepskin on the back seat of the car. The prosecutor took me through the various statements we had made to the police. As I heard them, I was pleased to have confirmed what I'd always thought, that Maggie and I were both controlled and observant enough that first night to have told a story that remained the same through all the retelling.

Although it had been talked about in the press since the earliest days after the arrest, the prosecution's explanation for the baffling attack on a private car now emerged officially: their evidence indicated that the thieves had received information that a small car carrying jewels would be making a delivery to southern Italy. Our rental car, with its Rome license plates, happened to fit the description, and I wondered again how the rest of us can defend ourselves against blunders of that magnitude, made by people who act with such violent disregard for the results that no recompense anyone can make afterward can repair the damage they do.

The cross-examination was rough, four defense attorneys, jumping up and down on my simple story, looking for a contradiction here, an uncertainty there. Except perhaps in a detail or two, it remained intact, however, as the truth does, and as far as I know was never seriously questioned by the defense thereafter.

Maggie, who had spent all this time in the witness room, was on next. I went quickly to Eleanor, asked her to wait just a bit longer, and went back in the courtroom.

Maggie was already on the stand in the black dress she'd bought to conceal, rather than show off, her pregnancy. In simple sentences, strong but unemotional, intelligently understood and expressed, she described what she saw of the attackers' car, the masks they were wearing, and, to the evident surprise of some of the men in court, the difference between a pistol and a revolver. It was an account with no discernible difference from what she said in the police station in Polistena, as Nicholas in a coma was being carried away from us by ambulance through the night.

She had shown then the moral strength that comes naturally to her, and she was doing it now. I don't think I've ever felt so proud of anyone. Against this obvious clarity and honesty, the defense had little to say and after a few perfunctory questions let her stand down. Every minute she was up there was doing their clients a lot of harm.

We went back to where Eleanor had been waiting with a group of men, strangers who spoke scarcely any English, and knowing we were going through some kind of ordeal in the adjoining room. There she was, letting time pass with a mature self-control that made my heart ache. "They seemed to give you a much harder time than me," Maggie said later. "Yes," I said. "I was wishing I was pregnant." We caught the plane home the next day in the early morning light, and our police escort fought back tears. I think our family always looked incomplete in those days, not able to pair off as we used to do, too heavily weighted on one side or the other, and they seemed to sense it.

For months afterward, the trial moved along a couple of days at a time, then a break for a week or so, and a long summer vacation. Dozens of witnesses were called by both sides, including a professor from Wales, described as a world authority on the Calabrian dialect, who gave evidence on the sensational wiretaps that were presented in court.

All this time we stayed away from Italy. We told the organ donation groups there we didn't want to come back to hold public meetings or give interviews that might include questions about the trial while it was still on. We wanted to avoid any suggestion that we were trying to influence the jury's views. In retrospect, it was probably unnecessary: the court was very professional. Still, it was best to leave no doubt.

Most weeks passed without our hearing anything at all. Then one day the phone rang, and an Italian journalist wanted to know what we thought about Iannello being released. Released, are you sure? That's what it says in this story from Italy, he said. I asked him to fax the copy, and things became a little clearer. It wasn't release, but some form of police custody. As the day went on, a steady stream of calls came in from both American and Italian papers, and we were able to piece the facts together. Iannello had been declared a pentito-a repenter-by a special court. This meant he would be released from his present confinement and given twenty-four-hour-a-day police protection in return for providing evidence about other crimes. He would continue to stand trial for Nicholas' murder, however, and if convicted face a jail sentence.

The whole pentito program is highly controversial in Italy-what isn't?-and answering the insistent questions about whether this was good or bad was almost impossible. A version of no comment would have been sufficient, but I've always thought of that as a cop-out. In the end, our answer went like this: everyone must have mixed feelings about a system in which hardened criminals worm their way out of the consequences of their actions. But if the information these people give genuinely weakens the criminal element, it makes everyone a little safer. Clearly it depends on each individual case-how useful the information is, how genuine the cooperation, how serious the crimes. Only the courts know such things, and we were content to leave it to them. As a comment, it wasn't very illuminating, but it did reflect our views. We have no idea how important the evidence was that Iannello was said to be providing about bigger crime figures than himself. Mesiano, by contrast, was released from confinement pending the verdict.

I returned in January for the closing days of the trial to hear the summing up by both sides and to wait for the verdict. The courtroom was as cold as it had been eleven months earlier, the jury, the defense attorneys, the aged clerk of the court all the same. The defendants, however, had changed. Iannello I mistook at first for one of his legal team. He and Mesiano, who was no longer in his cage, were clean-shaven, smartly dressed, and well scrubbed. This time they looked like a couple of clean-living young men with whom you might have discussed the football scores if you met them casually.

But as I looked at Iannello and reflected that here was a man who admits to four murders, it seemed even more reprehensible that he should appear to be so normal. It gave deceit an extra dimension. Mesiano was now living at home and looked better on his mother's cooking, though still pop-eyed and full of nervous energy, as was natural in a young man facing a possible twenty-three-year sentence. Dr. Salustro summed up the case: among other points, that Iannello owned a car like the one that attacked us; the car was usually dirty, but a few days after the crime had disappeared and came back cleaned and scrubbed; traces of gunpowder were found by the front passenger window; the pistol used was of a rare type, and a witness said Iannello owned one; and the wiretaps had a series of incriminating statements, including one allegedly by Iannello that appeared to say, "The fact is I killed him." The summing up took four hours and was done without a hint of an appeal to emotion.

The defense had its own version of each of these points: the car was never positively identified; cleaning a car isn't a crime; the gunpowder could have been deposited there at another time; the pistol, which disappeared, wasn't positively identified either; and the wiretaps in thick Calabrese voices, including the comment about killing, could be interpreted in quite different ways.

The jury was out for five hours while we sat and made conversation. I didn't hear anyone in our group speculating on the outcome. When the prosecutor's cellular phone beeped to say they were coming back, we were at lunch and I was answering a series of his questions about the American political scene. When we went back, the courtroom was fuller than it had been all week. The attorneys, the defendants, friends, and relatives were there, as before, but now instead of three reporters, there were twenty or more.

The bell rang calling the court into session and for the last time in this trial we all stood. We remained standing while a brief statement was read: both defendants were acquitted. One of Mesiano's female lawyers put her arm around his waist and squeezed joyfully. I saw no other demonstration of emotion-no cheering, no shouts, no fists pumping the air.

As the jury left, a tidal wave of reporters pressed in on me. What's your state of mind? What do you think of Italian justice? What will you tell your wife? I answered as best as I could, in essence, that the trial was fair, but did not answer conclusively whether these two had done it or not. As I took to saying in innumerable interviews, courts are required to be fair, but they are not omniscient. Our opinion about guilt or innocence was of little value, I pointed out. Victims are not good judges. That's why we have courts.

I added that Maggie and I had always regarded the killers as bit players in a drama much bigger than themselves. From the start I had wanted those who did it brought to justice. I believe people should be accountable for their actions and in a terrible crime should incur severe punishment. But, compared with the way Nicholas' death brought people all over the world closer, and the thousands of lives it had saved, the trial was to us a secondary issue. As for closure, I'm not sure I'll ever have it, but I am sure that Iannello and Mesiano serving twenty-three years in prison wouldn't produce it.

The reporters moved on, and I found Mesiano's father standing next to me. Tears were reddening his eyes, and his hand was extended. I shook it, of course. Almost immediately Mesiano himself came up and held out his hand. He said he was sorry for what happened, but he didn't do it. I thanked him for his words about Nicholas, but made no comment on his denial. Still, he had gone through a long ordeal, the court had just found insufficient evidence to convict, and, still in his early twenties, he is young enough to have the chance of making a new start in life. In the circumstances, I couldn't rebuff him, and I shook his hand too. But then his mother was at the father's side, a tiny woman in black, tears streaming down her face. "I've suffered so much," she said. My heart went out to her, and I put my arms around her. It was all over in a moment, but editors around the world saw it as a symbol of the pain that parents everywhere share.

-

That wasn't the end of the legal procedures, however. As soon as the trial ended the prosecution said it would appeal, as under Italian law it is permitted to do, and a fresh stage began under a new prosecutor, Salvatore Murone. More than a year went by, then early one morning the telephone rang. "The appeals court has found the two men accused of killing your son guilty," a voice said. Iannello had been sentenced to life imprisonment and Mesiano to twenty years. I sat propped up in bed trying to absorb the news. "Do you know why?" I asked. There seemed to be no special reason, simply that a new jury had reviewed the evidence-the car, the gun, the wiretaps, and the rest-and concluded that, after all, it went beyond a reasonable doubt.

Neither of us felt any elation nor that sense of closure I've heard about, but never really understood. Two young men's lives were ruined and their families thrown into despair. It just reawakened the futility of the whole episode. Nor was it really an end. They still had the right to appeal to the Italian supreme court and, as of this writing, that appeal is pending.*

A few weeks later, we received an emotional handwritten letter from Mesiano, protesting his innocence and saying he had been singled out because "the appeals court wanted to find someone to blame at all costs." The letter took a long time to reach us and, when I started to reply, I telephoned a contact in Italy to find a fax number to save time. "I want to send it privately, however," I said. "The letter that came to us was personal." "But we know about that letter," I was told. "It was published in the newspaper, the Gazzetta del Sud." Despite its apparent privacy, Mesiano's letter had become a public document. "There's something else you should know," my contact added. "At the appeals hearing, one of their attorneys said that, when you shook hands with him, it showed you thought he wasn't guilty."

On the spot I made a decision. I faxed a letter to Mesiano, so it would reach him first, but I sent it to Gazzetta del Sud a few days later also and I included a few words about what I'd just learned. It read as follows, "Although you wrote your letter early in June, Maggie and I received it only at the end of last week. We are sending this reply by fax so you will have it as soon as possible. The incident on the Salerno-Reggio autostrada has brought grief to many people. We think we understand how your family feels. The legal process must go on, however. It's the only way any of us can hope for justice.

"I've been told that one of your attorneys said that, when I comforted your mother at the end of the first trial and shook your hand, it showed I believed you and Mr. Iannello were not guilty. That is not the case: they were simply gestures of common humanity. I did not express any opinion about your guilt or innocence. These are matters for the courts to decide by weighing the evidence objectively, not by the emotions of either the victims or the accused. On your side, you have a team of highly skilled attorneys. I'm sure they will give you all the help they possibly can."

I felt its inadequacy then as I still do. One day, perhaps, we will learn what happened that night, and I will see more clearly what I should have said. But, for now, it's the best I can do.

-

* The court later confirmed the sentences.

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