Perfect crime, farcical trial

Anne Hanley on a murder mystery with Hitchcockian overtones
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The Independent Online
THEY look like the kind of young men you could safely take home to meet your mother. Giovanni Scattone and Salvatore Ferraro are fresh- faced thirty- somethings whose hair is just slightly too long over the collar, and who share a penchant for checked shirts under crew-necked sweaters.

Sitting with the lawyers on the front row of seats in Rome's high-security courthouse, Messrs Scattone and Ferraro appear serious and self-confident. They chat and laugh sotto voce and, from time to time, politely ask pertinent questions of the judge and witnesses. It would be easy to mistake them for junior members of the legal profession; indeed, both were assistant teachers at Rome University's law faculty.

But that career came abruptly to an end in June last year when they were arrested in connection with the fatal shooting of a 22-year-old law student, Marta Russo. Now, in a trial which swings from the exasperating to the farcical, the two men are calmly presiding over a growing mountain of conflicting evidence unlikely to provide a swift answer to this most haunting of murder mysteries.

Marta was strolling through Rome's La Sapienza university campus with a friend when she crumpled noiselessly to the ground with a gunshot wound in her head on 9 May 1997. She died five days later without regaining consciousness. She had no enemies, no spurned and desperate lovers; her family was not wealthy, prominent, nor involved in feuds. There was nothing which might constitute a motive for her murder.

Initially, suspicions focused on gun fanatics working for a firm of cleaning contractors on the campus. But when, 10 days after the shooting, traces of gunpowder were found on the windowsill of a law faculty library, investigators abruptly dropped one lead and devoted their attention to the other. What better place, after all, to find a culprit for a seemingly inexplicable crime than in the Kafka-esque philosophy of law institute?

The philosophy of law library provides a base for the young and not so young assistenti, the often unpaid minions who regularly do tasks which busy professors, many of whom have their own lucrative private practices, consider beneath them.

As if determined to live up to its arcane image, the philosophy of law department at first formed a wall of silence and complicity that led prosecutors to demand the arrest of its director, Professor Bruno Romano, on 12 June. That prompted an avalanche of half-baked accusations and confused reconstructions by its staff.

Professor Romano's aide suddenly recalled having seen a figure - possibly Mr Ferraro - emerging in haste from the library on the day of the shooting. A librarian remembered hearing a dull thud and seeing the accused running his hands through his hair in desperation by the library window. A porter admitted to being with Messrs Scattone and Ferraro at the time of the shooting, a confession he subsequently withdrew, before withdrawing the withdrawal. He is now under house arrest, and will be tried separately.

Two days after Prof Romano's detention, Mr Scattone and Mr Ferraro were in prison, the former charged with pulling the trigger and the latter with aiding and abetting. When the Italian press learned that the two assistenti had a professional fascination with the concept of the perfect crime, like the student protagonists of the 1948 Hitchcock thriller Rope, it was almost universally accepted that the mystery had been solved: Marta had been the victim of a ghastly game, played out by bored men with some nasty theories to prove. No public voice was raised in their defence; presumption of innocence went out the window.

As hearing follows hearing in the courtroom, the evidence presented by both prosecution and defence has waxed and waned with alarming rapidity.

Hard and fast alibis are dismantled by one witness, only to be re-established by the next. Statements made during initial investigations are contradicted in court. Police are accused, then cleared, of using strong-arm tactics during questioning. People enter the courtroom as witnesses only to leave it as defendants, having changed tack in mid-deposition or, in one case, having given a complicit wink in Mr Ferraro's direction. The determination with which these university underdogs has been brought to trial on sometimes tenuous and contradictory evidence leaves much room for doubt about their guilt. With their intimate professional familiarity with the strangest workings of the law, Messrs Scattone and Ferraro clearly know this: as the confusion mounts, so does the quiet confidence they emanate. The case may not finish for many months.