Faking it: how Mafia bosses bribe doctors to escape justice

Italian mobsters feeling the heat know that it's not a good lawyer they need to call when facing justice, but a pliant doctor.

A new book by Corrado de Rosa shows how some of Italy's most notorious gangsters have faked everything from mental illness to blindness with the help of bent medics.

Mob doctors have trained their clients to mimic illnesses and even given them drugs to create the right symptoms. The book tells how physicians supply jailed mobsters with appetite suppressants to help convince judges they are suffering from depression or even anorexia.

One Naples mobster, Ettore Russo, was allowed out of prison for special treatment after it was claimed he had depression. He exploited the reduced security by popping out between treatment sessions to assassinate someone.

Perhaps the most shocking case concerns the brutal Camorra boss Giuseppe Setola, who, while on trial accused of being the Casalesi clan's killing machine, received a dubious diagnosis of macular degeneration blindness. In 2008, while attending an eye clinic in Pavia, Setola, who featured in Gomorrah, the best-selling Mob exposé by Roberto Saviano, promptly fled to Campania to lead a killing spree that saw 18 perish, including innocent bystanders caught in the cross-fire. The eye specialist who diagnosed his condition had declared that Setola was "little less than blind".

The anti-Mafia magistrate Raffaele Cantone, in a preface to De Rosa's book I Medici della Camorra (The Doctors of the Camorra), wrote: "These stories show how science used in bad faith can be used to help criminals to obtain results contrary to the principles of justice."

The author, himself a doctor and an expert witness, also reveals how corrupt psychiatrists are paid by Mafia bosses to falsely cast doubt on the mental faculties of informants.

Corrupt medical testimonies don't come cheap, with mobsters paying anything from €2,000 to €50,000 for the services of an accommodating psychiatrist. These sums, as De Rosa notes, are small change for clan bosses.

"The trouble is, expert medical witnesses have a choice of accepting €100 to tell the truth for the state or €50,000 to lie for the Mob. For many corruptible ones the Mob money is irresistible," he said.

One boss-turned-informant, Gaetano Guida, reveals in the book how his doctor sought to undermine justice. "If the report was [already] arranged by the judge, my doctor told me act like a psychopath, found out who the medical expert was and convinced him to confirm a false diagnosis."

Not all of the attempts to win leniency with faked medical reports have worked. Francesco Schiavone, the notorious Naples mobster, was finally sentenced to life in prison in June 2008 after a 10-year process that heard expert witnesses plead the mobster's clinical depression and anorexia as mitigating factors. Between the first trial and the final unsuccessful appeal, five people involved in the case were murdered, including an interpreter.

Some of the malleable expert witnesses have themselves met a sticky end. Most notoriously, in April 1981, a criminologist and shrink-for-hire, Aldo Semerari, had his head split in half with a meat-cleaver by a vengeful Camorra boss, Umberto Ammaturo, who took exception to Semerari perjuring himself on behalf of hated Mafia rivals.

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