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You needn't be mad in an Italian court, but it helps

It Was an all too familiar episode from the tawdry annals of Italian justice. A criminal court in Perugia, central Italy, convened to hear the case against Giuseppe, or rather Giuseppina, a Neapolitan transsexual first picked up in a mass arrest of drug addicts and assorted other low- lifes four years ago.

It wasn't much of a case. The defendant had never been charged with a specific crime; he/she had merely irritated the police by refusing repeatedly to co-operate with them and, eventually, breaking parole. One could justifiably wonder, in fact, what a full-blown criminal court was doing hearing the case.

But that was just the start of it. First the court could not decide whether the defendant was male or female. The judge did not want to make an adjudication, but did not want to leave the issue unresolved either; as a result the proceedings were postponed indefinitely. Then, after closer consultation of court records back in chambers, the judge admitted rather sheepishly that the case had already been through the justice system. The new hearing had therefore been a total waste of time.

Such episodes are far more common than one might think. In the wake of the anti-corruption scandals that brought down Italy's old governing order four years ago, plenty has been heard about the investigative skills and political power of the judiciary and the myriad related controversies. But the sad fact is that, at base, the judicial system is chronically slow, strangled in bizarre bureaucracy and populated by judges and magistrates who are by turns too cowardly, or too comfortable, to make it function more smoothly.

Last week saw a second, even more spectacular, display of judicial craziness, the culmination of a process that began 17 months ago when a plastic statue of the Madonna was reported to be weeping tears of blood in Civitavecchia, just north of Rome. The statue was almost certainly a fraud, but the Church and the local tourist authorities seemed quite happy with it, and the affair made for colourful copy in the world's press.

The statue was doing no harm to anybody, but still the local judiciary felt compelled to open a criminal investigation, at great public expense, against persons unknown suspected of fraud, false representation and a host of other sins. The tears of blood were analysed, then magistrates insisted that the owners of the statue undergo DNA testing.

With the statue rapidly turning into a major attraction for pilgrims, a bevy of lawyers was soon tussling over the affair. Last week the Italian Constitutional Court finally ruled that DNA testing represented an infringement of personal liberty, and could not be permitted under present procedures.

The ruling certainly delighted the Bishop of Civitavecchia, but it also effectively disabled one of the most effective tools used by investigators in the fight against serious crime. Two of the mafiosi on trial for the car-bombing that killed Judge Giovanni Falcone in Sicily in 1992, for example, were identified through DNA analysis of saliva left on cigarette butts found near the scene of the crime. Now the Justice Ministry will have to expend needless resources and effort to draw up new rules so that DNA testing can be reinstated - all for a plastic statue.

Yet another example of judicial folly is an indictment issued last week against the film director Tinto Brass, who faces charges of public obscenity following a stunt at last year's Venice Film Festival in which he paraded a clutch of half-naked actresses in a gondola.

There are plenty of reasons to dislike Mr Brass - the squandering of his considerable talent on semi-pornographic material, for example - but his exercise in public breast exposure last September was no worse than the average mid-evening fare on Italian television. "What we're seeing is an enormous waste of energy, money and professional talents for a ridiculous issue," Mr Brass complained.

Whatever one thinks of his publicity stunt, it is surely hard to justify a full-blown suit against him when nearly three million criminal cases are pending in the Italian courts (not to mention the two million civil ones). And when one sees the manner in which even the simplest cases are handled, the waste seems all the greater.

One case currently going through the Rome criminal court involves an eminent music professor whose practice sessions at home have so infuriated one of his neighbours that the two are now at daggers drawn. She has denounced him for disturbing the peace; he, meanwhile, has complained about her habit of squirting her hosepipe through his living-room window.

Again, one wonders what such a case is doing in a criminal court, but let that pass for now (the new Justice Minister, Giovanni Maria Flick, has just presented a draft law that would probably leave such affairs in the hands of a justice of the peace). More disturbing is the way the case has been heard. Witnesses from as far away as Sicily have been summonsed three times now, only to find themselves on a long roster of cases that the judge has absolutely no chance of getting through.

Twice the case was postponed because it was too low on the day's list. Two weeks ago, at the third time of asking, it was placed 16th, and looked like getting squeezed in before the judge disappeared for her lunch. The witnesses and lawyers were forced to sit and wait for five hours on the off chance that they would be bumped up the list (the absence of even one of them when the case was called could have been interpreted as contempt of court).

Then, just as they were preparing to walk into the courtroom, the judge swept out, announcing that she had had enough for the day and was going home. None of them dared protest, because in Italy challenging the authority of the judge is deemed prejudicial to one's cause. The case has now been rescheduled for next year, and the witnesses will have to turn up once again, with no compensation for the time or the money they have spent - and no guarantee of any better luck next time.