Moral Panics and Wrongful Convictions

There’s a discernable pain in Giuseppe’s face every time he recounts his time in prison. Behind the relatively calm exterior it is clear to see the rage he feels, as if he carries all of the injustice in the world on his shoulders.

If there’s a victim of circumstance, a casualty of a moral panic it’s him. It’s crushing to hear his story. He’s one of the kindest, most gentle and most honest people I’ve met, but sometimes the innocent really do get swept away in a tide of panic.

It was in Italy in the mid-1990s when he was incarcerated. The country was in the midst of yet another political crisis – the Republic was in the process of collapsing in the “tangentopoli” scandal and the subsequent “mani pulite” (clean hands) investigation into the endemic corruption in the political system.

Moral panics

Italians knew their country was riven with corruption. The Mafia was at the height of its powers and Italy had become a Mafia state. Bribes were paid, assassinations undertaken, and the relations between organised crime, the police and the rest of the state were beginning to be exposed like never before.

As with any moral panic the judicial system was forced into a frantic response. Prosecutors across the country rushed into investigations to find out just how deep the corruption was. Across the country public institutions and political parties were investigated. Heads rolled and of course denunciations amassed.

At the time Giuseppe was working the mortuary of a hospital in Milan. The first he knew of the allegations made against him was when the police were banging at the door of his mother and father’s small apartment. He had done nothing wrong but someone had told prosecutors that somebody in the mortuary was recommending a particular funeral parlour in exchange for cash bribes.

There was no evidence against Giuseppe, but it didn’t matter at the time – the moral panic was at its height and the witch-hunt had begun. “Corrupt” public sector workers became the folk devils. One of thousands swept up in a drag net, he was placed in “preventative incarceration”. The accusation was enough to send him directly to prison.

No process

The idea of preventative incarceration was that anyone who posed a threat to the state should be prevented from doing so. The trouble was, of course that there was no due process. In fact there was no recognisable process at all.

“On the first day I didn’t know what was going on. I thought they’d let me out in the evening”. I don’t know how to respond to him because I knew what was coming. “But then the day passes, another day and another”. The ghosts of prison simply haven’t left him. They never will. There’s no therapeutic process for the falsely accused. There’s nothing one can do to reverse the experience of an innocent in prison. His every expression in recounting the story speaks his pain.

One can imagine the reasoning: The state felt it had to respond to the crisis of political legitimacy. If innocent people get destroyed in the process, it’s a small price to pay to restore social order. After all, that’s what the legal system does, upholds order, at any cost.

He was presented with a simple deal, worthy of a tin-pot dictatorship – plead guilty to the charges and you get released. Plead not guilty, and, well, there are thousands in the queue before, so you might be here some time.

Wrongfully convicted

The horror of a 1990s Italian prison doesn’t make the choice particularly difficult. As with most prisoners, if there’s an offer of a bargain for release, it’d be crazy not to take it. Whatever might come of the judicial process it was clear that the odds were tipped against anyone accused at the time. That’s all part of the moral panic – during the panic one is guilty until proven innocent. So a week longer, a year, two years of waiting for a trial, whatever one had to pay to get one’s day in court probably isn’t worth it if the outcome is almost certainly a guilty verdict.

So Giuseppe did the only thing he could. He accepted the charges. The prosecutors had another collar, the snakes in the press had another story, and the hospital could claim that it was now clean. Giuseppe carried the public shame. He lost his job, his reputation, colleagues, friends and career.

Covering the cracks

In the wake of the scandal, Silvio Berlusconi, who, according to The Economist’s David Lane, is rather well connected in criminal circles rose out of the ashes. The political system wasn’t cleaned, the cracks were painted over and the system just carried on. Italians tired of scandals. Berlusconi didn’t provide a solution but a perpetuation of the problem. But it seems for many Italians, exhausted by corruption, the sentiment seemed to be that if he is corrupt, at least he’s good at it.

There’s no telling how many innocent lives were destroyed in that period. Scalps were needed and it didn’t matter whose they were. Giuseppe has rebuilt his life, and now works in the health service again. He is walking into the future after such a rough ride, but ghosts of the past will always be there. Convictions are rarely straight forward, yet in the research for this film, it is still shocking to hear so many stories of wrongful convictions. It happens everywhere, all of the time.

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