During the early 1980s, the Second Mafia War had raged as Corleonesi boss Salvatore Riina decimated other Mafia Families, resulting in hundreds of murders, including several high-profile authority figures such as Carlo Alberto Dalla Chiesa, head of counter-terrorism who had arrested Red Brigades founders in 1974. His murder has been linked to Aldo Moro's assassination and Gladio's strategy of tension. The increasing public revulsion at such killings gave the necessary momentum for magistrates like Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino to try to deliver a serious blow to the far-reaching criminal organization on the island.
The groundwork for the Maxi Trial was done at the preliminary investigative phase by Palermo's Antimafia Pool, created by judge Rocco Chinnici and consisting of Falcone, Borsellino, Giuseppe Di Lello and Leonardo Guarnotta. After Chinnici’s murder in July 1983, his successor Antonino Caponnetto, headed the pool. The Antimafia pool was a group of investigating magistrates who closely worked together sharing information on related cases to diffuse responsibility and to prevent one person from becoming the sole institutional memory and solitary target.
Amongst those present were Luciano Leggio, Riina's predecessor, who acted as his own lawyer, and also Giuseppe "Pippo" Calò and Michele Greco (the latter was the uncle of the infamous mass-killer Pino Greco.)
The Maxi trial took place next to the Ucciardone (the Palermo prison) in a bunker specially designed and built to try the defendants. It was a large octagonal building made from Reinforced concrete that was able to prevent rocket attacks; inside there were cages built into the green walls holding the many defendants in large groups. There were over six-hundred members of the press as well as many carabinieri wielding machine guns and a 24-hour air defense system keeping an eye on the defendants and would-be attackers attempting to thwart the efforts.
Judge Giordano won a lot of praise for remaining patient and fair during such a mammoth case with so many defendants. Some of the defendants indulged in disruptive and rather alarming behaviour, such as one who literally stapled his mouth shut to signify his refusal to talk, another who feigned madness by frequently screaming and fighting with guards even when he was in a straitjacket and one who threatened to cut his own throat if a statement of his was not read out to the court.
Most of the crucial evidence came from Tommaso Buscetta a Mafioso captured in 1982 in Brazil, where he had fled two-years previously after escaping while on day release during a prison sentence for double-murder. He had lost many relatives during the Mafia war, including two sons, as well as many Mafiosi allies such as Stefano Bontade and Salvatore Inzerillo, and so had decided to cooperate with the Sicilian magistrates. The Corleonesi continued its vendetta against Buscetta by killing several more of his relatives. Testifying against the Corleonesi was the only way he had left of avenging his murdered family and friends.
Some evidence was also presented posthumously from Leonardo Vitale. Although Buscetta is widely regarded as the first of the pentiti (and was certainly the first to be taken seriously), back in 1973, 32-year-old Leonardo Vitale had turned himself in at a Palermo police station and confessed to being in the Mafia. He said he had committed many crimes for them, including two murders. He said he had been having a 'spiritual crisis' and felt remorse. However, his information was largely ignored because his unusual behaviour, such as self mutilation as a form of personal penitence, lead to many to regard him as being mentally ill and his detailed confessions therefore unworthy of being taken seriously. The only Mafiosi convicted by his testimony were Vitale himself and his Uncle. Vitale was held in a mental asylum then released in June 1984; six-months later he was shot dead.
There were many critics of the Maxi Trial. Some implied that the defendants were being victimized as part of some sort of vendetta of the magistrates. The Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia said that: "There is nothing better for getting ahead in the magistracy than taking part in Mafia trials." Cardinal Pappalardo of the Catholic Church gave a controversial interview where he said that the Maxi Trial was "an oppressive show" and stated that abortion killed more people than the Mafia.
Other critics suggested that the word of informants - primarily Buscetta - was not the ideal way to judge other people, as even an informant who has truly repented is still a former criminal, liar and murderer and may still have a vested interest in modifying their testimony to suit their needs or even settle vendettas. It was also said that such a huge trial with so many defendants was not making allowances for the individuals, an attempt to "deliver justice in bulk" as one journalist put it.
The information that Buscetta gave judges Falcone and Borsellino was highly important, and was termed 'The Buscetta Theorem', in that the believability of his claims of the existence of the Mafia was central to the case. Buscetta gave a new understanding to how the Mafia functioned and how the clandestine groups of hierarchy in the Sicilian Cupola (the Sicilian Mafia Commission) actually agreed on policy and business. For the first time the Mafia had been prosecuted as an entity rather than a collection of individual crimes.
Of the 474 defendants - both those present and those tried in absentia - 360 were convicted.
2,665 years of prison sentences were shared out between the guilty, not including the life sentences handed to the nineteen leading Mafia bosses and killers, including Michele Greco, Giuseppe Marchese and - in absentia - Salvatore Riina, Giuseppe Lucchese and Bernardo Provenzano.
A number of those convicted in absentia were, unknown to the judiciary, deceased by the time of the verdicts. They included Filippo Marchese, Rosario Riccobono and Giuseppe Greco. Additionally Mario Prestifilippo was also on trial in absentia, but he was found shot dead in the streets while proceedings were still taking place.
A total of 114 defendants were acquitted, including Luciano Leggio, who had been charged with helping to run the Corleonesi Mafia Family from behind bars and for ordering the murder of Cesare Terranova, who had prosecuted him back in 1970. The jury decided there was not enough evidence. It made little difference to Leggio's position though; he was already serving a sentence of life imprisonment for a prior conviction for murder and remained behind bars until his death six years later.
The significant number of acquittals did manage to silence some of the critics who had believed that it was a show trial whereby nearly everyone would be convicted.
Of those who were acquitted, eighteen were later murdered by the Mafia, including one, Antoninio Ciulla, who was shot dead within an hour of being released as he drove home for a celebratory party.
Carnevale was eventually nicknamed l'ammazza-sentenze - "The Sentence Killer" - because of his tendency to overturn Mafia convictions for trivial reasons. He threw out some drug-trafficking convictions, for example, because wiretapped conversations presented as evidence referred to the moving of "shirts" and "suits" instead of narcotics, even though it was well known that these were the codenames the members of that particular drug-ring employed for narcotics. He also released one Mafioso, who had been convicted of murder, on the grounds of ill-health. Despite being supposedly at death's door, the mobster immediately fled to Brazil with his illicit fortune and his family.
By 1989, only 60 defendants remained behind bars, and many were not exactly doing hard-time, with several residing in prison hospitals and taking it easy while malingering with phantom illnesses. One convicted Mafioso had a private hospital ward to himself and had several common (non-Mafiosi) criminals as his servants, supposedly while suffering from a brain tumor that, suspiciously, did not show any symptoms whatsoever.
Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino complained about these events but found it hard to be taken seriously as, so it seemed, the state's anti-Mafia crusade lost momentum and their opinions went largely unheard. One informer later said that the Mafia tolerated the Maxi Trials because they assumed those convicted would soon be quietly released once the public had lost interest, and the Mafia could continue with business as usual. It seemed, for a while, that they were correct in this assumption.
That summer, Falcone and Borsellino were murdered in audacious bomb attacks. This resulted in public revulsion and a major crackdown against the Mafia that seriously weakened the organization.
Salvatore Riina was eventually captured, as were other Mafiosi like Giovanni Brusca. Corrado Carnevale, the "Sentence Killer", was sacked and imprisoned for being in league with the Mafia. Salvatore Lima would have probably faced a similar fate but he was murdered in 1992 for not preventing the reversal of the appeals at the start of that year.
Whether the Maxi Trial was a success or not is impossible to judge without taking into account subsequent events. The trial's primary success, at its very outset, was in holding the Mafia as an organization into account for its activities rather than just its individual members for isolated crimes (this approach was personified in the USA via the RICO Act). Some may argue that the corrupted appeals process largely undid the work of the trial, but (and although it took several years and cost the lives of two judges), the Maxi Trial eventually set off a chain-reaction that lead to a severe weakening of the Mafia and the eventual capture of those who escaped the trial's initial net, such as Riina and Brusca.