Does a Dying Mafia Killer Deserve Hospice Mercy?

He once ordered an enemy’s young son dissolved in acid. Now Italy’s courts are fighting over whether a barbaric Sicilian capo should get the right to die with dignity.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

BOLOGNA, Italy—Salvatore “Toto” Riina is a ruthless monster who once led the bloodiest campaign the Sicilian Cosa Nostra Mafia has ever waged. His brutal résumé includes credit for masterminding and ordering hundreds of murders, including the infamous assassinations of Sicilian anti-mafia bosses Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, who died in separate bomb attacks in 1992.

Now the 86-year-old capo dei capi, or boss of bosses, might be freed to “die with dignity”—a human right afforded by Italian law. This week, Italy’s high court agreed with Riina’s lawyers that he qualified to be put on house arrest because he has only weeks or months to live, overturning a decision by a judicial panel here that has jurisdiction over the case in nearby Parma. Last year, the Bologna court ruled the state should pay for his in-prison treatment for his many illnesses, but that he could not be released like most criminals on their deathbed.

The mobster, who has kidney cancer and Parkinson’s disease in addition to a bad heart, is in a medical wing of a maximum-security prison in Parma serving more than a dozen life sentences for the murder of more than 150 people, including ordering the death of 13-year-old Giuseppe Di Matteo, a foe’s son who was strangled and then dissolved in acid.

The high court wants the Bologna court to reconsider its finding, subtly alleging its prior ruling was payback for the judiciary’s use of multiple life sentences to keep the dying mobster in jail. Italy’s courts are notoriously inconsistent, with some clear criminals going free and others serving long sentences with little to prove their guilt.

Riina’s lawyers say he is mentally lucid but that he can no longer sit, walk, or eat and that, his crimes aside, he should be in a hospice situation that would allow him to die with dignity, surrounded by his loved ones rather than alone in a prison cell in accordance with Italian law.

Those who oppose his release, which include legal experts, anti-Mafia judges, and families of his countless victims, say dying alone in a prison is still a far better death than most of his victims were afforded.

Rita Dalla Chiesa, the daughter of Alberto Dalla Chiesa, the prefect of Palermo who Riina was convicted of killing, strongly disagrees with freeing the mafioso. “My father did not have a dignified death; they murdered him and left him, his wife, and Domenico Russo in the car without even a sheet to cover them,” she said on an Italian program covering the court’s decision.

Italy’s political class from both sides of the aisle unanimously agree Riina should die in prison, questioning the sanity of this high court decision, accusing the Bologna court of using the don’s case as a “vendetta” against multiple life sentences in defiance with human rights laws.

Many judges and investigators warn that Riina still commands certain factions of the Sicilian Mafia and releasing him would create an opportunity for his henchmen to gather at his deathbed, essentially creating a “sanctuary for Mafia dons.” Milanese prosecutor Ilda Boccassini argues that the Italian supreme court is playing with fire and could set a deadly precedent. “The decision by the Bologna court was not a vendetta,” she said, referring to their original decision not to release the mobster. “It is justice.”

Worse, they say, if he is released, hundreds of lesser mobsters could also be released into hospice situations, which would create security issues as those sites are harder to control.

If Riina is released before he dies, his family would like him to return to his hometown, Corleone—the Sicilian town synonymous with the Mafia after Mario Puzo created the famous Vito Corleone character for the Godfather trilogy. Corleone is also where Bernardo Provenzano, Riina’s successor, was found hiding out in 2006. Provenzano died in 2016 in a Milanese prison after unsuccessfully lobbying to be released for his own dignified death. The mayor of Corleone says he wouldn’t be welcome to come back home unless he is in a coffin. Provenzano was allowed to be buried there, but without a public funeral.

The Bologna court is expected to reach its new decision in the coming weeks. Italy’s high court will have another chance to look at the ruling.