To the memory of Judge Falcone

I have already stated that one of the inspirations for the character of Magistrate Zhu was the character of the honest judge Song Jiang from the Song Dynasty novel The Outlaws of the Marsh (The Water Margin). However, there were real-life inspirations as well, notably Judge Falcone and Magistrate Huang Liu-Hong. I will speak about the Qing Dynasty magistrate Huang Liu-Hong at another time. In this post I wish to focus on Judge Falcone – a man who continued to work to enforce the rule of law even under constant threat of assassination by the Mafia.


Giovanni Falcone was born in 1939 in Palermo, Sicily. Throughout his childhood his parents would stress to him the importance not only of hard work but of bravery and patriotism also. As a child he was already horrified by the brutality of the Mafia, seeing it for the social disease that it is. Classmates of his from school would indeed grow up to join the Mafia. Giovanni Falcone wanted to study at the naval academy but fearing that his independent spirit would not do well in the navy, his father put him down for law school instead. He became a magistrate in 1964 and, after choosing to specialise in criminal law, he moved to the town of Trapani where he became a prosecutor. He was noticed very quickly by the Mafia. It was in Trapani, at the age of 28, that Falcone received his first death threat. He ignored it.


In 1980 he transferred to the investigation branch of the Prosecution Office in Palermo at a very dangerous time. The old low-profile Mafia had been replaced by the violent Corleonesi led by the boss Salvatore Riina. The man meant to head the Prosecution Office, Judge Cesare Terranova, was murdered by the Mafia in 1979. The man who was to take that job instead, Rocco Chinnici, would be murdered in 1983. But, prior to his murder, Rocco Chinnici recruited Falcone to the Antimafia Pool, a team of magistrates who worked closely together and shared resources and who specialised in investigating Mafia crimes. Also recruited to the Antimafia Pool was Falcone’s best friend Paolo Borsellino. When Falcone’s sister, Maria, afraid for his life, asked him why he had accepted the offer to work for the Antimafia Pool, Falcone replied, “Because you only live once.”


Falcone was a formidable interrogator. The testimony he received from Tommaso Buscetta, the first ever Sicilian Mafiosi boss to become an informant led to Falcone’s first major success. This was the ‘Maxi Trial’ (1986-87) of 475 alleged Mafiosi members, 360 of which were convicted of serious crimes, which included 19 life sentences and a total of 2665 years for the other convicted defendants. The prosecution file ran to 200,000 pages and 200 lawyers represented the defendants. The Mafia would never forgive Falcone.


Tommaso Buscetta’s key revelation to Falcone was that there existed a governing body of the Mafia, made up of the top bosses, known as the Cupola. This was a revelation that Falcone believed. However, it was greeted with scepticism by many other prosecutors and magistrates. Buscetta warned Falcone that he was now marked for death. Falcone understood this and shocked Buscetta with his fatalism, stating that he already knew that someday he would die at the hands of the Mafia.


Many in the Prosecution Office resented Falcone’s success with the Maxi Trial and made life very difficult for him. He felt he was getting very little support from his superiors and at times was being actively undermined. He was even forced at times by his superiors to work on very minor cases having little to do with the Mafia. And worse was to come when Falcone became even more famous, becoming the first Sicilian prosecutor to collaborate with prosecutors from other countries on Mafia investigations, notably a certain Rudy Giuliani, then an attorney for the Southern District of New York.


In 1989 a sack full of dynamite was discovered near a beach house Falcone had been renting. The discovery disturbed Falcone as he assumed the information about where he had been staying must have been provided to the Mafia from within the Prosecution Office.


Tired of all the backbiting in Palermo, in 1991 Falcone accepted a post with the Ministry of Justice in Rome. However, if the Mafia thought they had finally scared him away they were to be mistaken. While in Rome he began to restructure the Italian prosecution system, creating district offices to take the fight to the Mafia and a national office to focus on organised crime. Falcone had become more dangerous to the Mafia in Rome than he had ever been in Palermo.


In 1992 all the Maxi Trial convictions were upheld by the Supreme Court in Italy which was a massive blow to the Mafia. Salvatore Riina ordered the assassination of Falcone. The Mafia knew that Falcone returned home to Palermo weekly. On the 23rd May 1992 the Mafia detonated a massive bomb underneath the A29 motorway, the main route from the airport to Palermo, just as Falcone’s car was passing. Falcone, his wife Francesca, and four of his bodyguards were killed. Falcone was just 53 years old.


Salvatore Riina supposedly toasted Falcone’s death with champagne.


Two months later, on 19th July 1992, Falcone’s best friend, Paolo Borsellino was killed by a car bomb as he was about to visit his mother, along with five of his bodyguards. This was not long after Borsellino had given a TV interview where he spoke about the possible links between the Mafia and rich Italian businessmen such as Silvio Burlesconi.


After the public outcry following Falcone’s and Borsellino’s deaths there was at last a major crackdown on the Mafia in Sicily. Salvatore Riina was arrested in 1993 and died in prison in 2017. The man who actually detonated the bomb that had killed Falcone, Giovanni Brusca, known as ‘The Executioner’, was arrested in 1996 and remains in prison to this day. He has admitted to more than 100 murders but, so he says, ‘definitely less than 200’.


The Mafia has not gone away or been close to being defeated. In the wake of the murders of Falcone and Borsellino and the arrests of the Corleonesi death squad, the Mafia has reverted to its old tactic of staying beneath the radar and not openly threatening or challenging the state.


Both Falcone and Borsellino are well remembered in Italy. It is said, like in the United States on 9/11, that everyone in Italy remembers where they were when they heard that a bomb had killed Judge Falcone. There are monuments to Judge Falcone around Italy, and Palermo International Airport has been renamed Falcone-Borsellino Airport in honour of the two friends.


In 2013 the Giovanni Falcone Gallery was dedicated at the FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Below is a link to a speech made in Judge Falcone’s honour by a certain Robert S. Mueller who was then Director of the FBI.




Article by Laurence Westwood

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