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Italian Court Attacks Death Penalty in Blocking Extradition

June 27, 1996

ROME (AP) _ In a slap at American death penalty laws, Italy’s highest court ruled Thursday that an Italian-born restaurateur cannot be returned to Miami to face charges of killing a tax collector.

The decision strikes at a key pillar of the U.S.-Italy extradition treaty _ that suspects will be turned over only if American prosecutors promise not to seek execution.

The Constitutional Court adds another prominent voice to the growing European opposition to capital punishment, even at the risk of ignoring international pacts.

The court said the extradition treaty did not offer enough guarantees that a defendant would be spared the death penalty despite promises by American authorities.

Florida prosecutors had agreed not to seek execution for Pietro Venezia, 43, whose case became a rallying point for activists and officials in Italy, where capital punishment is outlawed.

Venezia was charged in the Dec. 24, 1993, slaying of Florida state tax collector Donald E. Bonham, 61, who had frozen Venezia’s bank account. Venezia fled to Italy after the shooting and was arrested.

If he remains in Italy, he could face a murder trial. Conviction could bring a maximum sentence of life, but paroles and pardons are often granted more freely in Italy than the United States.

``Under no hypothesis and for no type of crime is complicity by the Italian state allowed in the seeking or carrying out of the death penalty,″ the court said.

A former justice minister, Alfredo Biondi, said he didn’t believe the decision would damage the extradition pact. ``But it’s good we have clarified our position,″ he said.

The decision stunned American officials.

A U.S. embassy spokesman in Rome, Mark Smith, said no comment or challenge was expected until the ramifications of the decision are analyzed. ``We are studying what all this means,″ he said.

Alfred Rubin, a Tufts University professor of international law, said the decision was ``a knock against the treaty.

``But more than that, it’s a signal to the U.S. of a general European unhappiness over the legal validity _ the whole notion _ of the death penalty,″ he said.

Italy and the United States have extremely close crime-fighting cooperation. Many suspects, including reputed Mafia members, have been extradited from Italy under the pledge that U.S. authorities would not seek the death penalty.

In 1993, Italy extradited to California the owner of a sportswear company, John Barret Hawkins, charged in a murder-for-insurance scam. In California, which has the death penalty, he was convicted and sentenced last year to 25 years to life.

Many European activists and officials openly challenge the U.S. death penalty.

Demonstrations are common and, in Italy, politicians routinely denounce capital punishment. In a landmark decision in 1989, the European Court of Human Rights said the threat of the death penalty was a violation of human rights.

Italian death penalty opponents celebrated the court’s ruling.

``A battle for civilization, which will take its place in the history of our country, has been won,″ said Ersilia Salvato, a deputy president of the Senate and member of the Communist Refoundation party.

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