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Murder Trial Captivates Italians

September 19, 1998

ROME (AP) _ Even before TV news aired videotape of prosecutors trying to badger a witness into changing her story, Italians were riveted to the murder trial of three university employees accused in the shooting of a student.

The killing of Marta Russo shocked many people in Italy, where campus crime is rare. The case has been closely followed by the national media since the 22-year-old law student was killed last year.

When the trial of two teaching assistants and a school porter who were charged in the killing resumed this month after a summer break, Italians tuned in regularly to daily newscasts for updates.

But attention now is focusing on prosecutorial conduct and even the Italian justice system, bumping stories like the Clinton sex scandal from the top spot on the news.

The controversy stems from contradictory statements given by a witness, Gabriella Alletto, a school secretary. She testified in court that she had seen a teaching assistant in a classroom with a gun.

But on a four-hour videotape, filmed just three days before the arrests were made amid intense public pressure, Alletto told prosecutors: ``I never was in the classroom.″

Prosecutors could be heard on the tape urging the woman to come up with an ``alternative truth.″

The woman, her voice breaking, at one point responded, ``Well, then, tell me what I must say.″

On Friday, Rome’s chief prosecutor, Salvatore Vecchione, defended the methods used to question Alletto. One of the prosecutors, Carlo Lasperanza, said his only concern was that ``this affair risks influencing the entire trial.″

Italian Premier Romano Prodi wasted no time in going before Parliament to denounce ``psychological conditioning″ by prosecutors.

Italy’s justice minister has demanded a report from prosecutors, and the Superior Council of Magistrates, a watchdog group that monitors prosecutors, will issue a ruling on the matter.

The case has revived nagging questions on prosecutorial conduct that still linger from the ``Clean Hands″ corruption probes of the early 1990s, when prosecutors threw suspects in jail and kept them there until they implicated others.

Russo was a diligent student trying to get through studies at the public law school when a bullet struck her down as she strolled with a friend on a campus street on May 9, 1997.

The motive has never been clear. One police theory is that Russo was the victim of a deadly game in which the shooter took aim and pulled the trigger, not knowing the .22-caliber pistol was loaded.

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