Petty offence, lethal punishment. Shocking death in custody in Rome
On 22 October 2009, 31-year-old Stefano Cucchi died in the detention ward of Sandro Pertini hospital in Rome after spending a six days in custody spent between Regina Coeli prison and two hospitals following his arrest by carabinieri [Italy's police force with a military status] on the night of 15 October, when he was caught in possession of twenty grammes of hashish and two of cocaine. Justice minister Antonino Alfano reported on the death to the Senate on 3 November 2009, opening with the premise that "Lorenzo Cucchi should not have died and his death should have been prevented", adding that "the government is in the front line to ascertain the truth". An investigation by prosecutors is underway in Rome for manslaughter.
According to Alfano's report to the Senate, he was arrested in a park at 23.30, had his home searched while his mother was present, and was subsequently taken to the Appia carabinieri station to be accused of production and trafficking of illegal substances. After 3.30 a.m., he was taken to Tor Sapienza carabinieri station, where he was admitted and taken charge of at 3.55, and placed in a security cell. He reportedly had no bruising or visible injuries, other than those relating to the "advanced stage" of his "drug addiction", and his conditions were deemed compatible with detention. He rung the bell to call for a guard at 5 a.m., claiming that he was suffering from epilepsy and was generally feeling ill, resulting in the emergency 118 emergency services being called, although he then refused to be examined or to be taken to hospital. A doctor nonetheless entered the cell to look at him and certify the fact that Cucchi did not want to be taken to hospital. On the next morning at 9.20 a.m. he was taken to court to have his arrest validated by a judge, was kept in the courthouse's security cells under the prison police's supervision, and he was able to meet his father before the hearing. The hearing started at 12.30 and the judge validated his arrest, decreeing preventative custody, thus deeming that his conditions were suitable for this measure to be adopted. At 13.30, he returned in custody of the prison police. At 14.05, the doctor in the courthouse medical centre noted bruising under both eyes, and was told of injuries to his sacral vertebra [lower back] and lower limbs, which were not seen by the doctor due to the patient's refusal to allow himself to be examined. The doctor also reported that Cucchi had spoken of his sense of nausea and asthenia [abnormal weakness], and of a fall down some stairs.
Doctors from Regina Coeli prison who were heard by the parliamentary inquiry on the national health service that was held as a result of the case, claimed that Cucchi had injuries all over his body when he was admitted into prison. He was examined by a doctor on entering Regina Coeli prison at 15.45, and the duty doctor's report noted that he was suffering serious injuries to his face, suspected concussion and abdominal traumatism, and vertebral damage. Cucchi said he felt nauseous and the doctors, suspecting it was a result of damage to his central nervous system, wished to run a CAT tomography on him which the detainee refused to undergo, and he was later sent to Fatebenefratelli hospital in an ambulance at 19.50. Admission procedures were initiated due to his near inability to walk, but Cucchi signed to be released, returning to the prison's medical ward at 23.00. He was taken to hospital again on the following morning.
Alfano's report to the Senate states that on 17 October, Cucchi asked to be admitted in hospital due to continuing pain and anuresis [inability to urinate], where he stayed in the detention ward until he died between 6.15 and 6.45 on 22 October 2009, of "reported natural death".
The minister notes that the injuries may have been a result of "an accidental fall on the day before his birthday" that Cucchi himself told the doctor about, adding that the lack of information to his relatives was a result of a request by the detainee, producing a document signed by Cucchi to this effect, about whose authenticity the family has expressed doubts. Alfano also stressed that the patient was extremely thin and frail, uncooperative, refusing an eye examination and further x-ray scans. His death, Alfano said quoting doctors, "came in a sudden and unexpected manner". Both the prison administration authority (Direzione generale dell'Amministrazione penitenziaria) and the criminal prosecution service in Rome have duly opened investigations into the case. Another matter that is being examined is the fact that Cucchi's relatives were unable to see him although they had gone to visit him in the Sandro Pertini hospital on two occasions (on 17 and 19 October), because an authorisation was required. In the event, the authorisation finally arrived on the morning after his death.
The Italia dei Valori senator Stefano Pedica, who intervened in the debate, described the case as "a defeat for the state": for the national health service that "failed to cure and heal", for the law enforcement agencies that failed in their duty to "protect and safeguard everyone from violence", and for the government, when it fails in "its duty to pursue the public good" by ascertaining the truth, and when a minister "acritically acquits members of the Arma [corps, term used to refer to carabinieri] without justice having run its course". This last criticism is a reference to a statement by defence minister Ignazio La Russa, "I don't have the elements to verify anything, but I am certain of one thing: the absolute correctness of the carabinieri's behaviour on this occasion". Asking for the minister to clarify what happened without resorting to his response in the wake of the scandal on 27 October, when he spoke of "an accidental fall", and referring to some inconsistencies in the times reported (the time of the arrest is referred to as 22.00 in a request for judicial validation sent to the court, and 23.30 by the carabinieri), he raised the issues that, through his sister, Cucchi's family had put to him.
"Given that in a civil and democratic country such as Italy it must not and cannot happen that a man is handed into the custody of the state in normal physical and psychological conditions and is then returned by the state only six days later, dead and in inhumanely atrocious conditions. In what exact circumstances did my brother, Stefano Cucchi, receive those multiple injuries? Why did Stefano's family only learn of his death hours after he had deceased and, especially, through the investigating magistrate's order appointing a coroner for the autopsy? Why was it stated that he was homeless? Why was the lawyer who Stefano had asked for not called, appointing a duty lawyer instead? Was Stefano, who was deeply religious, given last rites?"
In response to Alfano's report, Luigi Manconi of the association "A Buon Diritto" for the defence of rights that are nominally guaranteed by the legal system but are not adequately guaranteed, raised a number of concerns resulting from perceived gaps in the minister's report. Firstly, he notes that while there appeared to be no anomalies in his conditions during the court hearing to validate his detention, yet a medical visit was carried out an hour later and it revealed a number of injuries. Secondly, Cucchi asked for his defence lawyer to be contacted as soon as he arrived in the carabinieri station following his arrest, and this was not done; it is a violation of rights, and the minister did not mention the issue. Thirdly, the minister repeatedly spoke (three times) of the prisoners' mention of an accidental fall down the stairs a fortnight earlier, trying to link these to the facial wounds and broken vertebrae, in contrast with the family's claims that he enjoyed normal health and walked normally [incompatibly with what would have been the case if he had had broken vertebrae] when he left his home prior to being arrested. Manconi, asks the minister, "Out of institutional decency, a minimum of respect for people's intelligence and common sense" to refrain from lending credit to the "hypocritical convenient explanation" used by "'total institutions' and authoritarian systems to conceal violence inflicted on people in their charge". After a prison guards' trade union spokesman (from Osapp), confirmed that Cucchi was already badly injured when he arrived at Regina Coeli prison, it appears that the key period may be the one following the hearing spent in custodial premises adjacent to the court, unless the injuries were suffered during his overnight stay in custody (his father had noted his darkened eyes before the hearing, but felt it was due to tiredness rather than bruising) but were not noticed (neither by his parents nor by the judge) during the court hearing.
The commotion over his death began after his relatives authorised the publication of photographs from his autopsy, in which his face was visibly injured and bruised around both eyes, with a distorted jaw and a number of injuries all over his body were apparent, including damage to his backbone and vertebrae. He was already very thin, weighing 43 kg when he was stopped, and 37 kg at the end of his ordeal. Lorenzo Cucchi's sister Ilaria contradicted claims that her brother was anorexic and had tested positive to HIV. The prisoners' ombudsman for the Lazio region, Angiolo Marroni, submitted a complaint to the prosecutors office that highlighted that doctors had warned the magistrate of the patient's rejection of therapeutic treatments, that they were not informed of his relatives' requests to see him, and that , if true, MPs' claims that the family's legal expert was denied the opportunity to attend the autopsy would be "very serious".
Patrizia Aldrovandi, the mother of 18-year-old Federico, who was beaten to death in 2005 by four police officers in Ferrara as he returned home from a night out with friends, drew a parallel with two other cases involving deaths at the hands of officers from the police forces: "Stefano Cucchi like my son Federico and like Gabriele Sandri". Lazio football fan Gabriele Sandri was shot on 11 November 2007 by Luigi Spaccarotella, an officer from the Polstrada (motorway police), who was found guilty of manslaughter and received a six-year sentence on 14 July 2009.
The trial into Federico Aldrovandi's death resulted in four flying squad police officers being found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to three-and-a-half years' prison sentences on 6 July 2009 (see Statewatch, vol. 16 no. 1, January-February 2006, and vol. 18 no. 1, January-February 2008; and Statewatch news online, January 2006 and July 2009). The case has also led to a number of past cases of alleged ill-treatment in custody re-surfacing and to new reports of abuses committed against prisoners being reported.
Report by justice minister Antonino Alfano to the Senate on the Lorenzo Cucchi death in custody case, and subsequent discussion, morning session, 3.11.2009 (pdf, pp. 37-50).
CNRmedia.com - Photographs of Lorenzo Cucchi autopsy released by his family [WARNING: readers may find these distressing]
A buon diritto press statement, 4.11.2009,
Repubblica, 26.10, 28.10, 30.10, 2.11, 5.11, 6.11.09;
Corriere della Sera, 27.10, 29.10, 30.10, 6.11.09;
il manifesto, 5.11.09;
il Messaggero, 7.11.09.
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