Minister orders probe into freed child death suspect

Italy’s justice minister has ordered an investigation into why a man arrested over the abduction and killing of a toddler was not behind bars despite previous convictions in a rape and kidnapping case.

Italy’s justice minister has ordered an investigation into why a man arrested over the abduction and killing of a toddler was not behind bars despite previous convictions in a rape and kidnapping case.

Italians were outraged to learn that Mario Alessi, who admitted involvement in the kidnapping of 17-month-old Tommaso Onofri, had been convicted years earlier by two courts and sentenced to six years in prison for raping a young woman in Sicily and kidnapping her boyfriend.

With tough-on-crime platforms a prominent plank in premier Silvio Berlusconi’s campaign for election next week, justice minister Roberto Castelli ordered his staff to investigate why Alessi was not in jail, the ministry said. No details were given.

For four weeks, Italy held its breath after Tommaso was snatched from his home near the northern city of Parma on March 2.

Alessi led investigators on Saturday to the body of the boy, who was killed shortly after the abduction, struck on the head, possibly with a shovel, apparently because he was crying too much.

Alessi’s lawyer in the rape case, Domenico Russello, said his client had been set free pending an appeal to Italy’s top criminal court.

Alessi was convicted in 2002 in the rape in Sicily, and two years later, an appeal court upheld the conviction.

Convictions in Italy are not considered definitive until the two levels of appeals have been exhausted.

Judges frequently free convicted defendants until the final conviction, says Stefano Maranella, an Italian criminal law expert not involved with Alessi’s case.

People convicted of any crime, even murder, can be set free if a judge deems there is no danger that the suspect may repeat the offence, flee or destroy evidence, Maranella said.

Alessi, who denies the rape, spent six months in jail before the first trial.

He was then freed on condition that he left Sicily and lived in northern Italy, Russello said.

“The judge thought it was enough to remove him from Sicily” while the appeals ran their course, Russello said, adding that the Court of Cassation, Italy’s top criminal court, had not set a date yet to hear the final appeal of the rape conviction.

The case was also the first question by journalists in Monday night’s nationally-televised debate between Berlusconi and opposition leader Romano Prodi, who are running for the premiership in April 9-10 elections.

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