Judges and historians, Carlo Ginzburg argues, have a good deal in common. Both have the weighty responsibility of examining the written record and drawing from it conclusions about what happened in the past. Yet judges bear the greater burden. Historians’ mistakes can be corrected by later historians building on their predecessors’ work; but when judges err by falling prey to logical fallacies and thus reconstruct the past incorrectly, innocent people go to prison, and the very concept of justice is corrupted.
Ginzburg, himself a historian who has specialized in the Inquisition and who teaches at UCLA, wrote “The Judge and the Historian” to call the world’s attention to what he sees as precisely such a gross miscarriage of justice in his native Italy. In 1988, a full 16 years after a Milan police superintendent was mowed down in broad daylight by two shots from a revolver, an informer came forward, confessed to a role in the crime and implicated three leaders of the far-left group Lotta Continua. The men he fingered were convicted, and after seven rounds of trials and appeals over nine years (a convoluted sequence not unusual in contemporary Italy), the convictions were upheld; the men remain in prison.
This was no ordinary murder. From the late 1960s through the early 1980s, Italy was a nation in chaos, torn by the terrorism of the Red Brigades, haunted by assorted conspiracies and conspiracy theories and plagued by a plethora of anarchist, neo-fascist and other noisy fringe movements. And Luigi Calabresi, the murdered officer, was no ordinary policeman. He was widely believed on the left to have murdered, under official auspices, Giuseppe Pinelli, an anarchist wrongly suspected by the police of detonating a terrorist bomb in 1969. (Pinelli’s death became the topic of Dario Fo’s satirical drama “Accidental Death of an Anarchist.”)
Ginzburg regards the convictions in the Calabresi case as the 20th century equivalent of the witchcraft and heresy convictions under the Inquisition. The contemporary Italian courts, he says, cared just as little for the evidence as the 16th and 17th century Catholic ones: Suspects could affirm their crimes, deny all or remain silent, and all these possible responses were regarded as evidence of their guilt. The Calabresi judges ended up believing the informer, Leonardo Marino, despite the dozens of problems Ginzburg cites with his story, any one of which, he says, should have created more than the shadow of a doubt and led to acquittal.
Ginzburg confesses his own bias up front: He has been a close friend of Adriano Sofri, one of the convicted Lotta Continua activists, for more than 30 years and “is certain that this accusation is groundless.” He scores several solid points against Marino, asking why the informer came forward when he did and strongly hinting that the authorities egged Marino on to help put a notorious murder to rest after a 16-year impasse.
But for a polemic intended as a Zola-like “J’accuse,” much of the argumentation is curiously bloodless. “The Judge and the Historian” reads not at all like a true-crime tale and not much like a work of history. It’s closer to a literary deconstruction of the trial record, probing for inconsistencies of tone and language as much as for errors of fact. “Anyone who is accustomed by profession to read and interpret texts can hardly fail to think that these phrases reek of pretentious diction,” Ginzburg scoffs at the explanation Marino gives for having spoken to the police. “Pretentious diction”? That’s not a crime. And in a criminal case it isn’t even good evidence.