Interviews July/August 2006

The Journalist and the Murderer

Douglas Preston discusses his investigation of the "Monster of Florence"—and the strange plot twist that made him a suspect in the case

It seems that in certain cases Spezi also helped bring the police’s attention to various aspects of the crimes.

That’s right. Another thing that the police relied on journalists in general for, but especially on Spezi, during the Monster case was to help control rumors. Rumors ran rampant. Many people’s lives were being ruined. It was extraordinary. A very important gynecologist in Florence, who ran a clinic, was suspected. Rumors swirled around him. It ruined his career. Again and again and again, absolutely out of control rumors destroyed people. The police were being driven crazy following up on these rumors because no matter what the rumor was—no matter how ridiculous—they had to investigate. Spezi played a very important role, along with other journalists, in publishing stories that showed these rumors to be false. The police would call Spezi and say, “Look, you’ve got to write a story about this rumor to say that this rumor isn’t true.”

After Spezi was imprisoned, you campaigned on his behalf and asked members of the press and organizations that protect the freedom of the press to write letters to important figures in the Italian government protesting Spezi’s treatment. Could you talk more about why you were compelled to do this and what action the individuals and organizations you contacted took?

Italians are very sensitive to American public opinion. Italians love America. It’s exactly the opposite of the French. They have almost an instinctual love for America, for American values. Older Italians remember American soldiers liberating their country from the Nazis. They’re very grateful. I realized immediately that an uproar from America would have a big effect in Italy. The key was to embarrass the Italians over this outrageous arrest—and it really was outrageous, the arrest of a journalist for being a journalist. And so I contacted a number of organizations.

I have to single out the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York City for being stupendously effective. Nina Ognianova and Alex Lupis, who were the European representatives, together jumped on this. They didn’t just trust my word; they actually conducted a completely separate investigation of what had happened to Spezi. They talked to a number of journalists in Italy about Spezi and about the climate and they wrote a fantastic letter that they sent directly to Silvio Berlusconi who, though he had basically lost the election to Romano Prodi, was still the prime minister and was still the effective head of government. So they wrote him a letter, a very good letter, and they copied it to Amnesty International, the American Consulate, the Italian Embassy, many important organizations. And copies also went to Mignini, to the Italian Minister of Justice, to the Italian Minister of the Interior who is in charge of the police force and law enforcement, and to the governmental office that oversees the magistrate system in Italy. This letter had a very big effect. It also induced a lot of other organizations and people to write letters.

A second organization that was extremely effective was International Thriller Writers, Inc., which is a group I belong to. It’s a small group, maybe three or four hundred people, but it includes all the top thriller writers in America: Clive Cussler, James Patterson, David Baldacci. And the reason this group was important is because these people are all huge best-selling writers in Italy. To have members of this organization writing letters to the Italian Minister of Justice, the Minister of the Interior, Mignini, and so forth was extremely effective.

So these letters helped bring the attention of higher-ups to the case?

There’s no question that these letters did bring attention to the case. In fact, after three weeks, Spezi’s case came up before a panel of three judges, all colleagues of Mignini. And the judges had to decide whether he was such a danger to the state that he had to remain in prison, or whether he should be released under house arrest, or whether he could just be released with no conditions.

The expectation was that they were going to keep Spezi in prison. Mignini had written a very strong opinion to this panel saying that Spezi was a grave danger to the Italian state. As evidence of this he cited that Spezi, while being kept in isolation at the Cappane prison, had somehow been able to organize an international campaign against Mignini and against the Italian judiciary. This was prima face evidence that Spezi was an extremely dangerous and powerful person who had somehow been able to create this tremendous international uproar. But to everyone else in Italy it was proof that this case was becoming a great embarrassment. So the judges released him with no conditions and basically said that there was no merit in the evidence that Mignini had presented against him.

My impression is that the Italian press was very supportive of Spezi and critical of his imprisonment.

They were. It was very strange. Right after he was arrested, there was kind of a period of silence in the Italian press because reporters were really frightened. It’s very difficult to be a reporter in Italy because Italy does not protect the press freedoms that we do in America, and journalists are definitely intimidated. But once one journalist started writing in protest, all the others followed. The letter from the Committee to Protect Journalists was published in Italy and was very important to show that in fact the international community was coming to the support of Spezi. So everyone gained confidence from everyone else. The tide turned dramatically after that.

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