A 90-year-old former Nazi army officer was convicted Tuesday of murdering 10 Italian civilians who were herded into a barn that was blown up.
The Munich state court convicted World War II veteran Josef Scheungraber on 10 counts of murder and sentenced him to life in prison.
Scheungraber was a 25-year-old Wehrmacht lieutenant during the June 1944 killings in Falzano di Cortona, near the Tuscan town of Arezzo.
The court found that, after partisans had killed two Nazi soldiers, Scheungraber ordered 11 civilians to be herded into a barn that was then destroyed. One teenage boy survived the blast.
However, Scheungraber was acquitted of charges that he also ordered soldiers to shoot to death three Italian men and one woman before the barn massacre.
Scheungraber, who commanded a company of engineers, maintains he was not in Falzano di Cortona when the killings happened, but was overseeing reconstruction of a nearby bridge.
His defense team called for an acquittal in July, arguing that prosecutors had presented no evidence of Scheungraber's personal guilt.
Prosecutors acknowledged they could provide no living witnesses who heard Scheungraber give orders to kill the civilians. But they said he had been photographed at the burial of the two Nazis whose killings triggered the reprisals.
A former work colleague also testified that he remembered Scheungraber saying to him once in the 1970s that he couldn't visit Italy because of what had happened during the war, which involved "shooting a dozen men and blowing them into the air."
The witness, identified in court as Eugen S., testified he did not remember Scheungraber saying he had given the order, but said the defendant told the story "as if it were his decision."
Perhaps the most dramatic testimony in the trial came in October from the sole survivor of the massacre, Gino Massetti. He was 15 when German troops herded him and 10 other civilians into the barn before it was destroyed.
"I heard a scream, and that was it then," he said. "They were all dead."
Massetti told the court that just before the barn was blown up, he saw a man he assumed was an officer drive up on a motorcycle and give what appeared to be an order to the others. But, he testified, he could not describe the officer at all and didn't understand what he had said.
He said it was due to luck that he survived, because he was partly shielded from the blast after a heavy beam and a man fell on top of him. The other man also survived the explosion initially but succumbed to his wounds, Massetti told the court.
In September 2006 a military court in La Spezia, Italy, tried Scheungraber in absentia over the same crimes and convicted him of complicity in murdering civilians. It sentenced him to life in prison.
The defendant lives in Bavaria, and prosecutors said German judicial authorities needed to evaluate the case themselves before Scheungraber would face any punishment. His Munich trial opened last year.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center welcomed the conviction. In a statement issued by its chief Nazi-hunter, Israel director Dr. Efraim Zuroff, the center praised the renewed efforts of the German judiciary to prosecute World War II criminals and noted the importance of these trials.
"Today's verdict reinforces the critical principles that the passage of time in no way diminishes the guilt of the perpetrators and that elderly age should not serve as a legal protection for murderers. In this regard, the victims of Falzano di Cortona are just as deserving today that their killers be punished as they were in 1944."