Sicily had never seen anything like the Maxi Trial. Sure, mafiosi had been in the docket before, but this was something else: 474 defendants facing charges that included 120 murders, all to be judged in a single trial. For the first time, simply being a member of a mob was considered a crime.
The courtroom, which had to be built especially for the occasion, was made of reinforced concrete so it could withstand rockets. Hundreds of rifle-wielding police stood guard as hundreds more journalists covered the unprecedented event. For caution's sake, alternate judges were present in case the presiding magistrate should suffer "an unfortunate accident" before delivering the verdict.
When it was all over in December 1987, after years in the making and after almost two years of testimony, the Maxi Trial delivered 2,665 years of prison sentences to 360 hardened mobsters - including many of the most senior mob figures in all of Italy. One of the mafia's own had broken the code of silence to implicate cadres of Sicily's "men of honor," not merely irrefutably proving the mafia's existence but shaking it to its very core.
They had brought it on themselves. In the early '80s, the fighting between rival mafia families reached exceedingly gruesome proportions. It was bad enough that they were slaughtering their own, littering the streets with bullet-riddled bodies. But when mobsters started assassinating key government officials, the public demanded that the authorities act to ensure their safety.
Three men would prove instrumental in putting the mob on trial - two courageous magistrates, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino; and mafia turncoat Tommaso Buscetta, who provided piles of evidence about the far-reaching activities of Italy's crime syndicates.
After the trial, judges in the pay of the mafia overturned most of the verdicts, setting free about 80 percent of those convicted. In 1992, Falcone and Borsellino managed to take over the Maxi Trial appeals, succeeding in putting many of the mafiosi back behind bars. Within a few months, however, both were assassinated in daring car bombings. Their deaths inspired a new public backlash against the mafia that led to the capture of several more leaders and further weakened the criminal organizations.