Silvio Berlusconi's corruption trial ended Saturday with a court ruling that the statute of limitations had run out, handing the former premier another victory in a long string of judicial challenges.
Berlusconi, who stepped down as premier in November as the sovereign debt crisis flared, was accused of paying a British lawyer, David Mills, $600,000 to lie during two 1990s trials to shield the politician and his Fininvest holding company from charges related to offshore companies Mills helped set up.
The billionaire media mogul wasn't in the Milan courtroom when the chief judge, Francesca Vitale, read out the verdict after 2 1/2 hours of deliberations, but his lawyer Niccolo Ghedini said he had informed him briefly by telephone.
Ghedini said the defense had hoped for a full acquittal, leaving open the possibility of an appeal. In Italy, both sides can appeal court decisions.
"We would have preferred that the judge had ruled that no crime had been committed," Ghedini told Sky TG 24. "This is the first result, and not an unimportant one."
Prosecutor Fabio De Pasquale told reporters "it's useless to comment."
The five-year-long trial was a race against the statute of limitations, which had spared Berlusconi verdicts in other trials related to his media business since the 1990s.
Prosecutors had changed the timing of the alleged crime from when Mills took the stand to when the money changed hands, adding two years to the clock. And defense lawyer Ghedini, a lawmaker, helped draft a law that gave the sitting premier immunity, drawing fire that he was using Parliament to shield himself. The law was watered down in court as unconstitutional.
The trial was also slowed by legal delays by the defense, and Berlusconi's duties as premier. The defense, for their part, complained that the court severely limited the number of witnesses as the statute of limitations grew imminent.
The verdict did little to change perceptions about Berlusconi by supporters and detractors alike, and unleashed a furor about Italy's statute of limitations law. In Italy, unlike other European countries, the clock continues ticking even after the trial begins, giving defendants another tool to beat a conviction.
Sky TG 24 reported that 140,000 trials were ended last year because of the statute of limitations, and that they mostly affect corruption cases, which often don't come to light for years after the fact.
"Once again, the statute of limitations has saved Berlusconi from his responsibility," opposition politician Antonio di Pietro said.
Berlusconi allies defended the former premier. "A guilty verdict against an innocent was avoided," Fabrizio Cicchitto, Berlusconi's party whip in the lower house, told Sky TG 24.
Berlusconi, 75, stepped down as premier in November after failing to come up with convincing reforms to help Italy exit from the sovereign debt crisis. He had no immediate reaction to the decision, but he issued a statement Friday railing against magistrates for the "many trials" against him and saying that he doesn't remember having met Mills.
"Mills was one of many lawyers abroad that occasionally worked for the Fininvest group. I don't recall ever having met him," Berlusconi said in that statement.
He added that Mills had received the $600,000 from an Italian arms dealer for some legal work and had made up the story that the money had been a gift from a Fininvest employee, who had since died, to avoid paying a 50 percent tax on earnings.
Mills conviction and 4 1/2 year sentence on corruption for accepting the bribe was thrown out on appeal because of the statute of limitations. The lawyer testified by satellite in Berlusconi's trial that he had fabricated the story to avoid British taxes.
By prosecutors' calculations, the statute of limitations on Berlusconi's case should have expired between May and July. The court didn't agree, but their reasoning won't be known for 90 days. Even the prosecutors' time frame would not have allowed for the two levels of appeal required to finalize any verdict.
Berlusconi's legal woes are not over. Three cases are pending in Milan, including a trial charges that he paid an underage Moroccan teenager to have sex with him, then used his influence to cover it up. Both he and the young woman have denied the charges.
The charge of using his influence to cover up a crime could bring an additional penalty that would bar Berlusconi from again seeking public office, but that would only occur if a guilty verdict is confirmed on the final appeal.
Berlusconi has faced dozens of trials in Milan, mostly for his business dealings. He has either been acquitted or seen the charges expire under the statute of limitations.
This program aired on February 25, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.