ROME (AP) - Silvio Berlusconi's fate hung in the balance Thursday as Italy's highest court deliberated on his last-resort appeal of a tax fraud conviction that could halt, at least temporarily, his political career.
ROME (AP) — Silvio Berlusconi's fate hung in the balance Thursday as Italy's highest court deliberated on his last-resort appeal of a tax fraud conviction that could halt, at least temporarily, his political career.
The five-judge panel began its deliberation Thursday following two days of arguments by prosecutors and Berlusconi's defense. The highly anticipated decision threatens the stability of Premier Enrico Letta's fragile coalition government, which depends on cross-party support to approve reforms needed to help Italy out of recession.
Berlusconi has no official role in the government, but he remains influential in the center-right and backers already slowed Parliament's work last month after the high court put his case on the docket this summer, instead of the fall, to prevent some of the charges from expiring.
Berlusconi's beefed-up legal team has argued to reverse the guilty verdict. Defense attorney Franco Coppi, an appellate expert, also offered the court an alternative: order a new trial, a move that might reduce the risk of a ban on political office.
It is unclear when a decision will be issued.
Berlusconi, 76, and three others were convicted in October of tax fraud in the purchase of TV rights for Berlusconi's Mediaset network. Berlusconi was sentenced to four years in prison with a five-year ban on public office, which was confirmed on appeal earlier this year.
Confirmation of the lower court's ruling would trigger a procedure to strip Berlusconi of his Senate seat. He also would be banned from running in new elections for the duration of any political ban.
The court could also overturn the conviction -- which would be rare. Or it can send the case back to the appellate court if it finds some error in the previous proceedings.
The state prosecutor has recommended lowering the political ban to three months, from five years, citing discrepancies in the sentencing law. Coppi said the recommendation revealed a "blatant error" in the sentencing.
In his arguments, Coppi repeatedly cited Berlusconi's contention that he no longer was involved in the business dealings of his media empire after he entered politics 20 years ago — including when he was premier during the years covered by the tax fraud charges.
If the court does not accept a full reversal of the conviction, Coppi urged it to send the case back to a new trial where a court could decide the case wasn't the subject of criminal law but rather an issue for tax authorities.
Any new trial would likely chip away at another year of alleged tax fraud covered by the statute of limitations, and any resulting conviction could result in a more lenient punishment, perhaps even no ban on holding public office, legal experts have said.
Even if the four-year sentence is upheld, it is unlikely Berlusconi will do jail time. Three years will be shaved off as part of a general pardon aimed at easing prison crowding, and it is unusual for defendants to serve sentences of just one year for a first offense, particularly at Berlusconi's age.
Whatever the outcome, the Cassation Court decision does not end Berlusconi's judicial woes. He was convicted in June of paying for sex with an under-age teen and then forcing public officials to cover it up. The court sentenced him to seven years in jail and a lifetime ban on public office.