The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The 3 reasons Silvio Berlusconi might never see prison

(AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

An Italian court has sentenced former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to four years in prison for tax evasion and banned him from standing for office for three years. That might seem like an odd combination -- wouldn't it allow him to run for office during his last year in jail? -- but there are some reasons to suspect that Berlusconi may well avoid the prison part of his sentence. Here's why:

• He gets two more appeals first. The 76-year-old media mogul won't serve a day until he's exhausted those, and this first trial took six years. That doesn't necessarily mean the next two appeals would take as long, but if they did, he would be 88.

• Statute of limitations could save him. It certainly has before. Just this February, Italian courts had to drop a case against Berlusconi, for allegedly bribing a lawyer to lie on the stand in the 1990s, because the appeals process had exceeded the statute of limitations. According to the AP, the statute of limitations on this particular case is set to expire next year.

• He's beaten past convictions and sentencings. He was convicted in 1990 of giving false testimony, of bribing financial regulators in 1996, and of bribing the prime minister in 1997. He served no prison time, in the latter two cases because the statute of limitations expired before he'd exhausted his appeals.

This ability to run out the clock would seem to significantly favor Italian criminal defendants wealthy enough to afford lawyers who can sufficiently block or delay their trials. If Italian government officials wished to stem the $79 billion in annual corruption losses, the return of which could help buoy the sinking Italian economy, this might be one place to start.