People relax in front of Italy's Corte di Cassazione (Palace of Justice) in Rome on July 31, 2013. (Giorgio Cosulich/Getty Images)

MILAN — Four years ago, a father in the small northeastern Italian town of Remanzacco murdered his teenage son. The crime earned him a life sentence, a rarity in Italy and many other European countries. But last week the country’s highest court ruled that the murderer should have a reduced sentence — because his son was adopted.

Andrei Talpis, 57, a Moldovan immigrant living in Italy, killed his 19-year-old son, Ion, during a family fight in November 2013. Talpis was beating his wife, Elizaveta, when Ion stepped in to protect his mother. Talpis stabbed him to death.

Found guilty of aggravated murder, Talpis was sentenced to life in prison in 2015. While Italian law doesn’t typically call for life sentences for murder, the penal code recommends them in cases where a parent kills his child. The life sentence was confirmed by an appeals court in 2016.

But when Talpis’s case reached the Corte di Cassazione, Italy's rough equivalent of the Supreme Court, the judges ruled that the norm prescribing a life sentence for the murder of one’s own offspring cannot be applied to Talpis’s case because adopted children do not count as “offspring,” according to the country’s penal code.

Predictably enough, the ruling caused an uproar. Some interpreted it as a statement that adopted children don’t count as “real” children — or, worse yet, that their lives aren’t worth as much. “I found this sentence appalling,” said Francesca Sforza, a writer for the liberal newspaper La Stampa who has three adopted children, said in a telephone interview. “It reflects all the prejudices that adoptive families face when we have to prove that we are real families, as if blood was the foundation of love.”

From a legal standpoint, however, the ruling is fully justified, said Andrea Del Corno, a lawyer in Milan who specializes in criminal justice. Like most European countries, Italy has a legal system in which judges must closely stick to written codes rather than relying on previous rulings and interpretations as they would in the United States. Italian judges, explained Del Corno, “aren’t allowed to rule according to common sense. Their job is to apply the written law.”

Italy’s penal code, which dates back to the 1930s, simply does not consider adoptive and biological children as equal. And while Italian civil law was modernized in the 1980s and confers equal status upon adopted children, that status “does not extend to criminal cases, which are subject to the penal code,” said Del Corno.

“The court had no other option,” he said. “One could argue that we need to change the penal code, but changes in the law aren’t retroactive so it would not apply to this case.”

Still, the episode raises broader issues about Italian society’s approach to identity, relationships and blood. “This sentence was about biology coming first,” Sforza argued.

The ruling came at a time when international adoptions are in sharp decline in Italy and when the liberal government failed to pass a law granting citizenship to children born in Italy to immigrant parents. “We still have a legal principle called jus sanguinis [or “the law of blood”] regulating who gets to be a citizen. It’s the part of the same mentality: As the concepts of family and nation evolve, people cling to biology in an identitarian backlash,” said Sforza.

“Italy is stuck with the mythology of blood,” she continued. “And, honestly, that’s scaring me.”

Read more:

In once-welcoming Italy, the tide turns against migrants

Italy may require asylum seekers to do community service