A 77-year-old man was in custody yesterday after walking into a hospital and shooting dead his 82-year-old wife, who had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease for 12 years.
Vitangeolo Bini, a retired policeman from Florence, raised no suspicions when he came into the ward. His wife, Mara Bini, had been admitted a few days before; Mr Bini had, for years, borne most of the burden of looking after her.
She had been in and out of hospital and was in the last phase of the disease. The Italian press reported that she was no longer able to recognise her husband or anyone else, and had lost the power of speech.
He sat beside her bed, as usual, stroked her face and murmured some words.
There were five other patients in the ward, all old ladies, two of them seriously ill. Then Mr Bini spread towels over his wife's face and chest, took the revolver – for which he had a licence – from his pocket, and shot her at close range in the head.
A witness said, "I couldn't understand why he had covered his wife's head and chest with two towels. Then I heard the first shot and I practically fainted."
Amid the uproar, a male nurse quickly appeared. But Mr Bini heard his wife cry, realised that she was still alive and shot her twice more, once again in the head and once in the heart. He then turned to the others in the ward and said "Excuse me, but I couldn't bear to see her suffer any more. I did it because I loved her."
The other five patients were quickly taken away and Mr Bini sat down in a corner of the ward, took out his mobile phone and dialled the police. When they came for him – he had brought an overnight bag – he told them, "She was suffering too much, I couldn't bear to see her in that condition."
Mr Bini's dramatic act of mercy elicited an immediate wave of sympathy. More than 13 per cent of European women in Mara Bini's age group suffer from dementia, a figure that rises to more than 32 per cent for women in their 90s.
All told, more than 900,000 Italians are afflicted with the disease, which steadily wipes out memory, language, judgement and affection and which can strike as early as the 30s. Mercy killing is a particularly sensitive subject here, given the rigidly negative attitude of the Catholic Church to the subject, however appalling the patient's circumstances.
Mrs Bini had been seriously ill with Alzheimer's since 1999. "She was in the phase which is technically called terminal," the hospital's director, Dr Bruno Cravedi, explained to Corriere della Sera newspaper. "She was taken into hospital four days ago, as had happened several times before, with the object of temporarily overcoming the acute phase [of the disease] and allowing her to go home again."
Mr Bini had brought her into the Misericordia e Dolce hospital in the town of Prato, north of Florence, on Wednesday. "I have never seen anyone so kindly towards a wife as he was," Dr Cravedi continued. "He came to the hospital several times a day and had been given permission to visit outside normal hours."
The Prato hospital is one of Italy's most important centres for the treatment of the disease.