Amanda Knox and the Tragedy of Italian Justice

The entire investigation was marred by staggering errors. Now, a retrial will drag Knox -- and the country's court system -- back into the spotlight.
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Amanda Knox arrives at the court during her appeal trial session in Perugia on September 30, 2011. (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)

When Amanda Knox was acquitted in 2011, four years after she was originally arrested for the murder of her roommate, British student Meredith Kercher, Italian newspaper Il Giornale titled its story about the case thusly: "Amanda and Raffaele Acquitted: It's the Magistrates Who Should Be Convicted."

Now, exasperation with Italy's legal system is likely to flare once again on the news that the case against Knox and her former Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, will be reheard in Florence later this year. Knox will not be compelled to appear in Italy for the retrial, but she could be extradited if the earlier ruling is reversed. Apparently, this sudden re-visiting of the original verdict is nothing unusual for Italy's big cases.

"Nobody here's good at their job."

"It's one of the many failings of Italian justice that it never delivers conclusive, door-slamming certainty," wrote journalist Tobias Jones in The Guardian shortly after the 2011 verdict. "What usually happens is that the door is left wide open to take the case to the next level, first to appeal and then to the cassazione, the supreme court."

On Tuesday, Italy's Court of Cassation accepted a request for a retrial from prosecutors and Kercher family lawyers who said the earlier ruling was "contradictory and illogical," Reuters wrote. But judging from media reports, the entire ordeal -- from the discovery of Kercher's stabbed, half-naked body to the acquittal -- was an illogical, clumsy disaster.

Prosecutors lacked a motive or any clear evidence linking Knox to the scene of the crime. Knox didn't know she was a suspect even as she was signing her confession. Nathaniel Rich's excellent 2011 story about the case in Rolling Stone provides a chilling look at some of the other myriad flaws in the investigation that put Knox behind bars for four years of her 26-year sentence:

Sollecito called the carabinieri -- the Italian military police -- and the couple went outside to wait. Two officers soon arrived. They weren't carabinieri, however -- they were postal police, a sleepy, junior-varsity unit of the state police responsible for investigating crimes like Internet fraud and stolen phones....

For starters, the carabinieri would have prevented anyone from tramping through the crime scene. The two postal-police officers, however, allowed themselves to be led through the house in search of clues by a band of child sleuths out of Scooby-Doo...

Italy's carnivalesque judicial process, where there is never order in the court, the lawyers and defendants constantly interrupting the proceedings with groans and catcalls and wild gesticulations, while the press in the gallery yammers away like the kids in the back of the classroom. The prosecution's failure to establish motive or intent ("We live in an age of violence with no motive," said one prosecutor). And the fact that prosecutors did not immediately drop the case against Knox and Sollecito after the bloody fingerprints and footprints came back matching a 20-year-old petty thief named Rudy Guede.

Guede was convicted in a separate proceeding and is serving a 16-year sentence. 

To be fair, Perugia is a small university town and seemed to lack the kinds of hot-shot lawyers and judges that might be involved in a similarly important case in a larger city. The prosecutor, Giuliano Mignini, told journalists that while it brought him little joy to send a young woman to jail for decades, "things are often touched by Satan" and referred to Knox as a "sex-and-drug-crazed she-devil."

"Nobody here's good at their job," Frank Sfarzo, a local blogger who has followed the trial more obsessively than anyone, told Rolling Stone. "If they were, they wouldn't be in Perugia."

And granted, Knox didn't help her case by reportedly doing "cartwheels and splits" in the immediate aftermath of the murder and canoodling with Sollecito during the police investigation.

The news of Knox's retrial might appear, to Americans, as yet another glitch in a what seems like a broken legal system: It wouldn't have happened in the U.S., legal scholars write, because Italy doesn't forbid double jeopardy, a cornerstone of American law.

Italians' displeasure with Knox' acquittal seemed to stem from a desire to see someone -- anyone -- punished for Kercher's murder and from a sense that she was a bit too loose and bouncy for a wrongfully accused suspect in a murder case. Polls in Italy showed that the majority of Italians believed Knox and Sollecito were guilty, and after the 2011 verdict was announced, spectators outside the courtroom shouted: "Shame! Bastards!" at judges and lawyers.

But reactions to the trial's handling were in some cases even more outraged.

"Even if the rules have been followed, and the sentence is, probably, irrefutable, for the Italian justice system this is not, however, a victory," said an editorial in La Stampa. "The confirmation of the evidence was missing; faced with doubt the judges inexorably, but justly, reached their conclusions. Yet this is an acquittal that leaves a bitter taste in the mouth... And so, almost by necessity, the debate shifts to the efficiency of our judicial system and the capacity of our judges, because now there are too many murder cases in which they have failed to give responses that fail to convince completely, or fail to convince at all."

To some locals, the acquittal showed that whatever procedural errors there might have been, the truth was destined to out itself eventually, and Italy's courts proved themselves, however slowly:

"Amanda Knox's case demonstrates how the system is able to react to any errors," Paola Severino, a lawyer and a professor of criminal law at Rome's LUISS University, told Time.

But as Jones points out, Knox's case is far from the only one in which the country's legal system fumbled a crucial case. Judicial appointments in Italy are made through nepotism, juries aren't properly sequestered, and the courts are in dire need of reform.

A recent Reuters analysis of Italy's courts paints an even more depressing picture:

There is a backlog of around nine million cases, 5.5 million civil and 3.4 million criminal ...

The state paid 84 million euros in compensation for miscarriages of justice and legal delays in 2011. There were nearly 50,000 such claims compared to 3,500 in 2003. Another 46 million euros was paid out to people unjustly thrown in jail.

Some 42 percent of those in jail or 28,000 people, are awaiting trial and the prison population is 68,000 in institutions intended to hold 45,000.

Prosecutors may be right to pursue the case until they're fully satisfied that they've found Kercher's killer, but the bizarre, never-ending saga that Knox's case has become detracts from the legitimacy of the final verdict (whatever it ends up being.) 

Or as Vittorio Macioce wrote in Il Giornale in 2011, "It's the law, but maybe in Italian justice there's a black hole where uncertainty reigns."

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Olga Khazan is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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