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.


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."

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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