Amanda Knox and Italy's 'Carnivalesque' Justice System

The former exchange student has been convicted of murder—again.

Reuters (Photo illustration: The Atlantic)

Amanda Knox was convicted of the 2007 murder of her former roommate, Meredith Kercher, in an Italian appeals court in Florence on Thursday, overturning an earlier acquittal. The decision concludes four months of argument in what has been the third trial of Knox and her ex-boyfriend and co-defendant, Raffaele Sollecito. The judge sentenced Knox to 28 years, and Sollecito to 25 years.

"I am frightened and saddened by this unjust verdict," Knox said in a statement. "Having been found innocent before, I expected better from the Italian justice system."

Knox awaited the verdict from her home in Seattle, and it's unlikely Italian authorities would attempt to extradite her until the verdict is finalized, which in Italy is a process that can take up to a year. Some experts say it is unlikely that Knox will be extradited to Italy at all because of U.S. laws against double jeopardy and because of the risk of harming international ties. Plus, Knox's lawyer has said that the case will likely be appealed yet again.

When Amanda Knox was first acquitted in 2011, four years after she was originally arrested for Kercher's murder, Italian newspaper Il Giornale titled its story about the case, "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, at least among Americans who support Knox. Apparently, this layer-cake appeals process and these reversals of earlier verdicts are nothing unusual for Italy's big cases.

"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."

In fact, judging from media reports, the entire ordeal—from the discovery of Kercher's stabbed, half-naked body to this latest conviction—has been 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 initial 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, where the murder and early trials took place, 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 second conviction might appear, to Americans, as yet another glitch in 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' 2011 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 bubbly 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 acquittal was announced, spectators outside the courtroom shouted: "Shame! Bastards!" at judges and lawyers.

But reactions to the handling of the couple's original trial 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 others, 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 in 2011.

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

A 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 have been right to pursue the case until they're fully satisfied, but the bizarre, never-ending saga that Knox's case has become detracts from the legitimacy of the final verdict.

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."

This post is based on a version originally published on March 26, 2013.