Will Amanda Knox Be Sent Back to Italy?

How the former exchange student could still wriggle out of her 28-year Italian jail sentence

Exterior of Italy's Court of Cassation, which overturned Amanda Knox's acquittal on Thursday. (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)

It’s been an emotionally wrought seven-year saga for Amanda Knox and her family, for Meredith Kercher’s family, for Knox’s ex-boyfriend (an Italian citizen also re-convicted this week), and for Italy as a whole. Italy’s “carnivalesque” judicial system seemed to have bungled several of Knox's earlier trials and incarcerated her for four years in a gross miscarriage of justice. Italian tabloids and media reports added fuel to the fire by depicting the Seattle-born student as “a siren who could entice a virtual stranger to commit murder with her hypnotic sexual charms.” Now Knox’s acquittal has been overturned on appeal in the Italian Court of Cassation, raising the possibility that she could be extradited back to Italy to serve another jail term.

If the Italian government requests her extradition—the Italian Supreme Court will likely address the case first— legal commentators see some paths to lawfully block it. Legal scholar Alan Dershowitz observed that double jeopardy might not affect Knox because the newest verdict is simply a reversal of her original acquittal, not a new verdict from a second trial – but a sympathetic federal judge might disagree and block on those grounds nonetheless. (Unlike Italy, acquittals cannot be appealed or overturned by higher courts in the U.S. justice system.) Slate’s Justin Peters hypothesized that the U.S. could use Article X of its extradition treaty with Italy, which requires the requesting nation to prove “a reasonable basis to believe that the person sought committed the offense for which extradition is requested,” to block her extradition.

There are more drastic options the U.S. government could take to protect Knox, though. Could Congress and/or President Obama override the extradition treaty with Italy to shield Knox, for example? Yes, says Julian Ku, an international law professor at Hofstra University, but they’re unlikely to do so. “I doubt there will be any need for Congress to intervene,” he said. “If the political winds blow so strongly in favor of Knox, Secretary [of State John] Kerry has all the authority he needs to keep her in the U.S.”

Amanda Knox tearfully gestures to her friends and family during a press conference in 2011 on the day she returned to the U.S. (Anthony Bolante/Reuters)

Extradition disputes can create significant diplomatic friction, even among close allies. In Britain, MPs unhappily claimed in 2012 that seven British citizens had been extradited to the U.S. for every American citizen extradited to the UK since 2004. (Since then, the UK has requested extradition for twice as many individuals from the U.S. than the reverse.) Edward Snowden’s escape from U.S. prosecutors also led to a showdown between the Obama administration and authorities in Hong Kong, and later Russia. Snowden flew to Russia after Hong Kong officials claimed the U.S.’s application was improperly made, blindsiding U.S. diplomats and giving Snowden time to escape. (The State Department subsequently revoked his passport, stranding him in Moscow.)

Could Knox attempt a similar escape? Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand, most of Latin America, and the European Union all have extradition treaties with Italy, but it’s still possible. “I don’t believe the U.S. is under any obligation to do anything to restrain Knox unless and until the Italian government requests their action,” Ku says. “So I believe Knox is free to travel to a third country and the U.S. has no obligation (or actually any legal authority) to block her travels.”

Peters also noted that the Italian government could simply not ask the U.S. government to extradite Knox, which he foresees as the most likely scenario. It wouldn’t be the first time: Italian government officials have repeatedly demurred on requesting extradition for 23 Americans convicted in Italian courts for their involvement in the CIA-orchestrated rendition of Egyptian terror suspect Abu Omar in 2003.

But even if Italy does request Knox’s extradition, Kerry can still simply refuse regardless of whether there are legal problems, says Ku. “It would be a real diplomatic blow, and a bad policy decision in my view, but neither illegal nor unconstitutional.”