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What America Can Learn From The Amanda Knox Case

Amanda Knox

Eight years of litigation came to close last year as the Italian Supreme Court acquitted Amanda Knox and her co-defendant Raffeale Sollecito of charges that they were involved in the murder of Knox’s roommate, Meredith Kercher. Numerous books, countless magazine articles and a veritable avalanche of internet traffic was generated by the case. In the process, two “camps” (an “innocence” camp and a “guilt” camp) emerged and went to war on the internet. The case had many twists and turns with an initial conviction at trial followed by a reversal of that conviction on appeal, then a reversal of the reversal by the Italian Supreme Court with a remand to an intermediate court which returned guilty verdicts and finally with the reversal of those guilty verdicts by the recent Supreme Court action. As the seesaw battle proceeded, there was a tendency of the camps to praise or attack the Italian legal system depending upon how they were faring at a particular point in time. Not surprisingly, the guilt camp extolled the virtues of the Italian legal system while they were winning, and then, upon the recent and definitive judgment of acquittal, began to imply the possibility of “corruption.”

This article will not go into the merits of the case (the author believes that the judgments of acquittal were correct) nor will it try to evaluate whether the Italian system is somehow “better” than the American system. What I will do is to point to certain features of the Italian system which may suggest avenues of reform for the American system. Having followed the case and written a number of articles about it, I was fascinated by certain aspects of the Italian criminal justice system which appear to be superior to our own.

1. A True Second Look On Appeal – In Italy much more than in America, appellate courts take a true “second look” at criminal convictions. Appellate courts can hear new or old witnesses and can investigate the case factually. The first appeal was adjudicated under the supervision of Judge Pratillo Hellmann, who may well be the hero of this case. He heard evidence, appointed independent experts to resolve key technical issues, and concluded that the defendants were innocent. In America, the appellate process is very limited and generally does not involve a reexamination of the facts. Until fairly recently, criminal defendants also had an opportunity to challenge convictions through the Habeas Corpus process but recent changes in the law have narrowed this avenue of review substantially. Thus, an American defendant who is convicted at the trial level faces a daunting task in attempting to overturn that conviction. The system is now structured in such a way that, while “rubber stamp” review does occur at several levels, none of the reviewing courts really take a true “second look” at the case to determine whether the defendant is really guilty. Perhaps, this problem may be remedied in some states by “conviction integrity panels” designed to identify wrongful convictions. As DNA evidence is beginning to allow us to discover that more and more convictions are truly wrongful and that we have been imprisoning significant numbers of innocent men and women, it is vitally important that, in each state, there be some point in the after trial process at which a true second look at serious criminal convictions is undertaken. It may be that the solution is to remove various limitations on Habeas Corpus. The important thing is that somewhere and at some time a true, thorough, second look be focused on serious criminal convictions.

2. Written Opinions – In Italy, the trial court (actually a kind of mixed court and jury) writes a detailed opinion going through the evidence presented and reaching conclusions about factual issues. It attempts to reconstruct what actually happened and explains why its factual conclusions support conviction or acquittal. Of course, this written opinion facilitates appellate review because an appellate court can evaluate the conclusions of the court below to determine whether they are supported by the evidence. In the United States, the trial proceeding generally generates only a “guilty” or “not guilty” verdict without detailed explanation of the underlying rationale. It is very hard for appellate courts (or anyone else) to discern the connection between the evidence presented at trial and the outcome of the case. This is, to some extent, the natural result of the American system’s reliance on lay juries. A jury of twelve sits through the trial, confers and reaches a verdict. To ask the twelve citizens to stay around after the verdict and write a detailed opinion citing the transcript of proceedings would create enormous burdens on those called for jury duty, might be impossible due to the differing views of individual jury members, and could become unworkable. The solution I would propose is that – in all cases in which the sentence is more than a certain length (say, ten years) the trial judge would have to write a detailed opinion describing why a reasonable jury could have found the defendant guilty. The opinion would cite the transcript of the proceedings. This opinion would then allow the appellate court to conduct a more meaningful review of the case.

3. Independent Experts – The real turning point in the Knox case came in 2011 when Judge Hellmann appointed two experts to review a key technical issue in the case. The issue involved DNA evidence which the prosecution claimed supported its case. One instance was the alleged DNA of Sollecito on the bra clasp of the victim found at the crime scene only after a considerable time had elapsed from the date of the crime. The other instance was a kitchen knife found in the apartment of Sollecito which knife allegedly contained DNA of the victim. At the trial level, there was the typical battle of the experts with experts from both sides testifying either that the evidence was reliable or that it should be disregarded. Judge Hellmann resolved this issue by appointing independent experts who would not be beholden to either side. The turning point in the litigation of the case came when the independent experts submitted their conclusions and determined that both items of evidence should be disregarded. This was a major victory for the defense. With these two items out of the case, there was no evidence of Knox or Sollecito in the room where the crime was committed and no evidence of the crime on the persons or belongings of either of the defendants. I think that consideration should be given to using independent experts more often in the United States criminal justice system. There are numerous technical issues in criminal cases – especially in case where crime scene evidence is of critical importance. I suspect that it is not at all unusual for American judges and juries to be confused by the testimony of technical experts – especially when dueling experts get into conflict on highly technical matters. Of course, the independent experts would have enormous power in certain cases and care would have to be taken in their selection. Each party could submit a list of acceptable experts and the judge could examine each list. His task would become easy if there were “overlap” and certain experts were on both lists. If no overlap could be found, the judge could investigate the selection of an independent expert and contact target individuals to finalize the selection.

I think that these measures would tend to reduce the unacceptably high rate of wrongful convictions in the United States.

This article was originally posted on my blog on Seeking Alpha: http://seekingalpha.com/instablog/396040-philip-mause/4674866-what-america-can-learn-from-the-amanda-knox-case

  • hikertom

    Here is an interesting conundrum:
    The Italian Supreme Court exonerated Amanda Knox & Raffaele Sollecito because they concluded that it would be impossible to murder Meredith Kercher without leaving some forensic evidence behind in the murder room. Since Rudy Guede was the only assailant to leave any evidence behind in that room, wouldn’t it be logical to conclude that he was the sole killer?

    So why didn’t the ISC come to that conclusion? The problem was that they were not free to come to that conclusion because it would have contradicted the verdict in Guede’s separate “fast track” trial that he didn’t act alone.

    Because there is no mechanism in Italian law for correcting a mistake after it has been validated by the ISC, here is the implied official version of what happened:
    Three people murdered Meredith Kercher. One was Rudy Guede. The other two are unknown persons who wore deep sea diving outfits that prevented any skin cells, saliva, hair follicles, fingerprints, etc. from being deposited at the crime scene.

  • Joe Citizen

    I totally agree with the writer. I had a bad experience in a US civil court – basically, the judge was lazy and probably had a bias against me – and the US system let’s judges get away with stuff that the Italian rule of the judge writing a justification would not. And the true review on appeal, instead of a phony rubber stamp process is good too I think.

    Many thanks to the writer for a thoughtful informative article.

  • Voiceofeurope

    One should be cautious.
    I think Ms. Amanda Knox is not innocent.
    Evidence was falsely rated as insufficient.
    The future is likely to show it I think.
    Let´s wait and see.

  • Voiceofeurope

    …. and one thing in addition:

    We have no “Amanda Knox Case”.
    It´s the “Meredith Kercher Case”.
    Exclusive.
    Meredith Susanna Cara Kercher is the victim. The only one.
    She is to find in England, the south of London, 2 Meters below ground.

    • CatsForever1960

      Meredith Kercher was not the only victim of this 8-year fiasco. The primary victim, yes. The victim who lost the most, yes. By far. Meredith’s relatives, Amanda Knox, Amanda’s relatives, Raffaele Sollecito, and his relatives are also victims. Every one of them. As for there being no “Amanda Knox case”, you can tell that to John Follain and see if he’ll change the title of his book that he wrote to cash in on the tragedy.

      • Voiceofeurope

        …. the only two who wrote to “cash in on the tragedy” are Ms. Knox herself
        and Mr. Sollecito.

        See:

        We had dedicated written court opinions summarizing each item useful and following logical principles. Now we have a 52 – page – persiflage of a verdict, A tangled conglomerate of illogicality, confused interpretations far from reality and competence overruns.

        That’s the real scandal in Italy.

        Such a result has to be unsatisfactory …. for everyone.

        • CatsForever1960

          Knox and Sollecito did not write to cash in on the tragedy of Kercher’s murder but rather to tell the story of their own tragedies of being wrongfully accused not to mention unjustly imprisoned for 4 years. Fittingly, you have no response to my pointing out that Follain cashed in on Kercher’s murder in part by making it the “Amanda Knox Case”. Your unimpressive “persiflage” statement applies perfectly to the trials, other than Hellman’s, that led up to March 2015. The final, yes final, result is only unsatisfactory to a single-digit number of remaining lunatic guilters. Nobody else.

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  • quixotic1

    Speaking as a US citizen… the only thing America can learn from the Italian system is to avoid it. First of all the first court didn’t take a look at the evidence because discovery and cross examination was not allowed on exculpatory items. And you seem to be oblivious to the fact that the appeal court didn’t produce the answer that was wanted by the superior court so it was nullified in search of an answer that did not conflict with a separate associated trial.

    I absolutely guarantee you if one of our police departments’ investigators were to spray paint the blood of the victim on the bathroom walls next to the murder scene, everything and I mean everything would have come to a screeching halt immediately. Your comparison of apples to evil is feckless and tends to avoid the same known facts that everybody seems to be hell bent to avoid and sweep Knox under the carpet in the process.

    In the US they would have never been charged and even if they had it would have been in a different jurisdiction and the dna evidence would have been subject to peer review so early on that the charges would have been dropped and the case dismissed. Not enough time for media kick-backs to be lucrative enough to be worth the risk. Sorry, your comparison is not reasonable but does serve a master.