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Law Student Perspective: The Amanda Knox Trial

I first heard about Amanda Knox several years ago. I glanced over a few articles on the alleged murder, but I didn’t pay too much attention to the story. As time went on, I was confused because the trial never seemed to end—I would read about a conviction, then an acquittal, and so on. A few days ago, Italy’s highest court decided on the case (again) by acquitting Ms. Knox.

As a law student, I took a keener interest in the case this time around. I was especially interested in comparing and contrasting the differences between the American legal system and the Italian legal system. The more I read, the more grateful I am to be living under the law of the ol’ U.S. of A. rather than under the control of Italy’s legal system.

Before I go any further, I want to briefly summarize the legal proceedings, just so we’re on the same page. Amanda Knox, an American college student studying abroad in Perugia, Italy, was arrested (along with her boyfriend at the time) and found guilty of murdering her roommate back in 2007. In 2011, after she spent four years in prison, an Italian Appeals Court overturned the conviction. Subsequently, Italy’s highest court reversed the Appeals Court’s acquittal—she was retried and found guilty. Finally, last week the appeals process ended for good when both Knox and the boyfriend were exonerated.

Now, on to several salient (and pretty crazy) differences between the legal systems of the United States and Italy.

1. Double Jeopardy
The United States has laws against double jeopardy, which means that a defendant cannot be tried twice for the same charge following a legitimate conviction or acquittal. One of the rationales behind this rule is to give the parties closure. There is a belief that an individual should eventually get piece of mind and not constantly have to be looking over their shoulder, so to speak. Italy doesn’t have any such laws. Thus, Ms. Knox would never have been tried a second time if she faced charges in the United States. I think this case is a perfect illustration of why laws against double jeopardy are necessary—the evidence did not warrant a second trial, and I can’t imagine the toll that the continued legal proceedings must have taken on the defendant.

2. Character Evidence
The Federal Rules of Evidence in the United States strictly limit the use of character evidence in criminal trials. In other words, the legal system in the United States is very suspicious of evidence that attempts to portray the defendant as a bad person in order to show that the defendant did a bad thing. The rationale is that the jury will likely be unduly prejudiced by evidence that portrays the defendant’s character in a negative way. For example, if the prosecution could present evidence that the defendant is a racist and shouts racial epithets at strangers, it would predispose the jury to find against him, even on an unrelated charge. The Italian legal system does not share these qualms. As a result, the prosecution presented evidence that Ms. Knox was promiscuous. This did not sit well with the members of the jury, and it likely influenced their decision to convict her at the trial level.

3. Sequestration
In the United States, the legal system takes great pains to try to ensure that the media does not influence the jury. For example, I reported to jury duty the other day (thankfully, I was excused after only a few hours) and the officer of the court told everyone in the jury room not to read any local newspapers because they might contain information about the issues at trial. During the trial, the jury is sequestered to further insulate them from the outside world and its influences. In Italy, the jury is not sequestered, and I’m sure you can imagine (or remember) the international media firestorm created by the trial of an attractive young American woman charged with a gruesome crime. The jury could read news and tabloid accounts based on specious evidence and thirdhand accounts, and it is hard to imagine that they managed to maintain impartiality in the face of the negative sentiments levied against Ms. Knox.

While the Amanda Knox trials may be a particularly egregious example of the inefficiencies in the Italian legal system, it is highly indicative of why the United States system has safeguards in place to prevent legal proceedings from dragging on ad nauseum and from being tainted by undue prejudice.