This week the Italian Supreme Court will consider the prosecution’s appeal of an appellate court’s acquittal of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito for the murder of British exchange student Meredith Kercher. The court will hear oral arguments on Monday, March 25, 2013 and may issue a ruling by the end of the day. Most observers of the closely watched case believe the court will confirm the acquittal but no one is fully certain. Everyone agrees that Italian courts can be unpredictable.
Experts who have studied the case are virtually unanimous that the acquittal should be upheld. The case is also important because it has focused international attention on the quality of the Italian judicial system. The trial of Knox and Sollecito was a media sensation in Europe and has been called, “Italy’s Trial of the Century.” Italians do not take criticism well. In this instance they would do well to follow the example of the Americans who are far better at identifying their own problems and working to correct them.
If the court decides to take no action, the saga will end. Other possible actions include overturning the appellate court’s decision, and ordering a new trial; and/or overturning a less serious slander conviction against Knox that was upheld by the appellate court. As far as anyone can tell there are no plans to hold any Italian officials accountable for their performance in the case which has been widely condemned by independent experts from around the world.
Meredith Kercher was a 21 year old British exchange student who was murdered on November 1, 2007 in Perugia, Italy. She had been the victim of a knife attack and a sexual assault in the bedroom of the cottage she shared with several other students from the local University. Perugia is an idyllic medieval hill town that today is a mecca for University students from around the world, typically doing their junior year abroad.
Within days of the murder, Knox and Sollecito had been arrested even though crime scene evidence that would later pinpoint the true killer, Rudy Guede, had yet to have been processed. The European tabloids were immediately all over the story largely because both the victim and one of the accused were beautiful young women.
Rudy Guede was convicted of the crime in 2008 and is serving a 16 year sentence. His conviction is not in dispute, although he continues to maintain his innocence. Scientific evidence of Guede’s presence at the crime scene, including DNA and fingerprints, were found in abundance. He flees to Germany a few days after the crime and he had been involved in similar break-ins in the weeks prior to the murder. One of these incidents was an armed home invasion where he threatened the homeowner with a knife during his escape. In another incident he was caught red-handed having broken into a Milan nursery school with property recently stolen from a Perugian law office where the entry exactly mirrored what was observed at the crime scene – an elevated window broken with a rock.
The evidence against Knox and Sollecito was always weak at best. No trace of her was found in the murder room nor did she have any history of violence. This type of crime is almost always committed by a troubled male just like Guede. Female participation in sexually motivated homicides is extremely rare and when it does occur it is the result of male manipulation. Most of the case against Knox involved statements made under a brutal interrogation that implicated her boss Patrick Lumumba, a local bar owner who was not involved in the crime. During the appellate process independent forensic experts appointed by the court discredited all the DNA evidence that had been used to convict the two in their original trial.
The Italian Judicial System
The Italian judicial system differs in many important ways from its counterparts in the US and other European nations. The system is seen as a hybrid between an inquisitional one where the judge is tasked with finding the truth and an adversarial system where the judge is more of a referee. Some important differences:
- In serious criminal trials the jury is made up of six lay jurors and two judges. A four-four tie is broken by the head judge. A four-four tie can result in a guilty verdict.
- Italian appellate courts have a significantly greater mandate to examine flaws in lower court rulings. In the US, appellate courts examine only points of law. Italian appellate courts examine both points of law and points of fact and they seat a jury. The Italian Supreme Court only examines points of law.
- Jury members are not instructed to avoid media coverage of the case. In the US, all juries are instructed not to read newspaper articles or watch television coverage of the case. In Italian trials they do.
- Jury members are not screened for bias specific to the case. All jurors must meet certain qualifications, such as fluency in Italian and mental competency, but there is no Voir dire process as it is known in the US.
- Italian courts have none of the restrictions on hearsay or speculation that US courts have.
- The transparency of the trial is a grey area. Journalists can be in possession of trial documents but they may not publish them to the Internet in their original unaltered form. Leaking of information that favored the prosecution’s position was rampant. The result was an important public debate based largely on Internet blog hearsay.
- The Italian system is not based on common law. In the US, virtually all court documents allude to past court decisions. In Italy they do not.
- In the Italian system the judge writes an extensive “Motivation document” where he or she describes the reasoning for the verdict. In the US there is simply jury form with an answer of guilty or not guilty.
Criticism of the Italian Authorities
From the start the prosecution’s theory of the crime made no sense. It was a sex orgy gone wrong, they said. The lack of physical evidence against Knox and Sollecito could be explained by a careful cleanup of the crime scene.
Important commentators who condemned the trial in the strongest terms included Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times columnist Timothy Egan, CBS correspondent Peter Van Sant, retired FBI agent Steve Moore, and Seattle area Judge Michael Heavey. Coverage of the case included 20 books, 10 hour long television documentaries and a made for TV movie. The Wikipedia article about the case was one of the most contentious in the online encyclopedia’s history.
To give one example, in his recent book the acclaimed FBI profiler John E. Douglas comments on the original Motivation Documents authored by Judge Giancarlo Massei:
“I have never seen a judge’s ruling so bizarre or nonsensical. It defies reason that it could have been conceived and written by an adult with any logical capacity whatsoever, much less an experienced jurist. To think that these two young people would be sentenced to spend a quarter of a century each in prison based on such a flight of fantasy is nothing less than sickening.” — John E. Douglas
The quote actually bears eerie similarities to Raffaele Sollecito’s words about the same document:
“We received the sentencing report in early March 2010. I doubt an Italian court has ever published 427 pages quite this shameful, illogical, or flat-out ridiculous.” — Raffaele Sollecito
The above quotes are just the tip of the iceberg. Judge Heavey openly declared the case to be a “witch trial being prosecuted by a delusional prosecutor.” CBS correspondent Van Sant stated, “We have concluded that Amanda Knox is being railroaded.”
So who should the Italian people hold accountable? The prosecutor, Giuliano Mignini, has no place in a modern judicial system. His performance in Amanda’s case and in another set of serial killings in the Florence area has earned him well deserved ridicule at home and abroad. The most underrated figure is Judge Giancarlo Massei who presided over the first trial. In one memorable passage he painfully explains why a semen stain underneath the victim did not need to be tested. The rest of his decision is little more than a cheap crime novel.
And then there was Perugia’s chief of police, Arturo de Felice, who less than a week after the murder held a triumphant press conference where he talked of the “sheer detail that came out of the investigation.” Not one fact that he spoke of that day was later determined to be true – not one. Both Massei and de Felice have both been recently promoted.
Perugia’s chief of homicide investigations, Monica Napoleoni, is now in trouble for using a police database to dig up dirt for her child custody dispute with her ex-husband.
Monday will be an important day for Amanda Knox and even more so for Raffaele Sollecito (who remains in Italy.) Let’s hope the courts get it right and confirm the exoneration of the two.