Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Acquittal of Amanda Knox

Amanda Knox was convicted of murdering her Italian roommate in 2009. She was sentenced to 26 years in prison. However, in a dramatic turn of events Amanda was acquitted by an Italian appeals court this past week and set free. The appeals court reversed the conviction based, partly, on a report that called into question DNA evidence used by prosecutors to convict her, and her then-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito. Here are the interesting aspects of Amanda's case and Italy's criminal justice system that are very different from our own.

First, Amanda's appeal from her murder conviction was not a typical appeal we'd see here in Texas or the USA.  Amanda received a full new trial, in front of a new jury, with opportunity for a "second bite at the apple." We call that a "trial de novo." In some Texas lower courts a person can appeal and received a trial de novo.  But in most courts an appeal is based strictly on the record of the original trial. The questions are whether the jury had enough legal evidence to convict and whether there were errors occurring which might be reversible. The volume of criminal cases going through the USA systems is so high that trial de novo is an impracticable method of appeal. It would consume too much time and too many judicial resources.

The second aspect of the case is more frightening. In Italy, the government has the right to appeal an acquittal! That is, if the prosecutors lose THEY get a second bite at the apple, as well. The Knox prosecutors have vowed to appeal the acquittal. In Texas (and the USA), in contrast, once a person is acquitted any further prosecution is barred (prevented) by our concept of Double Jeopardy. That means a person cannot face conviction a second time if the government did not convince the jury to convict at the first trial. It's a Constitutional right under the 5th Amendment.

Luckily, Amanda Knox is now safely home in Seattle, Washington. Authorities say if Italy's appeal court reversed the acquittal, ordered a new trial, and Amanda was again convicted, her extradition back to Italy is highly unlikely.


Jeff Kramer said...

It's always interesting to hear how the legal systems of other countries, or even other states, differ from what we're used to. I remember learning a year or so ago that there's 10 or so states that don't have intermediate courts of appeal. Who knew?

Stephen Gustitis said...

No kidding Jeff. Makes me regret not taking some comparative law courses in school. You'll need to offer a comparative study of Dallas/Fortworth v. Bryan/College Station law. :-)