Knox case has put the Italian legal system on trial in the US

Amanda Knox in the hands of the Italian police. Antonio Calanni/AP

Amanda Knox has faced three verdicts in six years over a case in which it was alleged she was part of a brutal knife attack on Meredeth Kercher in Perugia in 2007 that resulted in her death. Although Knox maintains her innocence, the Italian prosecution case against her continues and a guilty verdict has been reinstated.

Why? It is in part down to the results of the American’s previous criminal procedures. In 2009, the jury that presided over Ms Knox’s initial trial unanimously found her guilty of homicide, sexual violence, staging a crime scene, and criminal defamation. But in 2011, Knox successfully appealed and won release from prison. In a report explaining its decision, the appellate court cited a lack of evidence. Many in the United States believed this spectacular reversal of fortune to be the final word in the Knox case. However, another chapter had yet to be written.

In March 2013, Italy’s highest court, the Court of Cassation, granted a prosecution appeal requesting that the 2011 appellate verdict be set aside. In rendering its decision, the court ordered that a tribunal in Florence re-hear Knox’s appeal to correct procedural errors made by the court that presided over her first appeal two years earlier.

Throughout all this, Amanda Knox has received strong support from the media in her home country. In fact, the outcome of her 2009 trial led to intense criticism from journalists in the US, who blamed the young woman’s fate on rampant anti-Americanism, media bias, an allegedly corrupt prosecutor, and the Italian justice system itself. In 2011, reporters contended that the prosecution had presented only two pieces of evidence against Knox and her co-accused, Raffaele Sollecito: a knife that contained Knox’s DNA on the handle and purportedly also Kercher’s on the blade, and a bra clasp belonging to the victim that tested positive for Sollecito’s DNA.

Sollecito was originally convicted along with Knox but both were acquitted completely on appeal before the reinstatement. A third person, Ivorian Rudy Guede remains in prison, convicted of the murder.

The American media proclaimed both pieces of evidence contaminated. Finally, a flurry of claims regarding the violation of Knox’s right to double jeopardy followed the Court of Cassation’s 2013 decision. Above all, much of the American coverage of Knox’s case ironically contends that she only fell under suspicion to begin with because of salacious media reporting. But what of the American coverage itself? In many instances, American media scrutiny of the Knox case has cast the Italian authorities and the nation’s justice system as the villains in what is unquestionably a very complex narrative.

Italy in the spotlight

In 2010, I reviewed more than 400 news reports on the Knox case dating from November 2007 to March of 2010 to examine how the American media represented both the proceedings and, in particular, Italy itself.

I sorted each news report into one of three categories: neutral, unfavourable to Italy, and favourable to Italy. To receive a classification of neutral, all news reports needed to present representatives to explain both sides of the case. Neutral reports also required factually accurate information, and could not withhold salient details about the case from their audiences. Finally, any report relying upon stereotypical characterisations or inflammatory language about Italy could not receive a score of neutral. Similarly, reports were categorised as favourable to Italy if they presented only the prosecution’s side of the argument without considering the defence’s, or if they gave an inaccurate or incomplete view of the evidence.

Of the 409 items I considered, 251 were classified as neutral while 158 received a score of unfavourable. None fell into the category of favourable to Italy.

In fact, although most of the coverage did prove neutral, it was surprising to note how often American journalists did pick a side. And none of them ever seemed to side with the Italian authorities that prosecuted Knox. One recurring theme in this respect was a tendency to present experts on forensic science or law who attempted to discredit the case against Amanda Knox without any effort at presenting the viewpoints of competing experts.

In one instance, a CNN report quoted Anne Bremner, a spokesperson for an advocacy group known as the friends of Amanda Knox, who referred to the evidence collection techniques as “Fellini forensics”. Although Bremner never explained exactly what this phrase meant, since it evoked the name of acclaimed director Federico Fellini who was known for films that mixed realism and fantasy, the phrase was obviously derisory.

American coverage of the case often failed to report significant points of evidence against the defendant to its audience. In an October 2009 interview with CNN’s Larry King, Amanda Knox’s mother Edda Mellas stated that there was no evidence of Knox’s presence in the room where the murder took place. This is technically true, but it has been claimed that this fails to account for the presence of DNA evidence in other locations throughout the residence. The prosecution contends this places Knox in the apartment at the time of the murder.

But perhaps most regrettable of all is a reliance on stereotypical portrayals of Italians to effectively discredit their system of justice. Much of the American coverage spoke of “an ancient Italian code of saving face”, which allegedly led to Knox’s conviction. Nina Burleigh, who wrote a book on the Knox case and frequently contributed reports and commentary on the proceedings to American cable news networks, blamed Italian attitudes towards women for Knox’s predicament, even though she was one of three defendants accused of the crime – the other two being male. None of these arguments seemed to address the larger question of whether or not Knox was likely to have participated in Meredith Kercher’s death.

Today, more than six years after the murder, the answer to that question still remains unclear. Was Amanda Knox the victim of a tragic miscarriage of justice in 2009? Although the ruling in Florence was meant to determine Amanda Knox’s guilt or innocence in the matter, the case will not end here. And in the United States it is Italy and its justice system that seems to actually be on trial.