As the world watched, the Italian justice system was thrust into a showdown with American outrage on Monday – and backed down.
Amanda knox, the 24-year-old American university student who was convicted in the 2007 murder of her friend and roommate Meredith Kercher, had her case thrown out by an appeal verdict in Perugia, Italy Monday and was set free along with her co-convicted ex-boyfriend, Rafaele Sollecito, after more than 1,400 days in Italian prison.
Ms. Knox was convulsed in sobs as the verdict was read, and swiftly ushered out of the court. She has become a cause célèbre in English-speaking countries and in Italy, in good part because of her striking looks and the air of mystery surrounding her case and her mysterious personality.
Earlier Monday, Ms. Knox had delivered a closing statement before TV cameras that also contained a veiled attack on the Italian justice system.
“I trusted them completely,” she said of the Italian police and legal system. “I was betrayed on the night of November 5. I was manipulated. I am not who they say I am. I did not do the things attributed to me. I am not violent. I don’t have a lack of respect for life. And I did not kill. I did not rape. I did not steal. I wasn’t there at the crime scene at the time.”
Her frustration, echoed by many Americans and people from English-speaking countries that had devoted years of heavy media coverage to the case, was directed squarely at an Italian legal system that seems alien and menacing to outsiders.
But equally visible Monday was the fury many Europeans hold toward the American view of justice. As Ms. Knox was rushed out of the courtroom, hundreds of Perugia residents rushed to the court, mobbing reporters and lawyers and shouting “Injustice” and “Embarrassment.”
Italy, like most European countries, has an inquisitorial judicial system. That is, the judge does not serve as a neutral arbiter between prosecution and defence, as in North America, but as the chief prosecutor and chairman of the jury, responsible for deciding whether charges should be brought and, ultimately, responsible for determining the absolute truth behind the charges. (After 1989, Italy added some non-inquisitorial elements to its system, such as the ability of defence lawyers to call their own witnesses, but it is mainly an inquisitorial system.)
The guilty verdict of Ms. Knox in 2009 caused a number of prominent Americans, including celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz, to lash out at the European system. It seemed that the case had been biased by circumstantial evidence, including Ms. Knox’s personality, reputation and psychology, that would have been disallowed or challenged by the defence in an American court.
Of course, the friends and defenders of Ms. Kercher’s family feel rather differently, and tend to speak favourably of the Italian system. And in an appeal, as seen today in Perugia, the system can work in favour of the accused: Unlike in the Anglo-American system, where appeals can only consider the legal arguments and methods of the lower court, Italian appeal courts can rehear all the evidence and arguments in the case – which is what is happening on Monday.
If the Anglo-American anger at the inquisitorial system sounds familiar, it could be because a very similar tone of vitriol was sounded over the summer as former International Monetary Fund boss and French political grandee Dominique Strauss-Kahn faced charges of sexual assault against a New York hotel maid.
Europeans looked at the adversarial judicial system used in English-speaking countries with shock and dismay. In that system, the prosecution and defence are both allowed an equal say, and an equal chance to denounce or defend the accused, before a neutral judge and jury who are simply asked to weigh the strongest argument. There is no central effort to determine the absolute truth of the case; it is assumed that this truth will emerge from the process of deliberation and evidence presentation between the two sides.
To European ears – such as those of the celebrity philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, who spoke out against the case – this sounded grossly unfair to Mr. Strauss-Kahn, who was paraded before cameras and subjected to lurid accusations from the prosecutor. In an inquisitive system, they argued, the judge would have dismissed the accusations before they had a chance to damage the reputation of Mr. Strauss-Kahn. In New York, the charges were only thrown out afterward.
“I am troubled by a system of justice modestly termed “adversary,” meaning that anyone can come along and accuse another fellow of any crime – and it will be up to the accused to prove that the accusation is false and without basis in fact,” Mr. Lévy wrote.
For Europeans, the shock of the English-speaking system is that there is nobody responsible for declaring the absolute truth. O.J. Simpson, to name one oft-cited example, walked free not because he was absolutely innocent, but because the prosecution failed to present a strong argument and showed themselves to have a racial bias.
For North Americans and Britons, the problem with the European system is that prosecutors and defendants are not equal: When highly questionable evidence about Ms. Knox was presented to the court, the judge did not challenge or dismiss it because the judge is also the prosecutor.
Monday’s appeal verdict seemed set to widen that divide: Italians, who tend to see this as a case of a wealthy American buying an acquittal, reacted angrily.