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Professor: Amanda Knox trial shows problems with comparing legal systems

Wed, 02/04/2015

LAWRENCE — When American Amanda Knox was prosecuted for allegedly murdering her roommate in Italy, the trial grabbed sensational headlines on a nightly basis. Both her conviction and eventual acquittal in 2011 drew criticism from the public, who followed the trial and verdict without knowledge of the Italian criminal justice system and assumed American legal traditions applied, a University of Kansas professor has written.

John W. Head, Robert W. Wagstaff Distinguished Professor of Law at KU, has authored a journal article examining the Knox trial and the consternation it caused, both in America and Italy, and pointing out that there were two major problems — translational and transplantational — in most criticisms of the case.

“If someone is going to offer broad criticisms of an entire legal and criminal justice system, they ought to at least have an understanding of the culture of the country and its legal system,” Head said. “I doubt that was the case with most of the people who were offering the loudest criticisms in the Amanda Knox trial.”

Head was living and working in Trento, Italy, in 2009 on a Fulbright Fellowship when the Knox trial was being conducted. In Italy, as in the U.S., it garnered sensationalist coverage in the media every day for weeks. A specialist in comparative law, Head was fascinated by the trial.

“While I was in Italy, I was working on a comparative law course book. One of the angles I was working on was comparing criminal procedures in Europe, the United States and China. So this case and all the attention it was getting really grabbed my interest,” Head said.

Knox and her co-defendant, Raffaele Sollecito, were accused of murdering Knox’s British roommate, Meredith Kercher, in 2007. She was convicted in late 2009 but was granted a retrial in 2011 and was eventually found not guilty and returned to the U.S. The original verdict was widely seen as flawed, especially in the United States. The first problem with most of the criticism, Head argues, was translational in character, in the sense that many observers are not able to “translate” their own expectations of criminal procedure into a foreign cultural setting.

The complaint was often made, for instance, that the jury in the Amanda Knox trial was not sequestered. What people failed to understand was that Italian juries are rarely sequestered as they are in the States. And instead of 12 jurors of the defendant’s peers, the Italian system employs three judges and six “lay assessors of facts,” Head said. The latter are allowed to consult with the former for a number of reasons, including offsetting any potential prejudice they may have from exposure to the media.

Another fundamental difference is that in European systems, the societal expectation if someone is found guilty is to decide what the criminal justice system can do to mend the tear in the fabric of society and reintegrate the person back into that society. That concept is all but forgotten in America, Head said. Those differences failed to translate to an understandable reality for most American critics, he added.

Those complications contribute to a second problem, transplantational misunderstandings. While it is true that Italian, European and many other justice systems around the world have been “Americanized” to a certain extent over the last three decades, it is difficult to pick and choose which aspects of a legal system to “transplant” or impart into another. A prime example of that problem was an aggressive prosecutor in the first trial who was similar to what one would see in American courts.

“The rest of the system was not ready for that sort of aggressiveness,” Head said. “And many thought the other side — that is, the Amanda Knox side of the trial — was not ready for that, especially without an equally aggressive defense.”

Those problems and misunderstandings, when coupled with a changing society, can pose significant and unprecedented challenges for legal systems, such as the Italian criminal justice system. Growing immigration and multinationalism can stand at odds with nationalist and traditional understandings, Head said. While the tradition may be to re-integrate someone into society after committing a crime, people from other parts of the world may not want to be re-integrated.

“That, I think, throws questions on the tried and true system of criminal procedure and what the process will be 10, 20 years from now when things seem to be changing so quickly,” Head said.

On top of all that, the intense media scrutiny in multiple countries placed a strain on the legal system as well, he added. This also made the trial troubling

Head’s article was published in a “Festschrift,” or special journal published in celebration of the 70th birthday of Feridun Yenisey, a world-renowned legal scholar from Turkey. Yenisey, who has a long association with the KU School of Law, is well-known for his expertise in criminal procedure and in Turkey’s campaign for legal reform. This made an examination of a fascinating criminal procedure case especially appropriate, Head said.

Knox and Sollecito are still in the midst of legal battles concerning the case. Their murder conviction was reinstated, and they are awaiting a final ruling, which is expected as early as next month. In the meantime, Knox lives in Seattle and is working as a writer.

Cases such as the Knox trial are a poignant example of the value of comparative law and even more so the value of cross-cultural understanding.

“I think we simply miss a lot because we don’t pay close enough attention to the underlying cultural differences between legal systems and especially nations,” Head said. “Unfortunately, our response is often inadequate because of that.”



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