Can Anyone Get a Fair Trial in Italy?

What the Amanda Knox verdict tells us about the Italian legal system.

Oli Scarff/Getty Images
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

In November 2007, a British college student named Meredith Kercher was brutally murdered in her rented apartment in Perugia, Italy. Her roommate, a pretty Seattle native, Amanda Knox, admitted under interrogation that she had committed the crime, but later retracted her confession, claiming police abuse. Nevertheless, Knox and her former boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, were tried and convicted of Kercher’s rape and murder last week in an Italian court.

The Knox trial was fraught with controversy, and the media coverage in the Italian and British press was obsessive. Papers painted Knox as an ice queen, a libertine, and a demon. Speculating wildly, prosecutor Giuliano Mignini accused Knox of "harboring hatred against Meredith" until "the time came for taking revenge," and drunkenly attempting to drag Kercher into "heavy sexual games." Moreover, Knox’s family argued the DNA test upon which the case rested was compromised. U.S. cable shows declared the verdict a sham, shredding the evidence and the court’s conduct. And now, the Knox case is turning into an international trial on the reliability of Italy’s justice system.

The truth is, Italians have long since recognized the unreliability and compromised nature of their courts. At the moment, the Italian public’s trust in the justice system is at an all-time low. According to a November poll by Euromedia research group, only 16 percent of Italians fully trust it; just two years ago, the figure was 28 percent. And Italian civil rights groups are intense in their criticism of what they view as kangaroo courts.

For one, they say that coerced confessions and the use of dubious forensic evidence, as might have happened in the Knox case, are way too common. "Inquiries are conducted without any reliable methods," says Roberto Malini, president of EveryOne, a nongovernmental organization that defends ethnic minorities in jail. "Tests take place solely in the laboratories of the state police. There’s no independent lab, and independent observers do not have access to the police’s work."

He also claims that prosecutors routinely present evidence as proof. "Recently we’ve followed the case of Romulus Mailat, a young man accused of raping and murdering a woman in Rome," Malini says. "The prosecutors [said] the defendant had blood under his fingernails, assuming it was the victim’s. Oddly enough, they didn’t think of taking a DNA test. The defendant’s lawyer had to ask for it. When finally the test was taken, the prosecutors claimed it was unreliable because the blood had been reportedly altered by water, and they refused to show the results." Mailat was convicted.

Legal experts also share concerns about Italy’s bar for admissibility. Il Giornale, a conservative newspaper, for instance, recently published an interview with Marco Morin, a Venice-based firearms expert who declared he no longer wanted to work in Italian courts. "In the United States, federal judges must study a 637-page manual in order to be able to evaluate [forensic] evidence," he told the newspaper. "Here, they accept everything without questioning, as long as it comes from the institutional laboratory."

Further, some Italians believe the media is complicit in "creating a general sense of social alarm," says Malini, pressuring authorities to arrest, indict, and sometimes even convict suspects without solid evidence. Newspapers routinely blame blood crimes on suspects belonging to "dangerous minorities" — that is, immigrants from Romania or Italian Roma — not just perverting the course of justice, but stoking racism to boot.

"Here in Italy trials take place in TV, rather than in court," Judge Francesco Cananzi, a representative of the national council of magistrates, publicly stated this year. And as the Knox case demonstrated, the court of public opinion is often defamatory. For instance, the Italian press routinely demonizes defendants by revealing embarrassing details about their personal lives, even if unrelated to the trial — such as the pornography kept on their home computers. Knox’s alleged sexual promiscuity, even her preferred underwear, made headlines across the globe.

Additionally, the length of criminal trials has become an issue of hot dispute. Defendants have access to a multi-part trial process, including automatically granted appeals. Thus, criminal trials "take ages — on average from 5 to 6 years," explains Vincenzo Ricciuto, a law professor at Tor Vergata University in Rome. "This means an innocent person can wait behind bars for several years. What kind of justice is this?" he asks — noting that the European Court of Justice routinely sanctions Italy due to its drawn-out legal processes.

Hoping to fix these problems, the conservative government is proposing a series of reforms, including one nicknamed processo breve (fast trial). The law would set a maximum trial length, reportedly, six years, start to finish. After that deadline, most charges would expire. "The idea behind it is a good one" — Ricciuto says — "but unfortunately the timing and the details of this reform are poorly managed."

For one, shorter trials are not necessarily fairer trials, and the reforms do little to change the underlying dynamics. More importantly, any judicial reforms are complicated by the man in charge: prime minister and perpetual defendant Silvio Berlusconi, who is currently facing three separate corruption charges in court.

Berlusconi recently raised eyebrows when Parliament approved a law granting him immunity. A court overruled it, noting that it violated the principle that all citizens are equal. But the processo breve law, if enacted, might have the same effect, nullifying some of the charges against the prime minister.

Italians do not much mind Berlusconi’s frequent court appearances or possible judicial meddling — his favorability rating has hovered above 50 percent — likely because the courts are so compromised through and through. But the Knox verdict has brought an extraordinary amount of international attention to bear on this broken system.

The guilty verdict caused an immediate outcry in Europe and abroad. Sen. Maria Cantwell, from Knox’s home state of Washington, said in a statement that she had "serious questions about the Italian justice system." (Some Italian media outfits misreported Cantwell’s criticism, saying it came from none other than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has agreed to meet with Cantwell.) No less than Foreign Minister Franco Frattini had to step in to assuage fears over harmed U.S.-Italy relations over the case.

Italy has gone on the defensive, with editorials insinuating American chauvinism behind the criticism of the courts, and Berlusconi’s government, ironically, defending the courts he so often accuses of activism against him. But it remains to be seen whether the world will reach the same que sera, sera verdict as the Italians.

Anna Momigliano is a journalist based in Milan. Twitter: @annamomi

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