The recent verdict in the ongoing Amanda Knox murder trial may seem like double, or even triple jeopardy, to observers in the United States. Knox was once again convicted in an Italian court last week for the murder of her former roommate, Meredith Kercher. Kercher was killed in November of 2007 and Knox was first tried and convicted for the crime in 2009. The guilty verdict was overturned by an Italian appeals court in 2011 and Knox was released. She returned to the U.S. and her home in Seattle. Italian authorities, however, sought a new trial to restore the guilty verdict from the first trial. It was this third proceeding that recently concluded and convicted Knox once again.
Throughout all three legal proceedings, questions have arisen about the nature of the evidence against Knox, as well as the theories put forward by prosecutors. Much of the physical evidence pointed towards another suspect, Rudy Guede. Guede was convicted in a separate trial and received a 16-year prison sentence in exchange for cooperating with authorities. He provided testimony that placed Knox at the crime scene with Kercher.
The primary theory of prosecutors during the first trial was that Kercher was killed in a “sex game gone wrong,” and that Knox demonstrated a distinct lack of empathy for the victim after being informed of the crime. Prosecutors mostly abandoned this theory in the third trial, instead putting forth the argument that Kercher and Knox got into a fight over the upkeep of their shared apartment. According to this new theory, the confrontation escalated and Knox ended up killing Kercher. This new theory, however, does not explain how Italian authorities were able to try Knox again for the same crime, essentially committing double or even triple jeopardy.
The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from trying a citizen for the same crime more than once. Once an individual has been acquitted, or convicted for that matter, they cannot face another trial for the same crime. One of the strongest statements on this concept was made by former Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black. He called the prohibition against double jeopardy one of the “oldest ideas in Western civilization” and implied that the concept itself is thousands of years old, dating back to the Greek city-states.
Nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb- Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
The confusion for U.S. observers stems from the fact that there is no specific prohibition against double jeopardy in Italian law. Some Italian legal experts disagree however, stating that the principle known as “ne bis in idem” exists in Italy as well as in most European countries. The term is derived from the Latin saying “not twice in the same thing,” and is equivalent to the Fifth Amendment protections in the U.S. Constitution.
Alex Bonta, an expert in Italian law who works with U.S. citizens in the country argues that there has been a fundamental misunderstanding in the U.S. regarding the Knox case. He says that this new trial is not “new” at all. It is another appeal filed by the prosecution. In the U.S., prosecutors typically cannot file an appeal of a not guilty verdict in a criminal case, whereas defendants can appeal guilty verdicts. Bonta says this “new” trial is precisely that, an appeal by the prosecution. It does not rise to the standard of double jeopardy.
Regardless of the legal opinion on double jeopardy, the question now becomes whether the U.S. will extradite Knox to Italy to serve her reinstated sentence. Some U.S. legal experts argue that the case does constitute double jeopardy and that the Constitution supersedes any extradition treaty with Italy. That would prohibit U.S. authorities from forcing Knox to return to Italy. Others argue that such a refusal would only serve to further antagonize world opinion and reinforce the idea that the U.S. believes itself to be above the law.
As with many legal situations, the Knox case is unlikely to be resolved in the near future. Arguments will continue as to whether the guilty verdict for Amanda Knox constitutes double or even triple jeopardy.
By Christopher V. Spencer