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Orange County Bar Association

U.S. vs. Italian Justice: Which Would You Prefer?

Law Offices of William W. Bruzzo

On December 4, 2009, an Italian jury found American student Amanda Knox and her Italian boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito guilty on all counts in the stabbing death of British exchange student Meredith Kercher. Knox was given a 26-year sentence; Sollecito was sentenced to 25 years. Both will be appealing their cases. In the meantime, below is a brief comparison of U.S. vs. Italian Justice. Which would you prefer?

The former University of Washington student was arrested in November 2007 and charged with the murder of her British roommate while in Perugia, Italy studying abroad. Police arrested Knox and Sollecito soon after Kercher’s death, along with Guede, a native of the Ivory Coast who opted for a separate, fast-track trial and was convicted of murder and attempted sexual assault back in October 2008.

Unlike the American justice system, in which appeals center on issues of law, in the Italian system, appeals are automatic and defendants can ask to retry their entire case in the first round of appeals. From there, the case can go to Italy’s highest court, which is required to hear every appeal. However, it may be years before a definitive sentence is reached.

Ms. Knox and Mr. Sollecito were held in jail for a year before prosecutors moved to formally charge them with sexual assault and murder. This was not unusual– in Italy, a suspect can be held for up to 12 months without being charged with a crime. Fortunately in the U.S., for suspects who are in custody, speedy trial laws typically require prosecutors to file charges, if at all, within 72 hours of arrest. Some jurisdictions require prosecutors to charge a suspect even sooner. For example, California requires that charges be filed within 48 hours.

When a case finally goes to trial, the accused do not swear an oath as in the American courts and are therefore under no obligation to answer questions truthfully. The defendant, who is permitted to interrupt the proceedings or refuse to respond at any time, is expected to lie, legal analyst Lisa Bloom reported on CBS News. The trial has also taken nearly a year – long by American standards but fast by Italian standards.

As in the U.S., the Italian constitution calls for defendants to be presumed “innocent until proven guilty.” However, the supremacy of the prosecutor essentially negates this presumption. The Italian prosecutor, Guiliano Mignini, is under investigation himself for the abuse of power. However, this did not prohibit him from acting as the prosecutor in Ms. Knox’s trial.

The Italians also don’t afford the luxury of unanimity available in most state courts. The jurors’ decision called a sentence (referred to as “verdict” in the U.S.) is determined by a majority vote of eight jurors –six ordinary citizens and two judges. Only five have to utter the word “Si”. Dissenting opinions are not made public; however, an official explanation for the majority opinion must be rendered in the next 90 days.

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