Italian Supreme Court Overturns Amanda Knox Acquittal. What About Double Jeopardy?

Corrado_maria_daclon_-_amanda_knox.jpgAmanda Knox, the American college student convicted, then acquitted, of the murder of her roommate in Italy, is back in the news after the Italian Supreme Court overturned her 2011 acquittal and ordered a new trial. Knox returned to the U.S. after her release from prison, and reportedly has no intention of returning to Italy for the new trial. The question raised by the latest court proceedings is this: how do the Italian prosecutors keep getting opportunities to retry the case? In the American criminal system prosecutors typically do not get this many attempts at a conviction because of a principle in the Fifth Amendment known as “double jeopardy.” The Knox case highlights how this principle benefits American defendants and, perhaps, serves as a check on overzealous prosecutors.

The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that no one may “be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb” for the same crime. If a judge or jury acquits a defendant of an offense, then the same court cannot try the defendant for that crime again. If a court dismisses the charges against a defendant after a certain point in a trial, the prosecution is barred from bringing the same charges again. A prosecutor could bring a charge under a different statute after an acquittal for the same alleged act, but only if the new charge “requires proof of a different element.” Blockburger v. U.S., 284 U.S. 299, 304 (1932). One purpose of double jeopardy is to provide closure for criminal defendants after an acquittal, and also to encourage prosecutors to do a thorough investigation before initiating a case. Knox’s prosecution does not appear to be subject to such a restriction.

Knox was an exchange student at the University for Foreigners in Perugia, Italy, living with several roommates, including a female British exchange student who was murdered in the house they shared on November 1, 2007. Her body was found the next day. Police detained Knox and her then-boyfriend, Rafaelle Sollecito, on November 5. Knox allegedly confessed to the murder while in police custody, but later recanted her confession, saying it was a product of duress. In December 2007, police also arrested an Ivorian man, Rudy Guede, for the murder. Guede was convicted of the murder in October 2008 and sentenced to thirty years in prison, which an appeals court later reduced to sixteen years. He remains in prison.

The trials of Knox and Sollecito began in January 2009. Prosecutors presented a theory that involved bizarre sex rituals, claiming that the three defendants committed the murder together. The trial revealed many errors in the investigation of the case, but the two defendants were convicted in December 2009. Their appeal process began a year later, with extensive testimony about forensic evidence, errors made by police and expert witnesses, and the lack of reliable evidence connecting Knox to the crime scene. A jury overturned Knox’s and Sollecito’s convictions on October 3, 2011.

The case is now back in the news after the Italian Supreme Court overturned Knox’s acquittal on March 26, 2013, and ordered a new trial to begin later this year. For now, Knox remains at home in the U.S. If she is convicted at the new trial and after further appeals, the U.S. could send her to Italy under an extradition treaty between the two countries, but the U.S. government is not obligated to do so. The lack of double jeopardy protections in Italian law could serve as a basis for refusing extradition.

Michael J. Brown, a board-certified criminal defense attorney, fights for the rights of Texas defendants, making certain that law enforcement and the courts abide by all the rules and procedures of the criminal justice system. To schedule a confidential consultation to discuss your legal matter, contact us online or at (432) 687-5157.

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Photo credit: By Scott335 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.