Amanda Knox: Appeals, Double Jeopardy and Extradition

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Is the new trial for Amanda Knox in Italy violating her rights under the Fifth Amendment? Image by Decoded Science

On March 26, 2013, the Italian Supreme Court overturned the acquittals of American Amanda Knox and her former Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito. Both were convicted of murder at trial, but an appeals court later overturned these convictions, to acquit the pair.

After the original appeals court overturned Knox’s conviction, the Italian jail where she was held released her, and she flew back to her home in Seattle. Knox remains in the United States, but under Italian law prosecutors can appeal these acquittals; the Italian Supreme Court has now ordered a new trial.

The Meredith Kercher Murder Case

In late 2007, Meredith Kercher, 21, was a student from the U.K. who went to Italy to study. Knox was also a student and she shared a house with Kercher and others in Perugia, Italy.

On November 2, 2007, Kercher’s body was found in the house and according to police, she had been killed the day before.  Her throat was slashed, she had been stabbed around 40 times, and there was evidence she had been sexually assaulted. Four days after the discovery of the body, Knox and Sollecito were arrested along with another man Patrick Lumumba. In a statement to investigators, Lumumba implicated Knox.

Both Knox and Sollecito were formally charged with murder and sexual assault 11 months later on October 28, 2008. Their trial began in Perugia on January 16, 2009.

On December 4, 2009, Knox and Sollecito were found guilty of the charges. Knox was sentenced to 26 years in jail while her former boyfriend got 25 years. They both appealed.

Under Italian law, appeals amount to a new trial and the couple’s appeal trial began on November 24, 2010. On October 3, 2011, both Knox and Sollecito were acquitted after the court had doubts about the reliability of the DNA evidence. The court ordered they be released from jail, at which point Knox flew back to the United States where she is currently attending the University of Washington in Seattle.

The prosecutors appealed the acquittals made by the appeals court to the Italian Supreme Court and were successful. The Supreme Court ordered a new trial although a date has not been set.

The Doctrine of Double Jeopardy

In the United States, protection against double jeopardy is found in the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, known as the Due Process Clause. That clause says, in part, that no person “shall be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy for life or limb.”

The jeopardy is the danger of being convicted and does not attach unless there is a risk of being found guilty. For example, if a mistrial is declared, there is no risk of conviction and the jeopardy does not attach.

Double jeopardy does attach when a person pleads guilty and the plea is accepted by the court. Where the accused enters not-guilty pleas, double jeopardy attaches when the jury is empanelled and the first witness begins to testify.

Many other countries, such as Italy and Canada, have a more limited form of double jeopardy. People cannot be arrested, charged and tried over and over and over again for an offense based upon the same or similar facts of an offense on which they have been already tried. In Canada, criminal accused are allowed to enter a special plea of autrefois acquit or autrefois convict and argue they have already been tried.

In the United States, once a person is acquitted of a charge, that is the end of it. To take Casey Anthony for example: No matter how many legal errors were committed during her trial, she has been and will forever remain acquitted of killing her daughter. Other countries however, allow the prosecution to appeal an acquittal to an appellate court. Sometimes the grounds upon which the prosecution can appeal an acquittal are narrower grounds regarding errors of law than those granted to a criminal defendant appealing a conviction.

If the appeal against acquittal is allowed, that court can set aside the acquittal and order a new trial in the same manner as they can overturn a conviction. As recently as the 1970s, Canadian appeal courts could set aside an acquittal and enter a conviction. Now they can only order a new trial.

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