Knox case puts spotlight on Italy's dysfunctional legal system

ROME Wed Mar 27, 2013 5:55pm GMT

Amanda Knox pauses emotionally while speaking during a news conference at Sea-Tac International Airport, Washington after landing there on a flight from Italy, in this October 4, 2011, file photo. REUTERS/Anthony Bolante/Files

Amanda Knox pauses emotionally while speaking during a news conference at Sea-Tac International Airport, Washington after landing there on a flight from Italy, in this October 4, 2011, file photo.

Credit: Reuters/Anthony Bolante/Files

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ROME (Reuters) - The decision to order a retrial of American Amanda Knox and her ex-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito for the murder of her British housemate has put the spotlight back on Italy's courts, where years of legal process often fail to uncover the truth.

Knox and the family of murdered British student Meredith Kercher said they hoped the case would finally be solved after Italy's highest court on Tuesday ordered a retrial for the 2007 murder in the Umbrian hill town of Perugia.

The judgment overruled the verdict of an appeal court in 2011 which acquitted Knox and Sollecito, who had previously been sentenced to 26 and 25 years in prison for the stabbing to death of Kercher, a Leeds University student who was 21 at the time.

Both the accused have always professed their innocence.

Rudy Guede, an Ivorian drug dealer, is serving 16 years in jail for the murder after a separate trial, but prosecutors say he could not have committed the crime alone.

Although the Kercher case grabbed global headlines, emotional appeals from relatives for the truth about the death of loved ones are familiar in Italy, where high profile cases are often marked by dizzying changes of tack by investigators over who they believe is guilty - sometimes leading to a string of different people being accused of the same thing.

No judgment is considered final until appeals have been exhausted. As in the Kercher case, the top Court of Cassation can order a retrial which adds years more to the process.

A final verdict on Knox and Sollecito is now likely to take at least two more years on top of those already clocked up since the murder in 2007. The verdict of the new trial will again be subject to review by Italy's top court.

Such a time lag is not unusual. On average criminal cases take five years to conclude in Italy and civil cases seven. The latter is seen as a major disincentive to foreign investment.

There is a backlog of about 9 million cases and wholesale judicial reform is widely considered central to modernising the Italian economy.

CONFLICTING VERDICTS

"Murders on the waiting list. Trials that take years and years between adjournments, conflicting verdicts and new adjournments," Fiorenza Sarzanini said in an commentary on the Kercher case on Wednesday in the Corriere della Sera daily.

Referring to other notorious unsolved murders of young women marked by botched investigations, one dating back to 1990, she added:

"To allow such a long time to pass without justice for the victims or their families seems a weight too heavy to bear."

Yet such cases are nothing compared to the most notorious examples of Italy's flawed legal system.

In the "Monster of Florence" case eight couples were murdered outside the Tuscan city between 1968 and 1985. Four men were at various time convicted of the murders in different trials and several other suspects arrested and released. Many Italians believe the real culprit was never found.

Even more extraordinary was the investigation into a 1969 bombing which killed 17 people in Milan and launched years of extremist violence between right and left in Italy.

After seven trials and numerous appeals over 33 years, during which the secret service was accused of setting false trails, the Court of Cassation in 2005 acquitted all the accused and ordered relatives of the victims to pay court costs.

In the Kercher case, an appeal court in 2011 threw out the convictions of Knox and Sollecito after independent forensic experts tore apart police scientific testimony, saying DNA samples were unreliable, evidence contaminated and international protocols not followed.

But prosecutors and Kercher family lawyers called that verdict "contradictory and illogical".

It will take months for the high court to explain its decision, but experts said it was likely that it had found fault with the published motivation for the lower court verdict.

"PROFOUND ERRORS"

The Cassation Court prosecutor, who successfully argued for a retrial, argued that the appeal court judges had "lost their bearings" in the highly publicised case, suggesting a series of profound errors in legal process.

This will pave the way for a new trial which will not only re-examine the previous case but could accept new evidence, experts say.

If Knox is convicted, after a final appeal to the Cassation Court, she would likely face an Italian demand for extradition, which experts here believe would not clash with U.S. double jeopardy laws because no case is final until the long process is exhausted.

Carlo Federico Grosso, a Turin university law professor, said the Kercher case would again raise questions about Italy's legal system. "Doesn't it reveal once again the very grave failings of our justice system or even the incompetence of many judges?" he wrote in La Stampa newspaper.

But he added that the Kercher case was complex and difficult because of mistakes in the police investigation and the fact that any verdict would be based on circumstantial evidence.

(Additional reporting by Emilio Parodi in Milan; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

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