Should the U.S. Get Involved in the Amanda Knox Murder Verdict?

The family of Amanda Knox, the American student convicted in Italy of murdering her British roommate, Meredith Kercher, on November 1, 2007 with the participation of her Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, has announced their intention to solicit the intervention of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to overturn their daughter's guilty verdict.

While there is certainly precedent, especially in recent decades, for such involvement in the cases of Americans charged with crimes abroad, they have usually involved cases where the accused were perceived to have been used as political pawns by so-called "rogue states," like Iran and North Korea, which have an officially-enshrined enmity towards the United States. The most obvious recent example is the "rescue mission" for Laura Ling and Euna Lee, the television journalists sentenced to 12 years of hard labor in North Korea for illegally entering the country. In the case of Lin and Lee, former president Bill Clinton brokered Ling and Lee's release, though it was made clear that it was a private humanitarian mission, not an officially-sanctioned State Department undertaking.

It must be acknowledged at the outset that the family of Amanda Knox is facing an ordeal mercifully unlike any that most parents will ever have to face. The prospect of being away from their daughter for 26 years while she serves her sentence for a murder they are convinced she is innocent of is literally unimaginable. As parents, they deserve sympathy and support, no matter what one's personal view of the case might be.

The murder of Meredith Kercher is a tragedy. If Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito are innocent, then the tragedy is further compounded by a grotesque miscarriage of justice.

Serious questions have been raised about the way the trial was conducted and, specifically, the conduct of prosecutor Giuliano Mignini whose shocking, hyperbolic descriptions of Knox as a "she devil" and a "deviant" bore more than a passing resemblance to his lurid, penny-dreadful theories of black magic rituals and Satanism expressed during the investigation of the as-yet unsolved "Monster of Florence" serial killing. According to many American legal pundits, there is little to no physical evidence to connect Amanda Knox to the murder.

In addition, an Ivory Coast native, Rudy Guede, whose DNA was found inside Kercher's body, was convicted of the murder in a separate trial. Guede claims the sex with Kercher was consensual, and that, at some later point later on the night she was murdered, he saw an unidentified intruder stab her to death, and she died in his arms. The fact that Guede didn't call the police, but instead fled to Germany, didn't sit well with the jury. Before being sentenced to 30 years in prison, Guede pointed a finger at Knox and Sollecito, accusing the couple of pinning the crime on him.

Given these and other irregularities, it goes without saying that the standards and practices of the Italian legal system as manifested in the Knox-Sollecito trial (Sollecito, like Knox, was eventually sentenced to 26 years in prison) have raised the ire of many U.S. observers and trial-watchers. In widely circulated statement, Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) expressed her dismay, and her intention to take up the verdict with Clinton's office:

I am saddened by the verdict and I have serious questions about the Italian justice system and whether anti-Americanism tainted this trial. The prosecution did not present enough evidence for an impartial jury to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Ms. Knox was guilty. Italian jurors were not sequestered and were allowed to view highly negative news coverage about Ms. Knox. Other flaws in the Italian justice system on display in this case included the harsh treatment of following her arrest; negligent handling of evidence by investigators; and pending charges of misconduct against one of the prosecutors stemming from another murder trial. I am in contact with the U.S. Ambassador to Italy and have been since the time of Ms. Knox's arrest. I will be conveying my concerns to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Still, the efficacy of State Department-level U.S. involvement in the process merits some debate, coming, as it would, into an international political climate tainted in the minds of many Europeans by what they consider eight-plus years of U.S. political and military entitlement: the abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, detainee torture, the "extraordinary rendition" kidnapping and torture of foreign nationals, and especially the continued failure to close Guantanamo Bay. Outside the borders of the U.S., the prison is perceived to be an enduring symbol of Bush-era American disregard for the basic tenets of the Geneva Convention. This view is widely held in Europe, and was doubtless on the minds of many Italian observers of the trial.

One primary currency of high-level diplomacy is the carrot-or-stick approach, which employs a combination of rewards and/or punishment to induce a change in outcome, including offering the opponent a chance to "save face." The question is, what inducement could the Secretary of State bring to bear in this particular case? A segment of Ms. Knox's supporters doubtless envision a hard line approach by Mrs. Clinton's office, such as the one she took earlier this year when she demanded the immediate the release of Iranian-American NPR journalist Roxana Saberi, who was charged with espionage in Iran, and sentenced to eight years in prison (then released when her sentence was reduced to a two-year suspended one.)

That said, Italy is not Iran or North Korea. Ms. Knox was not convicted in under an hour during a closed-door trial, as Saberi was. Nor does the Italian government have anything gain by thumbing its nose at the Obama presidency, as the North Koreans did with the show trial of Lee and Ling. Flawed as the trial appears, it was conducted transparently, by Italian standards, and in accordance with Italian law. When the United States loudly asserts its right to apply its own laws to foreigners in the form of "extraordinary rendition" flights, or indefinite detention without charge on "suspicion of terrorism," it's difficult to make a case when the shoe is on the other foot.

The Italian press is already making much of the "news" that Clinton's office will involve itself, though there has been no official comment from the State Department to that effect. The newspaper Corriere della Sera commented, "The (US) administration cannot close Guantanamo, yet if finds time to think about Perugia." Furthermore, while there is no doubt that Ms. Knox was the victim of deeply misogynistic characterizations, the charge of anti-Americanism is complicated by the fact that Ms. Knox's co-defendant, Raffaele Sollecito, is an Italian citizen, and Mr. Geuede is a native of the Ivory Coast.

Many Italians, for instance, remain unforgiving of the fact that an American military court acquitted US Marine fighter pilots Captain Richard J. Ashby, and his navigator, Captain Joseph Schweitzer, of involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide when, on February 3, 1998, their EA-6B Prowler military plane cut a cable cut a cable supporting a ski gondola near the town of Cavalese, resulting in the death of 20 people. The two men's acquittal put a strain on U.S. relations with Italy, and was perceived by the Italian people as a case of "might making right," with the military of a powerful, bully nation escaping justice and leaving 20 bodies in their wake.

It's appears essential for supporters of Miss Knox and Mr. Sollecito to continue their media campaign on her behalf, and to take advantage of the fact that, under Italian law, the appeals process is not based upon merit, but upon a guaranteed right to a two-stage appeals process, which, according to an article in the Christian Science Monitor by Nick Squires, could take up to five years.

Whether Mrs. Clinton's office becomes involved or not, it seems that a light touch from U.S. officialdom might secure the most favorable result for Ms. Knox, if for no other reason than to avoid the antagonizing perception of bullying right before a long appeals process even begins. Italian officials involved with the appeals process will be no less aware of the political climate inside Italy regarding this case during the appeals process than they were during the trial, and it would be tragic if outrage towards perceived U.S. dictation by the Obama administration was brought to bear on their decision making.

In the meantime, we should all brace ourselves for this to turn into a political hot potato, one that right-wing opponents of both Mrs. Clinton and President Obama will take full advantage of.