By Terry Baynes
NEW YORK, March 26 (Reuters) - The possibility that American Amanda Knox could be convicted of murder and extradited to Italy for punishment could force U.S. courts to enter legal territory that is largely uncharted, legal experts said.
Italy's top court on Tuesday ordered the retrial of Knox, 25, for the 2007 murder of British student Meredith Kercher.
The move potentially pits a U.S. constitutional ban on double jeopardy, or being tried twice for the same offense after an acquittal, against international extradition agreements, experts said.
The issue hinges on whether a lower court decision overturning her conviction amounted to an acquittal, they said.
If Knox is retried after she was acquitted, that would violate her constitutional rights, said Christopher Blakesley, a law professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas who specializes in international criminal law. On the other hand, the United States entered into an extradition treaty and, in doing so, accepted Italy's criminal justice system, he added.
"If Knox is found guilty, there's still a whole lot of room for battle before she would ever be extradited," Blakesley said.
Knox and her former boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, were accused of killing 21-year-old Meredith Kercher during a drug-fuelled sexual encounter in Perugia, Italy. The two were found guilty in 2009 and sentenced to 26 and 25 years in prison respectively.
In 2011, an appeals court, comprised of a panel of judges and lay jurors, overturned the convictions of Knox and Sollecito after forensic experts challenged evidence from the original trial. Knox and Sollecito were released after four years in prison, and Knox returned to her family home near Seattle.
Prosecutors and Kercher family lawyers appealed to Italy's high court, the Court of Cassation, calling the prior ruling "contradictory and illogical."
On Tuesday, the Court of Cassation agreed to overturn the appeals court's acquittals. The high court has not yet provided a full reasoning for its decision, and a date has not yet been set for the new trial, which will be held before a different court of appeals in Florence.
Knox's Italian lawyer, Carlo Dalla Vedova, said via email that the new trial would likely occur in late 2013 or early 2014. Knox does not intend to return to Italy for the proceeding, he said, and the court of appeals can retry the case in absentia.
The Italian government could ask for extradition once the Italian courts have reached a final decision, Dalla Vedova said. If it does, the U.S. Department of State would then have to decide whether to act on the request. If the State Department chooses to comply, it would then deploy the U.S. Attorney's Office to a U.S. court to seek Knox's extradition.
What is unpredictable is how such a case would play out in front of a U.S. judge who would have to weigh the U.S. constitutional protection against double jeopardy with the 1984 bilateral extradition treaty between the United States and Italy. The treaty contains a provision that attempts to protect against double jeopardy, but it is not clear whether that provision would bar extradition in Knox's case.
The legal question would be whether Knox was acquitted, as U.S. courts would define the term, or whether the case was merely reversed and still open for further appeal, said criminal lawyer and Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz.
"It's very complicated, and there's no clear answer. It's in the range of unpredictable," Dershowitz said.
Much of the complication stems from the differences between the Italian and U.S. legal systems. In the United States, if a defendant is acquitted, the case cannot be retried.
In Italy, prosecutors and lawyers for interested parties, such as Kercher's family, can file an appeal. Unlike American courts of appeal, which only consider legal errors in the courts below, Italian courts of appeal, which are comprised of both judges and jurors, can reconsider the facts of a case.
Depending on the Italian high court's reason for overturning Knox's acquittal, it is possible that the court of appeals could consider new evidence that's introduced, said Dalla Vedova. As a result, a defendant can effectively be retried in the course of one case in Italy.
Dalla Vedova said the high court's decision does not raise a double jeopardy problem because the retrial would not be a new case but rather a continuation of the same case on appeal.
Other defendants who have been acquitted in other countries and then convicted on appeal have attempted to raise the double jeopardy principle to avoid extradition, without much success, said Mary Fan, a law professor at the University of Washington who specializes in cross-border criminal law.
The text of the treaty prevents extradition if the person has already been convicted or acquitted of the same offense by the "requested" country, which would be the United States in Knox's case because Italy would be requesting extradition from the United States. Because Knox was never prosecuted or acquitted for homicide in the United States, the treaty's double-jeopardy provision would not prevent Knox's extradition, said Fan.
While the issue is rare in the United States, several courts have rejected the double jeopardy argument in similar cases. In 2010, a federal court in California found that a man who was acquitted of murder in Mexico and later convicted after prosecutors appealed the acquittal, could not claim double jeopardy to avoid extradition to Mexico. That court cited a 1974 decision from the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York, that reached the same conclusion with respect to Canadian law, which also allows the government to appeal an acquittal.
When asked about the potential extradition of Knox at a press briefing on Tuesday, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department said the question was hypothetical and declined to comment. (Reporting By Terry Baynes; Editing by Sandra Maler)