By Alice Giannini
Alice Giannini is a fourth-year law student at the University of Bologna in Bologna, Italy.
Freedom of speech, and therefore of the press, is recognized and protected as a fundamental right by every democratic state. But what is considered to be “truth” by the media has to coexist with the constant search for a substantial truth as determined by judicial courts. Both truths are essential components of democracy but must stay distinct in their roles and in their functions: information cannot forget its social function and start serving justice.  This is a problem that, in Italy and abroad, concerns mostly criminal cases. The so-called “cirque médiatico-judiciaire” (media-judicial circus), as identified by Daniel Soulez Larivière in 1992, is nowadays part of our cultural background, a fact that has never been as evident as in the case of the murder of Meredith Kercher. 
On the night of November 1, 2007, Meredith Kercher (a student from England) was found dead in her house in Perugia, Italy. Amanda Knox (Meredith’s housemate), her Italian boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, and Rudy Guede were quickly named as suspects and then arrested for her murder. In 2009, a chaotic sequence of events consisting of contradictory judgments that ended up lasting for eight years began: Guede was condemned in a “fast-track” trial to 30 years for participating in the murder, while Raffaele and Amanda were also condemned for the murder but by a first instance court. They all appealed and Guede was condemned with a definitive sentence to 16 years, but things went differently for Amanda and Raffaele: in 2011 they were acquitted. In 2013, the Italian Court of Cassation (which represents the last instance of appeal in the Italian judicial system) annulled the 2011 sentence and ordered a retrial to the Court of Appeal for the decision. In January 2014, another twist appeared when Amanda and Raffaele were condemned respectively to 28 and 25 years of jail time. The last piece of the puzzle arrived in June 2014, when the Court of Cassation found that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove Amanda and Raffaele’s guilt beyond any reasonable doubt and acquitted them permanently.
What were the factors that led to these drastic shifts in the courts’ decisions? And what was the role of the public media in all of this? The Court of Cassation itself addressed the problem in a very interesting passage in its June 2014 decision. The judges wrote, “Certainly, the unusual hype of the story, caused not only by the dramatic mode of death of a 22-year-old […] but also by the nationality of the people involved […] and therefore by the international repercussions of the story, caused the investigations to suffer a sudden acceleration, which in the frantic search for one or more culprits to be delivered to international public opinion certainly did not facilitate seeking the substantial truth.”
We all know that a free and independent press is a key factor of democracy and that it’s the most powerful tool for holding governments accountable. How can the press still serve this function when it only praises or critiques the rulings of courts, whose aim is to bring about justice? Trials by media have their own type of sentence: these are moral judgments, the same ones that are prohibited from “ordinary” trials. The members of these ideal courts are looking for impressive and exemplary punishments. Retributive justice and moral judgments get along well with processes of self-absolution: condemning other people’s behaviors makes us feel better about our own. 
While we Italians are used to this sort of fuss, what made the Amanda Knox case different was that “our” kind of trial by media got an all-new “American twist.” Contrary to the legal process in Italy, in the US, citizens get the chance to actively participate in trials, a fact that affected the way that this judicial drama unfolded. During the eight years between the first and final judgments, Amanda’s portrayal in the media ranged from “sweet angel” to femme fatale or “Foxy Knoxy,” as she was nicknamed.  She became a star: she wrote a book, appeared on “Good Morning America,” and even received the support of Donald Trump, who (in)famously tweeted, “Everyone should boycott Italy if Amanda Knox is not freed—she is totally innocent.” Furthermore, Amanda’s supporters utilized a secret weapon in their efforts: building distrust in the Italian judicial system. Just a quick Google search allows one to find references to the Italian judicial system as, among other things, “carnivalesque,”  “inquisitorial,”  and “sexist.”  Maria Cantwell, a Democratic U.S. Senator from Washington, said in a statement in 2009, “I have serious questions about the Italian justice system and whether anti-Americanism tainted this trial.” 
Amanda Knox and her supporters played the game perfectly: she returned to the US beloved, adored, and pitied for her horrible years in the hands of the Italian inferno. Through public appearances, books, interviews, photographs, and statements, she was absolved by the public; the verdicts of the courts were just background noise. As one columnist writes, trials by media are “no less intrusive or damaging to people’s lives, reputations or credibility than an official court conviction.” 
As stated by the Italian Court of Cassation, there were glaring errors, investigative amnesia, and guilty omissions throughout the different trials. As the media attention and the pressure to find a culprit grew bigger and bigger, the investigation couldn’t cope with this burden and eventually it failed. All that remains is doubt and no way to find any real truth.
And what about Rudy Guede? He’s left guilty of complicity in a murder, but with no convicted accomplices: the impossible crime. 
 Latza Nadeau, Barbie. 2015. "Amanda Knox Decision Explained By Italian Court". CNN. http://edition.cnn.com/2015/09/08/europe/italy-court-amanda-knox/;.
 Camerepenali.it,. 2015. "I Media, Il Processo E L'ircocervo Ipnotico - Camere Penali Sito Ufficiale". http://www.camerepenali.it/cat/6403/i_media,_il_processo_e_l_ircocervo_ipnotico.html.
 Soulez-Larivière, Daniel. 1993. Du Cirque Médiatico-Judiciaire Et Des Moyens D'en Sortir. Paris: Éd. du Seuil.
 Ferraresi, Mattia. 2015. "La Lezione Americana Di Amanda". Ilfoglio.It. http://www.ilfoglio.it/cronache/2015/04/12/amanda-knox-la-lezione-americana___1-v-127637-rubriche_c881.htm.
 Khazan, Olga. 2014. "Amanda Knox And Italy's 'Carnivalesque' Justice System". The Atlantic. http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/01/amanda-knox-and-italys-carnivalesque-justice-system/283487/.
 Stelter, Leischen. 2015. "Amanda Knox Case Is A Lesson In Understanding The Italian Justice System | In Public Safety". Inpublicsafety.Com. http://inpublicsafety.com/2015/04/amanda-knox-case-is-a-lesson-in-understanding-the-italian-justice-system/.
 Edwards, Jim. 2015. "Amanda Knox's Legal Nightmare Exposed The Utter Insanity Of Italy's Justice System". Business Insider. http://uk.businessinsider.com/amanda-knoxs-epic-legal-nightmare-2015-3?r=US&IR=T.
 Cantwell.senate.gov. 2015. "Maria Cantwell - U.S. Senator From Washington State". http://www.cantwell.senate.gov/news/record.cfm?id=320475.
 Corr, Alice. 2015. "Amanda Knox’s Trial By Media: Guilty Before Proven Innocent?". Varsity Online. http://www.varsity.co.uk/comment/7014.
 L'Huffington Post,. 2015. "Rudy Guede Unico Condannato Al Processo Meredith: "Se Amanda E Raffaele Sono Innocenti, Lo Sono Anche Io"". http://www.huffingtonpost.it/2015/04/08/meredith-rudy-guede_n_7022994.html
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons User Blackcat
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