Managing Expectations in the Wake of the Amanda Knox Win

I’ve already been asked about it several times. For the criminal trial lawyer, the Casey Anthony verdict was the result that made it difficult to counsel clients on whether to accept a negotiate plea rather than risk a trial against an overwhelming case. Several colleagues have told me that clients have balked in the face of solid legal advice, reasoning “that girl in Florida got off.” Amanda Knox is, I fear, the appellate lawyer’s Casey Anthony. It doesn’t matter that it’s a different legal system in a foreign country. The comparisons are coming. It is time to prepare with some key points when you face the inevitable comparisons.

An Italian legal expert I am not, but the New York Times piece from today highlights key differences between the two systems that are worth noting and highlighting for the practitioner or for the prospective appellate client.

  • The appellate court in Italy acquitted a criminal defendant. Appellate courts in the United States do not acquit criminal defendants. The nearest equivalent in the US is a finding that there was insufficient evidence to convict and a reversal on that basis. In US Courts, a verdict will be upheld on the facts unless the evidence, when considered in a light most favorable to the prosecution, was insufficient for any reasonable trier of fact to find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Appellate courts in the US neither investigate the case nor “reweigh” evidence on appeal.
  • International media attention appears to have had an impact on the Italian appellate court’s decision. In the U.S., at least in Georgia, media attention doesn’t necessarily help. But sometimes it can have a direct impact. Here, it’s a toss-up.
  • The appellate process in Italy “evaluates both procedural questions and can reopen the investigative phase.” What’s done is done in the American appellate process. The record is set in stone in an American appeal. The focus here is almost exclusively on procedural questions. Unless there is evidence of misconduct on the part of the State or a significant error from defense counsel, a new investigation won’t help. And in the American system, it is important to file motions and raise objections early and often so that there are procedural things to raise at the appellate level.
  • Critics noted that the legal system in Italy was “medieval or barbaric.” Our system is entirely too young to be described as medieval. The process in Italy doesn’t seem so barbaric from our perspective, given that there is not a comparable post-conviction process here to re-weigh the evidence. And they don’t kill their defendants in Italy.
  • The appellate panel was made up of six citizens and two judges. The role of citizens in the U.S. system ends with the verdict, and an acquittal here cannot be appealed as, apparently can the acquittal in Italy.

Again, I am no expert in the Italian legal system. But there is enough of a difference between what happened in the Knox case and what could ever happen in Georgia, to make it an apples and oranges comparison. You’ll get questions from clients assuming that an appellate do-over is possible. And you’ll hear about Amanda Knox. With some preparation, that moment can be a teachable moment.

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