SEATTLE – Amanda Knox is facing what seemed like a distant worry when she was giving national television interviews and promoting her autobiography last year: the possibility of being returned to Italy to serve decades in prison for the death of her roommate, Meredith Kercher.
Any decision on whether to extradite the 26-year-old from the U.S. is likely months away at the least, since is unlikely that Italy will request Knox’s extradition before the verdict is finalized by the country’s high court.
On Thursday, an appeals court in Florence reinstated the guilty verdicts handed down against Knox and her ex-boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, in 2009 for the slaying of Kercher, a British exchange student.
Those verdicts were overturned in a second trial in 2011. Knox was released after four years behind bars and returned home to Seattle. But Italy’s highest court ordered a third trial.
The Florence court increased Knox’s sentence from the original 26 years to 28½ years and handed Sollecito 25 years.
Kercher, 21, was found dead Nov. 2, 2007, in a pool of blood in the bedroom of the apartment she and Knox shared in Perugia, where both were studying. Her throat had been slit and she had been sexually assaulted.
Knox and Sollecito said they were at his apartment that night, smoking marijuana, watching a movie and making love.Prosecutors originally argued that Kercher was killed in a drug-fueled sex game gone awry. But at the third trial, prosecutors argued that the violence stemmed from arguments between Knox and Kercher about cleanliness and was triggered by a toilet left unflushed by the third defendant in the case, Rudy Guede, an Ivorian who was convicted in a separate trial and is serving a 16-year sentence for the murder.
If Knox’s conviction is upheld, a lengthy extradition process will likely ensue, with the U.S. deciding whether to turn Knox back over to Italian authorities to finish her sentence. Here is how that might play out:
Under the terms of the extradition treaty between the U.S. and Italy, the offense must be a crime in each country and punishable by more than one year in prison.
Any request to extradite Knox will go to the U.S. State Department, which will evaluate whether Italy has a sufficient case for seeking her return. If so, the State Department will then transfer the case to the Justice Department, which would represent the interests of the Italian government in seeking her arrest and transfer in U.S. District Court.
American courts have limited ability to review extradition requests from other countries, and mainly ensure that the extradition request meets basic legal requirements, said Mary Fan, a former U.S. federal prosecutor who teaches law at the University of Washington in Seattle.
“The U.S. courts don’t sit in judgment of another nation’s legal system,” Fan commented.
Law and politics
Fan suggested that any decision by the State Department on whether to return Knox to Italy is “a matter of both law and politics.” From an American standpoint, the case at first seems to raise questions about double jeopardy — being tried twice for the same offense, which is barred by the American Constitution.
Her 2011 acquittal was never finalized by Italy’s highest court, and even Knox’s lawyers acknowledged that double jeopardy was not an issue.
Creative lawyers might make an effort to fight extradition over concerns about the legal process or the validity of the conviction, Fan said, and those arguments could carry political weight.
Christopher Jenks, a former U.S. Army attorney who served as a State Department legal adviser and now teaches at Southern Methodist University’s law school, said Italy has a low bar to clear in compiling a legally sufficient extradition request.
Jenks noted that the extradition treaty works both ways.
“If the U.S. ever wants to have any chance of extraditing an Italian murder suspect who has allegedly killed people in the U.S.,” he explained, “you have to give to get.”