WASHINGTON – Roman Polanski, Edward Snowden, Manuel Noriega — over the years, the famous and the infamous have been caught up in the legal process called extradition, which governs whether one country will turn over fugitives from justice to another country.
It may be the turn of Amanda Knox, whose murder conviction in the stabbing of her roommate has been reinstated by an Italian court, raising the specter of a long extradition fight. She says she will never willingly go back to Italy.
The Knox case is special because it raises the question of whether the U.S. government would send one of its own citizens to a foreign country to face a long prison term. But it has done so before, though in less high-profile cases involving Canada, Mexico and other nations.
The U.S. has extradition treaties with more than 100 countries, including Italy, providing what would appear to be a strong legal foundation in favor of a request for Knox’s return to Italy.
“It’s absolutely not the case that an individual will not be extradited just because they are a U.S. citizen,” said Douglas McNabb, an international criminal defense attorney and an expert in international extradition law.
Time is on the side of Knox’s lawyers. Proceedings could take up to a year to play out in the Italian courts.
If Italy files a provisional arrest warrant after the proceedings end, Knox’s lawyers could take the U.S. government through a judicial process in U.S. courts and an administrative process at the State Department, which would make the decision.
State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf declined comment Friday when asked whether the U.S. has received an extradition request for Knox from Italian authorities, saying that information is “private and confidential.” She said the State Department is monitoring the case as it works its way through the Italian legal system but refused to provide further details, such as whether Secretary of State John Kerry would make the final decision on Knox if Italy asked for her to be returned.
The U.S. has had an extradition treaty with Italy since 1984 and has denied several requests since then.
Mary Fan, a former federal prosecutor, suggested that any decision by the State Department on whether to return Knox to Italy is “a matter of both law and politics.”
From a U.S. standpoint, the case at first seems to raise questions about double jeopardy — being tried twice for the same offense, something that has barred by the U.S. Constitution. Knox was convicted but then acquitted. On Thursday, the initial conviction was reinstated.
Some observers dismiss the double-jeopardy argument because Knox’s acquittal was not finalized by Italy’s highest court.
Questions also have been raised about whether the State Department might conduct a review of the evidence and ultimately decide it doesn’t support extradition. The treaty says the country requesting extradition shall provide a summary of the facts and evidence in the case that establish “a reasonable basis to believe that the person sought committed the offense.”
But 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 that is a low bar, and that there is “no reason why Italy wouldn’t be able to put together a sufficient extradition request.”
He also noted that although any request would wind up before a U.S. federal judge, the court’s role would largely be to ensure the paperwork is in order and that basic requirements are met.
“She’s not going to be able to re-litigate ‘did she do it’ in a federal court,” he said. “Your chances of anything coming of that are slim to none.”
Some of the best-known extradition battles have been the reverse of what the Knox case would be. Filmmaking legend Polanski, leaker Snowden and Wikileaks founder Julian Assange have been the targets of U.S. efforts to bring them back to America.
Polanski, a French citizen, fled to France before he was to be sentenced in the U.S. for having sex with a minor. France does not extradite its own citizens. Snowden fled from Hong Kong, which has an extradition treaty with the U.S., to Russia, which doesn’t.
Noriega, once the strongman who ran Panama, was extradited from the U.S. to France and then to Panama to face various drug-related criminal charges.
Assange fled to the Ecuadorean Embassy in London. Ecuador’s “modern leftist” government is having difficult relations with the U.S., even though the two countries have an extradition treaty. Granted asylum, Assange was avoiding extradition to Sweden where he would face allegations by two women of sexual assault, which he denies. Assange believes extradition to Sweden is a first step in efforts to remove him to the U.S., which has an extradition treaty with Sweden.
On Thursday, Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington state said she is “very concerned and disappointed by this verdict” in the Italian court case. “I will continue to closely monitor this case as it moves forward through the Italian legal system.” Knox is from Seattle.