Italy has a modern criminal justice system with a long history. The general area of Italy in which Amanda Knox is being tried is near the birth place of Renaissance Humanism, the movement that gave new force to notions of rationality and the importance of maintaining human dignity. And in the classical period of Ancient Rome, Cicero argued before juries in a manner emulated by the legal advocates of today. For Americans, a trial in Italy does not cause the same fears that would be caused by a trial in Iran or Syria, for example. Nevertheless, Americans should have grave concerns for Amanda Knox and the fairness of her trial in Perugia. My uneasiness with the trial is not that it is being conducted in an aberrant or unusual foreign manner. Rather my concern is that the case is too much like American trials that have been chaotic or have yielded unfair results.
Back in 1892, when Italy was still finishing its unification, the United States was suffering through its first media circus surrounding the murder trial of Lizzie Borden. The landmark press coverage of that murder trial was so fraught with prejudgment of the facts, that people still today assume Borden’s guilt. Borden was found not guilty. Whether it is trial of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, or of O.J. Simpson, the public is aware that the criminal justice system can be twisted or contorted under the weight of media attention.
Paul Ciolino, an investigator with the Innocent Project explains the trial of Amanda Knox: “This is their O.J. Simpson trial — it’s that big.” In fact, it may be worse. There has been information leaked out to the tabloids in this case in ways that I have never seen or heard of. Amanda Knox kept a diary that was improperly copied and circulated to the tabloids. The subject of the sensational tabloid press coverage has been covered in articles by the UW Daily. Washington Senator Maria Cantwell wrote to the Italian ambassador in the U.S. expressing concern over Amanda Knox’s trial. Cantwell expressed concern that “confidential information about her case was leaked, resulting in false and misleading media reports.” King County Superior Court Judge Mike Heavey took the unusual step of writing to the Italian authorities on the subject of Amanda’s trial. Judge Heavey complained to the council that regulates judges in Italy and asked for a change of venue. He also complained about the leaks from the prosecutor, police and prison officials to the tabloid press.
A lot of the unspoken concern comes from the particular Italian prosecutor in this case, Giuliano Mignini. Many Americans have been slow to criticize him. In an August interview with the Seattle-Times, Amanda’s parents indicated that they did not wish to criticize the investigation for fear of angering the Italian prosecutors.
Earlier this year, Giuliano Mignini announced that he was bringing a defamation lawsuit against a West Seattle community newspaper repeating critical comments made by Knox’s supporters. The article, by the West Seattle Herald used to be available here, but has apparently been taken down. Giuliano Mignini told the BBC he started the legal action because the newspaper quoted some of Knox’s supporters that said Mignini is “mentally unstable.” The same article quoted Knox’s supporters as accusing Mignini of using Amanda’s trial to “improve his own dicey reputation and further his career.”
Italian prosecutor Giuliano Mignini reminds me too much of North Carolina prosecutor Mike Nifong, who was disbarred over his misconduct during his prosecution of members of the Duke lacrosse team. In that case the bar association said that Nifong manipulated the investigation to increase his chances of winning election. According to the bar investigation, he committed “a clear case of intentional prosecutorial misconduct” that involved “dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation.”
With Italian prosecutor Giuliano Mignini, people have questioned his judgment and good sense long before Amanda Knox was charged with murder. American author Douglas Preston went to Italy to write a book about a serial killer in Florence several years ago, and found out firsthand how Mignini operated. Preston wrote about his firsthand account in his book entitled Monster of Florence. Douglas Preston became the target of a police investigation himself, along with his Italian journalist friend Mario Spezi. Writing about Mignini, Preston describes how the prosecutor would selectively leak information to the media, while seeking to bar reporters from publishing different accounts of the facts. Preston describes how he and his colleague, Mario Spezi, pursued a version of events that differed from official accounts, and that Giuliano Mignini had Spezi jailed for 23 days for obstruction of justice. The Italian court of appeals (or Tribunal of Reexamination) later stopped this and ordered Spezi’s release. Douglas Preston describes how more than one person was convicted of murder in the underlying case, and later had their convictions overturned. Preston describes how under prosecutor Mignini’s leadership the investigation “…would become a monster in its own right, consuming all in its path, engorged and distended with the many innocent lives it had ruined.” This is what is happening in the Amanda Knox case according to a recent Newsweek article. The magazine concluded: “Regardless of the verdict, the trial of Amanda Knox has ruined the lives of almost everybody involved in it.”
Italian prosecutor Giuliano Mignini is really a criminal defendant by his own right. Mignini has been charged with obstruction of justice and illegal wiretapping in prosecuting the “Monster of Florence” case. At Mignini’s first pretrial hearing on January 16th, 2008, the Italian public minister of Florence, Luca Turco, declared that Mignini was “on a crusade in thrall to sort of delirium” and “ready to go to any extreme defending himself against anyone who criticized his investigation.”
There is not a lot the American legal community can do except wait for Italy’s complex legal system to sort this out. A verdict is not too many weeks off, and the world is bracing itself for a decision that will be an international bombshell either way. American lawyers grimace at the chaos in Perugia, and can’t help but see a reflection of our own system in the mess.