In a verdict that has captured headlines in both Europe and the United States, and polarized people in a way not seen since the OJ Simpson trial, Amanda Knox, an American student charged with the 2007 sexual assault and murder of her roommate, Meredith Kercher, has been found guilty. On December 5, the Corte d’Assise of Perugia, Italy sentenced Knox to 26 years in prison. Her Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, was sentenced to 25 years.
The details of the case are both sordid and sad. How anyone could slash the throat of an innocent person and leave them to die a slow and painful death is beyond reason. But also disconcerting is the reaction of the public to the verdict.
When the guilty verdict was reported on CNN and other American news sites, it immediately attracted thousands of readers and generated a storm of comments. Many of those comments expressed dismay and even anger at the judgement, unshakeable belief in Knox’ innocence, and disdain for the Italian legal system. Typical of the comments: “America has, like it or not, a better justice system than Italy. This sham of a trial proved that to me.” And, “Knox would never have been convicted in an American court based on the evidence presented.”
Perhaps those individuals are unaware of what happened to Steven Barnes.
Accused of raping and murdering a 16-year-old girl, Barnes was convicted on vague statements from eyewitnesses and weak, unvalidated forensic evidence, and despite the presentation of substantial evidence that clearly did not connect Barnes to the victim. After serving more than nineteen years in prison, Barnes was finally exonerated in 2009 when the Innocence Project helped him obtain new DNA testing.
This took place, not in Italy, but in New York.
Of course, Barnes’ story is not typical of American justice, but it’s not unique either. The 245 victims of wrongful conviction in the U.S., exonerated through DNA testing, would likely take issue with CNN readers who believe Amanda Knox would have received a more equitable trial at home. Not a few of them found themselves behind bars for crimes they didn’t commit principally because of corrupt police or incompetent attorneys.
Equally disturbing is the fact that the vast majority of the most adamant advocates on these forums did not actually attend the trial held in Perugia, Italy. Most of them probably don’t speak Italian and would not have understood the testimony given even if they had been present.
So on what are the protesters basing their convictions? Not on the evidence, to which they’ve had no direct exposure, but on the mere description of the evidence — sifted, edited, filtered — by their local news outlet.
This is not to suggest that CNN, or any other news agency, is intentionally biased. No such suggestion is necessary, since no reputable journalist would suggest that an individual’s fate should be decided by the media, or should be decided by the public based on evidence reported on by the media. That’s why we have a legal system with lawyers, judges, and juries. If we’re dissatisfied with the performance of this system, we should lobby our legislators to change it, not try to circumvent it in the court of public opinion.
Of course, none of this is likely to change anyone’s mind. No evidence is enough to sway the minds of those quick to judge without evidence.