Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Well-Informed New Voice On The Relevant Italian Law

Posted by Peter Quennell

[click for larger images]

Above: the street up from the station - probably the first road in Perugia Meredith ever traveled, just a few short weeks before her death.

Informed foreign commentary on the Italian legal system has been very thin on the ground in this case and we have posted what still remains one of the best.

Now in the the Comments section of a post on The Daily Beast that in passing compares the Italian system negatively with the American system, a new commenter, MacK MacK (not registered on TJMK in that name) has posted a number of informed comments worth reading before they scroll away.

Here is the first of MacK MacK’s comments - right under another which reads “I really do hate this perception that America has the highest legal system in the world” - and several of the responses, including his or her own.


This is not a very well though out article, poorly written by an author who assumes that a civil law system (i.e., Italy) should be like a common system, i.e., the US.

First, the presumption of innocence does apply since Article 6 of the European Convention of Human Rights, to which Italy is a signatory, and which is enforced by the European Court in Strasbourg provides detailed rights (1) to a fair trial, including the right to a public hearing before an independent and impartial tribunal within reasonable time, (2) the presumption of innocence, and (3) other minimum rights for those charged with a criminal offence (adequate time and facilities to prepare their defence, (4) access to legal representation, (5) right to examine witnesses against them or have them examined, and (6) right to the free assistance of an interpreter) - which makes Italy better than say Texas with appeal to the US Supreme Court.

Second, in a civil law country trial is a two step process. There is a preliminary proceeding conducted by an investigating magistrate (in some civil law countries called a juge d’instruction) who is like a grand-jury in the US system, but with added powers, since he/she can cross examine the police and prosecutor and will only allow a case to go to trial if there is prima facie evidence that the defendant has a case to answer - and which point the defendant gets a trial with the presumption of innocence.

The confusion among bad reporters that leads to the idea that when on trial one is “guilty until proven innocent” is because the investigating magistrate only lets a case go to trial if he/she thinks the defendant is guilty, but the trial is a fresh one - that is what is going on now.

The Knox family, who are fairly well off in fact, are being badly advised by Washington based criminal lawyers to use publicity in her case, and the publicists they have hired have decided to put the Italian justice system on trial. They have spread potentially libelous stories about the prosecutor and tried to muddy the waters in public. The problem for Knox is that this may well antagonize the court - it is a stupid tactic, being used by people who are trying Seattle court tactics in Italy.

The civil trial system is heavily run by the judges, who have to make the decisions. What this means in practice is that they ask a lot of the questions and will when there are problems with evidence keep recalling people to get to the bottom of the issue. This is in contrast to the US system where a witness is heard, examined and cross-examined, and the defense and prosecution tries to score some points during that testimony. In the Italian system, if a question mark is raised, the judges will often call a few witnesses back to ask for explanations.

Knox and Sollecito to me, and I have read most of what has come out in this case, have very serious problems. The trouble Knox has is that ab initio she told the police a pack of lies, implicating an innocent black man (and demonstrably so) as the killer (by the way her choice of Mr. Lumumba is particularly telling since in a country with a smallish black population she chose someone of the same race as Guede - why?) Her alibi is to put it mildly piss-poor and in both her and Sollecito’s case they don’t match facts that can be established (e.g., cell phone records, computer use.) Sollecito has avoided supporting her alibi in court.

The only reasonable conclusion that can be reached is that she and Sollecito were in some way present or involved in at least part of the events on the fatal night - the nature of that involvement is not clear, but the confessions seem to be a starting point for working out what it might be.

It is this inescapable involvement that presents the huge problem - Knox is not telling the truth and Sollecito has stopped really talking at all - however, what Knox now says and Sollecito’s lawyers argue are inconsistent with some known facts—why? What you see the court heading towards is that Knox is trying to tell a false story because the truth must be worse.

I do notice by the way that the fact that Knox fingered Lumumba as the murderer, and that he had a solid alibi is simply not mentioned in this or other press accounts in the US.


Best post I have read here on this subject.



A fine post, indeed! It’s not often on TDB that a post is actually more informative than the original article.

You seem to know what you’re talking about. So, correct me if I’m wrong, but does civil law not focus more on answering the three questions: what happened? Why did it happen? And how did it happen? as opposed to our common law where prosecuting lawyers and defence lawyers rely more on precedent.

I absolutely buy into your point that the Knox family are being badly advised by Washington- based criminal lawyers to use American-style negative publicity in her case and this potentially will backfire on them. It is a stupid tactic, as you say!

Sample of one here, but I think she is very guilty and should pay the price.


This is an excellent post - in fact much better than the original article.

I have followed this case from the beginning, and I am certain that they are guilty. Here are some details that came out early in the story, but now seem to have been forgotten:

1. In the early hours of the morning after the murder, Knox and Sollecito made two separate trips to the store to buy a bottle of bleach. Why would they be consuming so much bleach if they weren’t trying to scrub forensic evidence?

2. Knox originally said that she was at the crime scene and covered her ears to block out the sound of the victim’s screams. Then she changed her story and said that she wasn’t there at all. How is it possible to be mistaken about this?

3. Their behavior immediately after the discovery of the body was bizarre. Firstly police found both of them at the crime scene when they turned up to investigate the victim’s found mobile phone, but the accused hadn’t contacted police. Surely, upon discovery of a body, it is something you would do immediately. Secondly, at the crime scene, the accused made-out in front of police - surely a misguided attempt to act innocent. Immediately after this, they went lingerie shopping, and then at the police station, Knox passed the time, but doing the splits.

They are guilty, and I think they will not escape this.

The most interesting thing to wait for is Guede’s appeal, which will be heard after the Knox/Sollecito trial is over. I think some fine dirt will be dished at that one.



No…I remember these details, which you itemize in your post. Regarding your second point, I believe that she’s (Knox) claiming that she gave the statement ‘under duress’. I don’t believe that she, or her legal team, mentioned what caused the duress; perhaps she was in a state of duress, because she had just murdered somebody!

Regarding your third point, her bizarre behaviour on her shopping trip directly after the initial police investigation, was caught on tape, so it’s around for perpetuity.

I suspect that we haven’t been hearing about these issues on this side of the Atlantic because her father’s attempts, via professional media relations firms that he has hired, to obfuscate the key issues has indeed been working, at least with the US public. (The strategy here is to create a over swell of public opinion in the US in favour of her innocence so that the Italian justice system will be somehow intimidated into either letting her go, or allowing her to be tried in the US, where she would, presumably, get a more lenient trial.)

I hope that the Italians stick to their principals and give her the deserved punishment.


There is also in a lot of the reporting a misunderstanding about rules of evidence in the common law system versus the civil law system.

To explain, rules of evidence in common law cases, generally heard for the most part before lay-jurors, that is to say ordinary non-legally-trained people, are very very strict, with principles such as the hearsay rule, high requirements for scientific evidence before it will be considered, etc. This is because of a concern that lay-jurors may be unable to place proper weight on evidence - that they will regard things as unduly prejudicial. Thus in a US case “motions in limine” have a big role - these are motions before trial to exclude evidence - and the usual argument is that evidence is more prejudicial than probative. To explain in a US case the argument would be that this individual piece of DNA evidence should be excluded because there might be something wrong with it, or this statement to the police should be excluded because it makes the defendant look bad and proves less than the prejudice it might create.

The evidence about Knox’s sex life, sex toys and vibrators, etc., relevant to explain her problems with her roommates (who were uncomfortable with an apparent parade of men at the breakfast table) would have been excluded in the US, because even though they had at least some relevance to the circumstances of the murder and Knox’s risky behavior, also make her look bad. In an Italian court they take the view that they can exclude the issue of her morality as a matter of sexual behavior (i.e., do they not like her) from the question of her guilt or innocence.

In a civil law system the jurors are in effect professionals. They are expected to know things like eyewitness identifications are inherently unreliable and the system trusts them to weigh the evidence and its reliability in toto, so for example hearsay is usually allowed. Thus if there is an issue about say this bloodstain - yes they take account of that, but they do not exclude the bloodstain, they simply regard it as less reliable - but they consider it in context. So the defendants are disputing multiple examples of DNA evidence - the judges will consider each separately, but also collectively - as in how likely is that that all of these separate bloodstains would exist, each supporting Knox and Sollecito’s presence. Knox made a statement - she says it was under duress; OK, maybe it was, maybe that makes it unreliable - but some of this physical evidence found after the statement supports the story in the statement - maybe it is reliable. A US court might simply exclude Knox’s confession absolutely, and then not consider it in the context of the other evidence.

If you are used to the common law system where evidence is attacked and excluded in isolation you write this sort of [Daily Beast] article, where you talk about the Sollecito’s hammertoe, but not how that matched in with other things. If you understand the civil system you consider it in the context of Knox’s challenged confession and you wonder does each corroborate the other.

In effect everything is relevant and most things admissible, they are just given different weights as evidence. Things like including Knox’s weird behavior in court may have an impact - this continued until someone told her she was not doing herself any favors. Now this [Daily Beast] article has a demure photo of Knox (presumably from the Knox family publicists)—other articles, often in the British press (who want to present her as guilty) show her with weird grins on her face and wearing flippant slogans on T-shirts.

You are in effect talking about a fundamentally different system. The most important thing to know is that if a case is brought against you in a civil system, although you have still the presumption of innocence, you have in effect already been tried by the investigating magistrate, who after seeing all the evidence has already concluded that you are guilty. That does not mean that you do not have the presumption of innocence at trial, just that if you do go to trial you have lost once already before an impartial pro (the investigating magistrate) - by contrast in the US New York state Chief Judge Sol Wachtler famously observed that district attorneys have so much influence over grand juries that “by and large” they could get one to “indict a ham sandwich.”

By the way, does it occur to anyone that given all the publicity, Sollecito’s well connected family, a US citizen, etc., the path of least resistance for the Italians would have been to do what Knox’s lawyers want them to do, and simply to have accepted that Guede acted alone—that is what most criminal justice systems might have done, avoiding the headache of trying these two as well. They had their “goat” why go for more unless they did think Knox was guilty?

Posted by Peter Quennell on 09/22/09 at 11:24 AM in News media & moviesGreat reportingItalian system


I don’t know which of you is mack-mack but, that was the most intelligent, informative post that I have seen yet. And here I thought Barbie had been doing so well up to now. Her latest article seemed misinformed and biased to me…....What happened? Thank you mack-mack. Peter, you should have put Frumpycats post on here for the entertainment value!

Posted by tigger34 on 09/22/09 at 09:20 PM | #

Mack-Mack’s post is correct for the most part, however his description of the civil system is more adapt to describe the French system (and the old Italian system), than the current Italian judicial system introduced in 1989.

The investigating judge (in Italian: giudice istruttore, in French: Juge d’istruction) is a judge, present in certain systems of civil law, which takes place before the preliminary stage of criminal proceedings (investigation stage).
The investigation stage (fase istruttoria, in Italian) has its own characteristics of the inquisitorial model: the investigating judge, in fact, although does not start automatically the process (since the “penal action” must still be started by the prosecutor), provides for the collection of evidence, using the judicial police (equivalent to the investigators of the DA’s office in the US), and examines such evidence.

If, following this stage, believing that we can rule out the guilt of the accused, the investigating judge acquits him, otherwise he will send him to trial. The trial stage takes place before a different judge with a procedure typically accusatory. I’ll explain what accusatory procedure means. In an accusatory procedure system the judge has a neutral role. It is the defendant (through his representative) and the prosecution (through the Pubblico Ministero in Italy) who introduce facts and evidence to the trial. These two parties, and not the judge, have an active role in the trial. The task of the judge is to ensure that the parties to the trial act in accordance with the norms of the procedure code. The accusatory system is what you see in the US courts and also in the current trial in Perugia.

The figure of the Investigating Magistrate (Giudice Istruttore) was present in the Italian Criminal Procedure code prior to the current system. In the framework of the present Procedure Code, which was introduced in 1989 with the Martelli Law (from the name of the sponsoring legislator at the time), the figure of the investigating judge (giudice istruttore) was abolished and the process has now assumed features which are distinctly accusatory. Instead of the investigating judge, the new procedure code has introduced a new figure, a magistrate called “Judge for Preliminary Investigations” (often referred to in Italian as GIP, or Giudice per le Indagini Preliminari).

Unlike the “Giudice Istruttore” who had autonomous powers to collect evidence and decide on the case whether the defendant was innocent or guilty and therefore send to trial, the function of the GIP is to ‘guarantee the indicted suspect during the preliminary investigation’. The GIP does not have autonomous power to collect evidence, he acts only upon request by the parties, generally the prosecutor, who is the one with the power to collect and present evidence before the GIP.

Before their removal for the Italian penal system, the examining magistrate, the Giudice Istruttore, operated within the Italian court (Tribunal), where they were members of the Ufficio d’Istruzione (Investigating Office). The investigating magistrate (giudice istruttore) has been also abolished in other civil law countries, such as Germany (in 1975) while it is still present, among others, in the French, Belgian and Swiss system. In the Iberian countries (Spain and Portugal) his role has been made more marginal. The above mentioned “juge d’instruction” in the French system, is actually the model which inspired the system of all other civil law countries, (including Italy, before the 1989 criminal procedure law reform).

Posted by Commissario Montalbano on 09/23/09 at 09:17 PM | #

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