Clinton offers Knox hope as 26-year jail term begins

US Secretary of State says she will listen to concerns about trial, writes Michael Day
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The Independent Online

As Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito completed their first weekend behind bars as convicted murderers, the arguments about their trial and the quality of Italian justice showed no signs of abating.

Last night US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she would meet with Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell, from Knox's home state of Washington, to hear her concerns, including the suggestion that "anti-Americanism" may have tainted the trial. Mrs Clinton said that she had not had time to look into the case as she had been focused on Afghanistan, but told ABC News: "Of course I'll meet with Senator Cantwell or anyone who has a concern, but I can't offer any opinion about that at this time."

Questions were also being asked about fundamental aspects of Italy's legal system, most notably the symbiotic relationship between magistrates and journalists that saw potentially damning "evidence" leaked in newspapers before it was even deemed fit for court. "If everything is splashed in the press, people including jury members can make up their mind before the trial has even started," said Anglo-Italian law professor Julian Frosini of Bologna University.

Continued concerns about the trial's flaws have raised hopes in the Knox and Sollecito camps that an appeal could see the convictions quashed. Father Saulo Scarabattoli, the priest who counselled Knox during the trial, said that she was now "putting some hope" into the appeal. And her sister Deanna said: "We are not going to leave her here, we are not going to take what this jury convicted her with."

Italian lawyers noted that unlike the US or UK systems, in which the defence may only challenge the verdict on legal technicalities, the first appeal process in Italy is effectively a retrial, in which all the evidence may be re-examined, and crucially, new evidence presented. Frosini said that wily defence lawyers, such as Knox's counsel Giulia Bongiorno, may well have new aces up their sleeve that they believe will have greater impact at the start of an appeal than in the dying days of a first trial. But the first appeal is unlikely to be before next autumn, by which time Knox and Sollecito will already been in jail for nearly three years thanks to the criminally slow pace of Italian justice. A second and final appeal, on legal points, would be heard in the Cassazione, Italy's supreme court.

Italy does not have the contempt of court laws that in the UK come into play the moment a suspect is charged in order to prevent the publication of material that might influence a jury. As a result, say critics, in the Kercher murder case there was a constant drip-feed of innuendo and "evidence", some of which never saw light of day in court.

The gung-ho attitude of prosecutors, with their premature claims of "case closed" before they were even aware of the role of Rudy Guede, hardly reassured a nervous America. The frailty of the forensic evidence linking both Knox and Sollecito to the murder remains an even sorer point – although the forensic case presented by the prosecution was not, as some commentators in the US have claimed, "virtually non-existent".

Nevertheless, the length of the process has drawn widespread criticism in Italy and abroad. Drawn-out trials, said Massimo Ceresa-Gastaldo, an expert in criminal law at Milan's Bocconi Unversity, can make miscarriages of justice more likely by allowing gossip and hearsay to build up.

Frosini agreed. "Regardless of the Perugia case, this slowness is something that also concerns me," he said. "The Italian justice system is in a very poor state."