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Why the U.S. Should Hand Over Amanda Knox If Italy Asks

Federico Zirilli/AFP/Getty Images

On Thursday, an Italian court once again found Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito guilty of murdering Knox’s roommate Meredith Kercher in Perugia in 2007. Knox and Sollecito were originally convicted in 2009, only to have that ruling overturned by an appeals court in 2011, allowing Knox’s release from Italian prison and return to the United States.

Knox’s fate now hangs on her final appeal to the Italian Supreme Court, which could take years, but as far as the American media is concerned, her defense has already begun. At Business Insider, Jim Edwards condemned the Italian courts as "utterly insane" and the Knox case as a “miscarriage of justice”; Olga Khazan of The Atlantic bemoaned “Italy’s ‘carnivalesque’ justice system.”

Both noted that the judicial merry-go-round could never have happened in America, where the Fifth Amendment protects court defendants from being tried twice for the same crime. This last observation appears to be meant both as an example of Italy's judicial failings and a potential rationale for denying Italy's request for Knox’s extradition if her sentence is upheld. On both legal and diplomatic grounds, fighting such a request would be a mistake.

Italy’s justice system has rightly earned a reputation for being more circuitous than the Stelvio Pass Road. The country’s highest court receives 80,000 new cases a year, according to Reuters, leading to a backlog of 9 million cases as of 2012. Reforms are certainly in order, but inefficiencies and delays alone are not a justification for ignoring the decisions of a legitimate national judiciary, especially when an extradition treaty binds the United States to respect them.

What actually happened in Knox’s apartment on the night of November 1, 2007 will always be a tragic and fascinating question, but if and when she comes before a U.S. magistrate judge to challenge her extradition, the facts of the case will not matter. According to Jacques Semmelman, a New York-based attorney and leading extradition expert, her conviction in Italian court provides “abundant probable cause” to conclude she is guilty of murder.

The idea that double jeopardy could prevent Knox’s extradition, first popularized in the U.S. media after her retrial was announced in 2013, is also suspect. The current extradition treaty between Italy and the U.S. does not list double jeopardy within the country requesting extradition—i.e., Italy in this case—as a grounds for denying extradition.

Knox’s American lawyers could still claim that her extradition is unconstitutional, but according to Washington-based extradition lawyer Bruce Zagaris, “When a requesting country reverses the acquittal and enters a judgment of conviction, U.S. courts have held that there is no constitutional or statutory bar to the U.S. granting extradition.” Semmelman agrees that a double jeopardy defense would likely fail in Knox’s case, citing a 1997 case in which the U.S. extradited a man to Turkey despite the fact that he was convicted of rape in Turkey only after an appeal.

Assuming Knox’s legal recourses fail, her only hope to avoid extradition would be an intercession by the U.S. Secretary of State, who has final approval over all extradition requests. However, it’s hard to see why John Kerry or future Secretaries of State would take such a large risk merely to protect an American citizen from a prison sentence abroad. Knox may have become a cause célèbre in the United States, but she is unpopular in Italy, where polls show a majority of Italians believe she is guilty.

As with all extradition debates, the issue of reciprocity looms large. As legal scholar Alan Dershowitz put it in an interview with AFP, “We're trying to get Snowden back—how does it look if we want Snowden back and we won't return someone for murder?”

This is especially true in light of Italy’s recent history of carrying America’s water for issues considerably more controversial than common crimes. In July 2013, Italy was one of four NATO countries that closed their airspace to the Bolivian president's plane on the suspicion that Edward Snowden was using it to abscond from Russia. In 2003, the Italian Intelligence Service even allowed the CIA to abduct an Islamist cleric off the street in Milan and whisk him off to Egypt, the country he had sought asylum from in Italy. Once there, he was allegedly tortured and abused by the Mubarak regime. After this "extraordinary rendition" became public, an Italian court convicted 23 CIA operatives of kidnapping in absentia, but Italy has never formally sought their extradition due to U.S. government pressure. By comparison, returning a convicted murderer seems downright routine.

No matter what the Italian Supreme Court’s ultimate decision, it will be viewed with scorn. No new evidence is likely to surface and the various factions for and against Knox have come to their own conclusions long ago. Still, extradition treaties require that we respect the rulings of foreign courts within clearly deliniated parameters. Moreover, the special relationship cultivated between longstanding allies has to take precedence over individual doubts. When news outlets lose sight of that and instead speculate on what country Knox could escape to, it is unclear what kind of world they are rooting for.