Amanda Knox: Why She Won

If Knox were homely, or modest, or male, she'd probably never have been charged to begin with -- or freed.
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The failure and the triumph of Amanda Knox's story are both specific to an American woman in a foreign justice system whose framework differs critically from our own. If Knox were homely, or modest, or male, she'd probably never have been charged to begin with. But it's also likely that, once convicted, a different Amanda Knox wouldn't have held the interest of the court long enough to be freed. The passions of the investigators and, arguably, of Knox herself, led to her conviction and, paradoxically, to her acquittal and release.

Yesterday morning, American 24-year-old Knox addressed an Italian jury, in the final phase of her murder appeal. Knox and her boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito were convicted in 2009 of murdering Knox's roommate, British student Meredith Kercher, when the young women were foreign exchange students in Perugia, Italy in 2007. Knox was initially sentenced to 26 years and faced the possibility of serving life. In yesterday's statement to the eight-member appeals panel, Knox spoke with the confidence of someone who has been served well by authority. Of the days-long interrogation that led to her murder confession and conviction, Knox told the panel that "I had a sense of duty before justice. I had a sense of duty before authority which I trusted...I blindly trusted them wholly, completely, absolutely." This has been described everywhere as a veiled attack on the Italian legal system, but that's not really what Knox delivered. Instead, her appeal showed a credulous belief that if she got her story across, justice would be served and she would be freed.

Amanda Knox is not "Hunger Games" heroine Katniss Everdeen, the young adult novels' scrappy rebel leader who, with little to lose, confronts and humiliates her oppressors. On the contrary, Knox had every reason, until her arrest in November 2007, to believe that cops and judges existed to protect her. Why wouldn't she? A gorgeous middle-class white American college student on a study year abroad is someone by whom society has done pretty well. Hers is the passion of a comfortable kid who can't quite believe things aren't working the way they're supposed to. And the most peculiar and riveting aspect of the appeal statement that helped free her is the persistence of that faith. She punctuated her points with respectful, but assertive, gesticulations. It's the way you dream (literally, in nightmares) about appealing to captors. "I'm not escaping truth. I never escaped. I'm not fleeing from justice," Knox said. No, guys, don't you get it? I'm on your side!

It worked. Well, her statement worked, following years of international pressure and a damning report in which court-appointed experts found 54 errors in the original investigators' procedure and handling of evidence. Hours after Knox spoke, the panel -- made up of two judges and six lay jurors -- rendered its verdict, acquitting Knox and Sollecito of murder (Knox was convicted and sentenced to time served for slandering her former boss during the murder investigation).

In Italy, investigators propound a single, supposedly objective story in order to establish the absolute truth of a crime. Their purpose, at least in theory, is to determine truth, not to prosecute a defendant. Defense lawyers' ostensible role is not to present an opposing story, but to support the defendant in the investigation. The judge is not neutral, but is a member of and guiding presence on the jury, which renders its verdict by simple majority. This "inquisitorial" process stands in contrast to the American adversarial system, in which two sides -- prosecution and defense, in a criminal trial -- present competing stories. An impartial jury must reach a unanimous verdict, and a presiding judge approves it.

The single-narrative structure of the Italian system lends itself to the kind of runaway train that was Amanda Knox's legal journey. First she was a Satanic ritual orgy killer; then she was jealous; at one point she was said to have slaughtered Kercher in a marijuana-induced rage. The case stuck because it was interesting to the investigators, and it survived the 2008 conviction of a third defendant, Rudy Guede, because the investigators shifted their version of Knox's (and Sollecito's) role as the evidence changed. They weren't necessarily looking to railroad her, but they couldn't look away from the case that involved a beautiful girl, foreign college kids, and DNA on a bra clasp. Knox's own lawyers notoriously characterized her as "Jessica Rabbit" at one point, to distinguish the sexy and warm defendant from the diabolical murderer the investigators saw.

American litigators are constantly accused of being too aggressive, of picking fights, of acting like pit bulls. Our two-sided system of zealous advocacy has serious flaws. But supposed impartiality has more insidious effects than does frank opposition. Amanda Knox's own zealous participation -- in fun, in adventure, in guileless cooperation with investigators -- ensnared her in legal and personal horror. "I insist on the truth," Knox said yesterday. "It deserves to be defended and acknowledged." She respectfully challenged authority to correct itself and to do its job. An admittedly privileged, American woman expected no less.

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