How the US State Department Failed Amanda Knox

As it turns out, the US Department of State does have a staff of lawyers after all.   No fewer than 175 of them are busily working their brains to the bone right now in the State Department’s “Office of the Legal Adviser” in Washington, DC.  Not only that, but according to their website, these lawyers are among the very best and very brightest their country has to offer:

Competition for attorney positions in the Office is intense. Approximately 13 to 15 of the nearly 1,000 applicants for permanent employment each year are selected.

Outstanding academic performance, analytical ability, writing skills, special honors, or achievements, professional experience, publications, and relevant extracurricular activities are important considerations in all selections.

That page must have been updated in the past three years, because from 2007 through 2011, the Office of the Legal Adviser seems instead to have been run alternately by a confederacy of dunces, a ship of fools, and a pack of those chimps with typewriters who, in a million years, may or may not reproduce Shakespeare.

On November 6, 2007, a serious legal issue came to the attention of the American Embassy in Rome.  Officials were informed that an American college student at the University for Foreigners in Perugia, Umbria, had been arrested for sexual assault and participation in voluntary manslaughter.  By the time the consulate received notice, Amanda Knox and her Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, already had been interrogated, arrested and imprisoned.  Local and national officials held a press conference in Perugia the same day, proudly pronouncing the case closed.  It was big news, impossible to miss in Italy, and covered in the UK and US as well.

By the time Amanda was locked up on the 6th, Perugian police had broken at least three Italian laws in their prosecution of her.  They interrogated her as a suspect without providing her with an attorney, they emotionally and physically abused her during the interrogation, and they did not tape the interrogation.  US officials may not have been aware of the latter two crimes at that point, but they were fully aware Amanda had been questioned without legal counsel — they were the ones who directed Amanda’s parents to the two English-speaking Italian lawyers they would hire to represent her.

For some reason, it took six days for US consular officials to make their way to Perugia to meet with Amanda in her cell.  By that time, it was publicly known via the news media that Amanda had recanted the statements she had made during the interrogation, and that she had written a note to the police on the day of her arrest complaining about them having yelled at her and hit her.

Around the same time, the American Embassy in Rome cabled the following information to the State Department in DC:

AMEMBASSY ROME

TO SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 9382

INFOR AMCONSUL FLORENCE

AMCONSUL MILAN

SUBJECT: ARREST CASEOF AMANDA MARIE KNOX

AMCONSUL NAPLES

CHARGES; SEXUAL ASSAULT AND PARTICIPATION IN VOLUNTARY MANSLAUGHTER

17.  NOTIFICATION: Embassy Rome Consular Section was notified on November 6, 2007 of Ms. Knox’s detention for interrogation by police and was notified of formal arrest on November 9, 2007.

18. ACCESS: ConOff visited on November 12, 2007.  Subject’s mother and lawyers have also visited her.  Subject’s father scheduled to visit her on November 13, 2007.

Skeptics in the United States were suspicious of the case from Day One.  Amanda’s American family, friends, teachers and former employers protested vocally.   Within weeks, questions about irregularities in the case gave rise to news articles and blogs in which the proposed evidence was examined and analyzed.  The number of people who became convinced of Amanda’s innocence grew even before her first trial started in January of 2009. 

Not only did it not make sense that someone with Amanda’s background would be involved in a homicide, it also did not make sense that the American Embassy in Rome seemed to be lending more credibility to the Italian legal system than to its own citizens.  It has been known for decades that Italy’s judicial processes can be problematic.  According to the European Court of Human Rights 2013 statistics, Italy ranks second only to Turkey out of 47 countries in terms of human rights violations the court ruled on from 1959 to 2013.   No one should be more aware of that fact than Embassy officials whose job it is to protect American citizens traveling abroad.

In Amanda’s hometown of Seattle, Michael Heavey, a Washington State Superior Court Judge, was an early critic of the prosecution.  In 2008, within months of the arrests, Heavey wrote personal letters to three separate Italian magistrates, asking them to look more closely at the unlikelihood of Amanda having participated in the crime.   As a lawyer and a judge, he refuted the case evidence and requested that Amanda and Raffaele’s trial be moved out of Perugia.  In the strongest terms, he protested the many leaks of false information that had flowed from the prosecutor’s office, the police and the prison, writing, “Amanda Knox is in grave danger of being convicted of the murder because of improper and false poisoning of public opinion and judicial opinion.”

Amanda and Raffaele were indeed convicted at the end of their first trial on December 4, 2009.  Three days later, at a daily press briefing in Washington, DC, news reporters who were following the case had some hard questions for State Department Spokesperson Ian Kelly.  Several journalists expressed their curiosity about why the department so far had said so little about the case, and why the aspects of the trial that looked suspicious to others did not seem irregular to the department:

Reporter’s question: Well, Ian, just – you know, in some cases – granted, they’re not all the same – but in previous cases dealing with Americans, the State Department often is quite vocal and quite out there publicly in terms of commenting.  It’s been quite noticeable that there’s been very little comment, and especially that statement yesterday by the Secretary that she was busy with Afghanistan and actually wasn’t able to be up on it…..

Reporter’s question: ……So none of these things up until now, have raised a red flag with you?  Because if they had, as Jill said, in the past, you have kind of raised the red flag when you feel that some things in the trial are questionable.  And we haven’t really heard anything from you on that.

Spokesperson Kelly assured those in the audience that the State Department had been watching the case closely and would continue to do so while staying in touch with Amanda and her family.  “The Italian Government has allowed our consular officers to sit in on these trials. They’ve given us regular consular access to Amanda Knox. And we’ll continue to play that kind of monitoring and supportive role.”  He added, “It’s still early days” — although by that time Amanda had already been in prison for two years — and “…..we need to let this process play out.”

The truth is that at any given time, at any point in the process, the American Embassy in Rome or the Department in DC could have stepped in, at least with opinion if not action.  One wonders what prevented them from protesting an attorney-free interrogation and arrest in the first place.

This was not the Vatican, where a diplomat might think twice about challenging the beloved spiritual leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.  This was not even Rome.  This was Perugia, about which Italian journalist Frank Sfarzo told Rolling Stone, “Nobody here is good at their job.  If they were, they wouldn’t be in Perugia.”

After the first chances for immediate release of Amanda and Raffaele were missed, another convenient opportunity for US intervention presented itself barely three weeks into proceedings, when the actual murderer, Rudy Guede, was apprehended in Germany and brought back to Perugia.  At that point, the police released one wrong suspect, but chose to keep Knox and Sollecito in custody, despite the lack of evidence against them as well as Rudy Guede’s failure to name them as accomplices.  All this seems to have been okay with the American Embassy, as they made not a peep.

Some of the indignities that befell Amanda during the first year were legal in Italy while others were not.  All should have raised the hackles of State Department lawyers.  Her phone was wiretapped; she was forced into cautionary pre-trial detention for an entire year; in prison, a lascivious male guard accompanied her to every doctor visit; her personal diary containing private medical information was removed from her cell by police and subsequently published by a journalist.

Maybe handling the situation aggressively felt awkward and uncomfortable to employees at the US Embassy in Rome because of their personal relationships within Italy.  That should not have been an obstacle, though — they already had referred the matter to the Secretary of State in Washington, DC as soon as Amanda was arrested.  The case could have been investigated and addressed by any number of personnel in the Office of the Legal Adviser, or in one of its sub-offices, including the Office of European Affairs; the Office of Consular Affairs; the Office of Human Rights and Refugees; the Office of Law Enforcement and Intelligence; the Office of the Assistant Legal Adviser for Treaty Affairs.  Relieving the Rome consulate of the burden of handling the controversial case seems as if it would have been standard operating procedure.

On May 16, 2011, during Amanda and Raffaele’s first appeal trial, Judge Heavey wrote another letter, this time to the President of the United States, Members of Congress, the Secretary of State, and the press.  Citing specific articles of the Italian constitution and Criminal Code of Procedure, he listed the legal and ethical violations against Amanda, asking repeatedly, “Why did consular officials do nothing?”

Later the same year, former Department of Justice attorney  S. Michael Scadron posted an essay on the news website “groundreport,” titled, “Why Won’t the State Department Speak up for Amanda Knox?”  He wrote,

The State Department has remained curiously silent throughout Knox’s ordeal, undoubtedly adhering to a long-standing policy of non-interference with the judicial process of a sovereign nation. But that policy is supposed to yield where mistreatment or rights violations have been shown. Italy is not China or North Korea or Iran, but that is all the more reason for concern…… even in the face of concerns expressed by Italy’s own legislators, our State Department remains mum.

Michael Heavey and Michael Scadron, like so many case followers busy with their own families and lives, felt strongly enough about the case to research the facts and  illuminate the injustice.  There has never been any sign that US State Department officials were conducting similar research, nor that they noticed or reflected on the groundswell of volunteer activity in support of Amanda and Raffaele.  Unlike State Department lawyers, any number of pro-innocence commentators can enumerate the scientific failures of the prosecution’s evidence, the illogic of their claims, and the names of the Perugian police officers who eventually were investigated for criminal activities of their own.

Ironically, the State Department’s neglect of Amanda Knox’s predicament may reveal one silver lining.   Those familiar with the case know there is little common ground between the pro-innocence and pro-guilt factions of activists who write and campaign on behalf of the murder victim and the defendants.  On May 18, 2011, a leading pro-guilt website, “True Justice for Meredith Kercher,” posted a report that read, in part:

Andrea Vogt Obtains New Rome Embassy Cables From State, Still Showing Zero Concern About Knox

They were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. These now provide a complete overview.

The new cables are as bland and routine and unconcerned about Amanda Knox as ever.

There was no smoking gun among them, as the Knox PR campaign had so very much hoped for. The State Department will never move on this case based on how Italy handled it.

While there is no evidence a “Knox PR campaign” was hoping for anything from the State Department at that point, the two groups might now agree the released cables did indicate State was as “unconcerned about Amanda Knox as ever.”

Amanda and Raffaele were exonerated of the murder charge by an Italian appeals court in 2011.   This past January, they were found guilty again by a different court of appeals.  In the coming days, case followers are expecting the release of the written motivations for the decision that reconvicted them.   According to predictions, the presiding judge will explain that he was required to find the defendants guilty by virtue of the fact that the accusations and evidence against them were accepted by the courts that ruled against Rudy Guede. In other words, Amanda and Raffaele will have been tried and convicted at trials in which they were not legally represented.

If this happens, will the US State Department finally speak up?