Italy, Judge Thyself

Yet another Amanda Knox trial is almost over. I feel no urge to recapitulate what I think are compelling arguments for her innocence. It was ably done some years ago here, and Knox has herself summed things up admirably in her letter to the Italian court.

For me, Italy’s fate as much as Knox’s is at stake in these proceedings, because Knox’s trials and false imprisonment are in many ways an indictment of faults in Italian society, faults that made it easier for the Italian public, press, and jury to credit the charges against her, and faults that make it harder to hold those responsible for this ongoing legal farce accountable for their behavior. From the beginning, this case has been a toxic stew of misogyny, tabloid sensationalism, journalistic intimidation, and unaccountable police and prosecutors.

Italy’s position in global gender gap rankings,  74th out of 134 countries surveyed and worst in the EU, underscores its poor treatment of women, particularly in the areas of educational attainment and political power. Women in political power are targets of death and rape threats, and the Italian government has started a program to teach high school boys that murdering their girlfriends is bad thing. Italian women in the media are consigned to stereotypical roles as sex object and wife, while seldom shown as professionals or workers, because that’s how Italian media owners prefer that they be seen. Slut shaming is common. This has penetrated deep into the Italian psyche, so that, as one blogger put it:

The shitty, confusing and ultimate paradox for women in Italy is how we are at once raised on a pedestal and made to feel like second-class citizens.

Rebecca Mead and Amanda Marcotte have written well on how this misogynistic atmosphere contributed to Knox’s legal woes. Early on, prosecutors decided that if they could slut-shame Knox enough, they could convince a judge and jury she was a bad person and hence, a plausible murderer. (And by doing so cover the trial in enough sensationalist glitter to distract eyes from the giant holes at their case’s core.) In a society less misogynistic, such an approach may well have failed.

Italy’s relative lack of press freedom–it’s not quite the worst in Europe, but it is the worst among major industrial democracies–is a serious problem, especially in combination with the notorious lack of transparency in Italian police and prosecutor’s offices. Laws against defamation still on the books threaten journalists with heavy fines (50,000 euro), severely chilling the atmosphere for investigative reporting and encouraging self-censorship. This law is actually supposedly an advance over the previous law, which allowed for imprisonment of journalists. Amanda Knox’s prosecutor, Giuliano Mignini used the old law to imprison a crime reporter during the Monster of Florence case and against a blogger critical of his prosecution of Knox.

The power of prosecutors to stifle journalists has a flip side: the power to grant favored journalists leaks, making their spin the only information that reaches the public. While prosecutors everywhere leak, the restrictions on the press in Italy make working journalists far more dependent on leaks to do their jobs.

This certainly helps the government, but it’s poison to criminal defendants and their families, who face potential charges of defamation for trying to counter the government’s story. Amanda Knox’s parents now face just such a charge.

The Italian press is hobbled when it comes to investigating police and prosecutors, and, functionally, so is the Italian Ministry of Justice. The Italian constitution set great store in the idea of independence for both judges and prosecutors. Insulating them from the power of political actors, so the thinking went, would prevent corruption and political interference in the judiciary. In Italy, the prosecutorial fraternity is supposed to police itself, under the supervision of the CSM (The Higher Council of the Magistracy, composed of 27 judges and prosecutors), without any input or interference from the political branches or from the people themselves. Judges and prosecutors need no longer sit for exams or endure lengthy professional evaluations of their performance by the CSM. Apparently, advancement depends on little more than a lawyer convincing the CSM that he’s a good chap. Independence is everything. Accountability is…well…less than everything. Those wondering how a prosecutor as flagrantly abusive as Mignini could have reached and held his high position need wonder no longer.

(Read a World Bank report on how Italy’s obsession with judicial independence above all hurts accountability and efficiency in the Italian justice system.)

A wrongful conviction does great harm, but it also exposes the various prejudices and social pathologies of the society that produces it. In the U.S., wrongful convictions reveal the poor quality and underfunding of our many of our public defenders’ offices; the racism, sexism, and homophobia of some of our cops, prosecutors, and jurors; the deficient training of many of our experts in forensic sciences; the privileges we give to money, class, fame, and white skin; and our firm but mistaken belief that eyewitnesses must be right and confessions must be true.

In Amanda Knox’s trial, Italy isn’t just deciding her fate, but also the question of whether the misogyny promoted by an unscrupulous, unaccountable prosecutor’s office to bolster a rickety case is acceptable in Italy’s courtrooms and public discourse. It’s up to the judges in Knox’s trial to decide whether the pathologies of Italy’s recent past have any place in its future. The verdict they pronounce will be on themselves and their nation.

I wish them wisdom.

6 thoughts on “Italy, Judge Thyself

  1. Great, awesome article and, sadly, so very truthful. There is no doubt that he Italian justice system needs greatly reform to accountability and oversight.

    1. Thanks, Jennifer. I’m glad you appreciated the post. I think many Italians know that big changes need to happen, but building the necessary political pressure, changing long held attitudes, and moving the elected branches of Italy’s government (which seem designed to frustrate any kind of meaningful reform), are monumental tasks. There are some hopeful signs, but there’s a lot of work to do. (Not that we don’t have a lot of work to do here on a host of issues.)

  2. Excellent article! What confounds me is how indifferent Italy’s gov’t seems to be to the all the worldwide criticism of their judicial structure. They’ve had so many ECHR rulings against them and they are so far down so many international lists rating legal systems that I would expect them to come to attention and at least begin to revamp, but obviously not. I don’t know how – or why – their citizens continue to put up with this madness.

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