Transnational law – law applied by the domestic legal system of one nation against citizens of another nation – is distinct from international law. International law is uniform and is often applied by international bodies such as the International Criminal Court. International law is not generally applicable to domestic crimes committed by individual citizens of one nation against those of another. Transnational law is not uniform, and evolves on a case by case basis.
Amanda Knox is the former American exchange student convicted by an Italian trial court in 2009 of sexually abusing and then of murdering her British room-mate, Meredith Kercher. That conviction was overturned on appeal in 2011 and Ms.Knox returned from an Italian prison to freedom in the United States.
The factors behind the initial conviction included an admission by Ms. Knox that she was present at the crime scene in the Italian town of Perugia, plus her false accusation that a bartender had slit Ms Kercher’s throat. The case against her included a questionable alibi and evidence of her DNA on the alleged murder weapon.
The appeals court threw out the DNA evidence for technical forensic reasons and acquitted Ms. Knox of the murder charge in 2011. On Tuesday March 26, 2013, Italy’s highest court reversed that acquittal, requiring the case to be reheard by a new appeals court, which can either affirm the conviction or order an acquittal. If the conviction is ultimately affirmed, the Italian government can petition the United States to extradite Ms. Knox to Italy to complete serving the 26-year prison term to which she was sentenced in 2009. Ms Knox almost certainly would challenge such an extradition request on the ground that she has already been acquitted by an appellate court, and that any subsequent conviction would constitute double jeopardy.
And that is where transnational law becomes very hazy. Italian and American law differ sharply and yet both will become applicable in such a transnational case. America’s extradition treaty with Italy prohibits the U.S. from extraditing someone who has been ‘acquitted’, which under American law usually means acquitted by a jury at a trial. But Ms. Knox was convicted at trial, by judges not by a jury, and acquitted by an appellate court.. So it awaits legal determination whether her circumstance would constitute double jeopardy under American law. The uncertainty arises because U.S. appellate courts do not retry cases and render acquittals. They judge whether the lower court made mistakes of law, not mistakes concerning the facts.
Under Italian law, an appellate acquittal does not constitute double jeopardy since it is not a final judgment. It is subject to further appeal, which has now resulted in a reversal of the original acquittal. So the Italian government would experience no legal constraint in requesting extradition.
Since possession is nine-tenths of the law, the U.S. government would have the upper hand. But a refusal to extradite would have far-reaching consequences, not least for U.S. criminals residing overseas.
Hat Tip: Alan Dershowitz, ‘Amanda Knox – Tabloid Sensation, Global Legal Bellwether’, The Wall Street Journal, March 28, 2013