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Amanda Knox: What American parents can learn from her story

Amanda Knox, the hikers in Iran, the journalists in North Korea – all cases where young Americans were caught up in a foreign legal system. Some points on how to handle such a crisis.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / October 4, 2011

A sign is posted at the home of Curt Knox for his daughter Amanda Knox on her expected arrival later in the day Tuesday in Seattle. It's been four years since the University of Washington student left for the study abroad program in Perugia and landed in prison.

Elaine Thompson/AP

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Los Angeles

The headlines of Americans caught up in foreign legal systems have become so repetitive they begin to blur:

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• Ling and Lee face "hell on Earth" in North Korean camps

• Freed US hikers describe Iranian prison as “world of lies and false hope”

Amanda Knox heads for home after acquittal

As supporters celebrate the overturned murder conviction of Amanda Knox – and she flies Tuesday from Italy to London to Seattle – legal observers hear the echo of recent cases: the two US journalists imprisoned in North Korea (and released after the intervention of former President Bill Clinton), and the two American hikers who were freed just two weeks ago after spending 781 days in an Iranian prison on spying charges.

Has America learned anything from these episodes?

More precisely, what can and should American parents do when their children get embroiled in a foreign legal system?

Interviews with international lawyers, academics, and communications specialists are creating a primer of action:

• Get the best possible local lawyers

• Contact the local US embassy and the State Department in Washington

• Create as much attention as possible, either by local newspapers and TV or social media from Facebook to Twitter

• Act quickly

You should be informed about the culture of the countries your loved ones are visiting ahead of time, and be aware of their possible political axes to grind with the US government. Also, be acutely aware that the laws of other countries are not the same as in the US.

“The Amanda Knox case, as well as a number of other high profile cases, such as the Iranian hikers recently released, should remind all Americans that the laws of different countries differ from those in the United States,” says Kevin Johnson, Dean of the law school at the University of California, Davis, in an email.

“The rights of the accused, the power of the state and law enforcement, and the conduct of trials and appeals, differ dramatically among nations. It should be obvious, but US citizens should be extremely careful to stay out of trouble when visiting other countries,” he says.

“With respect to parents, the cases of Amanda Knox and the Iranian hikers, like the story of the young man jailed for drug smuggling in the 1978 film ‘Midnight Express,’ is nothing less than a nightmare. A parent has limited ability to affect the legal system in another country and must work through diplomatic channels, namely through the Department of State. The process can be slow-moving (as in the Knox case), frustrating, and painful.”

Paul Hoffman, an international human rights lawyer based in Santa Monica agrees, but cautions against being over alarmed.

“There are tens of thousands of young adults who go to countries everywhere and have absolutely no problems. I certainly wouldn’t deprive my own kids of the experience of traveling to these places based on fear,” says Hoffman.

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