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.

Elaine Thompson/AP
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.

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

• 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.

Public relations specialists and communications academics say that handling media is crucial from the beginning.

“Creating a consistent, believable narrative is very important, and even more important is to understand the possible motives of the host country in not losing face before their own people and in the international community,” says Maurice Hall, chair of the communications department at Villanova University.

He says the parents of Amanda Knox were very skillful in understanding multiple audiences, he says, including the parents of the murder victim and the Italian authorities, who are judged by their own population.

In the cases of journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee and hikers Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, both the North Korean and Iranian governments were marginalized and were trying to score points against the US, Professor Hall says.

“Understanding what messages these countries might want to be sending to the US or the international community was very important in understanding the undercurrents behind what was going on publicly,” he says.

In the case of Ling and Lee, their public contrition helped make it easier for Korean leader Kim Jong Il to free them and appear merciful in the eyes of others, he says. Likewise, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s confiding in NBC journalist Ann Curry that he was about to grant clemency “as an act of mercy” showed his need to appear kind, forgiving and generous, outside the formal channels of diplomacy.

Hall’s advice: seek out country and culture specialists from local universities or schools. “You do need people who understand these cultures to really understand what is behind what is happening,” he says. “This can be very difficult at the height of a crisis.”

Most agree that there are probably hundreds of cases that never reach the attention of the greater public because parents and friends didn’t know how to engage journalists.

Derede McAlpin, Vice President of Levick Strategic Communications, an international consulting firm, says all parents should keep in mind that most news outlets don’t have the resources to cover every case presented to them. What kept the Knox case alive, she and others say, was that a support group formed which created email and letter-writing campaigns as well as raised money to help pay for the defense.

Understanding foreign media is also important. The Italian tabloid press had a field day sensationalizing every detail of the Knox trial. “In this case, the facts leading to the Amanda Knox conviction … increased the likelihood of media interest,” says McAlpin.

“She was also an attractive all-American student that fell victim to unreliable DNA evidence making its way into her trial,” she says. “The issue of unreliable evidence entering a case is not uncommon – it happens in the US all of the time.”

The Amanda Knox case is an exception, she says.

“Most defendants don’t get a do-over when faced with a conviction whether the evidence in the case is reliable or not. It’s best to make sure your children are aware that the US Constitution is not relevant when you leave the US. Know your rights before going abroad.”

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