Italian judges angrily hit back Monday at American accusations that the 26-year prison sentence for college student Amanda Knox for the murder of her British flatmate was based on flawed evidence, a botched investigation, and a coerced confession.
The chief prosecutor in the case, whose call for Ms. Knox and an Italian man to be sentenced to life in prison was rejected by a jury in the Umbrian hill town of Perugia, said US criticism of the 11-month murder trial was unfair and unfounded.
American skepticism over the fairness of the trial has hurt Italian national pride, with the country's leading daily newspaper, Corriere della Sera, commenting: "The (US) administration cannot close Guantanamo, yet it finds the time to think about Perugia." (The US State Department has not commented on the verdict.)
Knox, from Seattle and her former boyfriend, computer science graduate Raffaele Sollecito, were found guilty Friday of sexually assaulting and murdering Meredith Kercher, who was on a year's exchange course from Leeds University in northern England when she was murdered on Nov. 1, 2007.
Mr. Sollecito was sentenced to 25 years in prison. He was given an extra year after the jury ruled that Knox had defamed a Congolese bar owner who lives in Perugia by falsely accusing him of the murder.
The prosecutor, Giuliano Mignini, said the accusations of a miscarriage of justice from American legal pundits and Knox's supporters in the Pacific Northwest were aimed "at the Italian justice system, as much as at me personally".
"[The Americans] are saying there's not enough proof to convict these two kids, but how is it possible to argue that? It's unacceptable," Mr. Mignini said. "At the various levels in this case, from the preliminary investigating judge to the trial itself, the evidence was scrutinized by no less than 19 judges. This is about unacceptable interference."
Critics of the trial, including the Friends of Amanda Knox campaign group, have made much of the fact that Mr. Mignini is being investigated for abuse of office, including allegedly allowing the illegal wire-tapping of journalists, in a case involving a notorious serial killer dubbed by the Italian press the Monster of Florence. Those murders have not yet been solved.
Mignini was accused by a judge in Florence of being "in thrall to a sort of delirium" in his handling of the serial murders, in which he came up with theories of Satanic rituals and sadistic sex, just as he speculated that the killing of Kercher might have been fuelled by Halloween fantasies and Sollecito's taste for Japanese manga comics.
Supporters of Knox, including her family, have alleged that her conviction rested on unreliable DNA evidence, a disputed murder weapon, a "confession" which they say was bullied out of her after an all-night police interrogation, and the unfair influence of the Italian media.
Italian foreign minister Franco Frattini played down the chances the conviction would affect relations with the US on Sunday. Front page stories in the Italian press have alleged US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was planning to intervene in the matter, having been petitioned by Sen. Maria Cantwell (D) of Washington.
Ms. Cantwell said the 11-month trial was tainted by anti-American bias, perhaps overlooking the fact that Knox's codefendant is Italian.
Mr. Frattini said Mrs. Clinton's interest in the case "seems to me to be right and normal." Clinton had said only that she would listen to anyone who has concerns about the conduct of the case.
Frattini said that strong criticism of the trial had come from Knox's relatives and supporters, and it was wrong to confuse that with the position of the US government.
No motive offered
After a 13-hour deliberation, the eight-person jury found that Knox and Sollecito had stabbed Kercher in the neck during a violent sex game.
It failed, however, to offer a motive for the killing – suggesting that jurors were less than 100 percent convinced by the prosecution's lurid insistence that the murder was the result of Knox's alleged sexual deviancy and weeks of bitter arguments between the two women, who were both studying at Perugia's University for Foreigners.
The fact that the jury rejected the prosecution's request for life sentences also hinted at doubts about the couple's guilt, defense lawyers said.
Claudia Matteini, the judge who signed the arrest warrant for Knox and Sollecito a few days after Miss Kercher was found dead in her bedroom, said the condemnation of the Italian justice system by American commentators was offensive. "The trial followed all the right steps without a single irregularity," she said. "The investigation was conducted with absolute transparency."
The upcoming appeal
Lawyers for Knox and Sollecito are preparing appeals.
Giulia Bongiorno, a high-profile lawyer and member of parliament who led Sollecito's defense, said she was confident the convictions would be overturned on appeal, or at the very least the prison sentences would be reduced.
The first appeal, which is expected to start sometime in late 2010, could take up to a year. If that is rejected, Knox and Sollecito are entitled to go to a second appeal in front of Italy's Supreme Court. The whole process could take up to five years, judicial experts said.
Massimo Consolini, an Italian law expert, said "the prospects are good" for Knox and her ex-boyfriend to have their convictions overturned.
The main problem with Italian law, he said, was not that it was hard to secure a fair trial, but that trials, and ensuing appeals, took so long.
Many cases are dropped altogether when they expire under Italy's complicated statute of limitations, which varies according to the severity of the allegations.
Italians have at times been upset with the course of US justice as well.
Italians were outraged after a US Marine fighter plane sliced into the cables of a ski gondola in northern Italy in 1998, killing 20 people. An American military jury acquitted the pilot of manslaughter.