Amanda Knox and a Reflection on Appellate Systems

The recent successful appeal by Amanda Knox has captured headlines throughout the US. As an appellate attorney, what I find most interesting is how the Italian system differs from our own:

In Italy, both the prosecution and the defense can file an appeal. Here, the defense can always appeal and the appellate court must hear the appeal. However, the prosecution’s right to appeal is limited to only a few specific situations.

In Italy, the appeal allows the defendant a brand new trial, with all evidence and testimony up for review. The appeal has a jury made up of six people with at least high school degrees and two judges. In California, a panel of three appellate judges review the trial below. The purpose of the appeal is not to rehear the evidence presented at trial, but rather to ensure there were no prejudicial mistakes at trial. So the appellate judges typically give great deference to rulings by the trial court and factual findings by the jury. As a result, Italian appeals have a high reversal rate, around 50 percent of trials, whereas the California Court of Appeal reverses only around two percent of cases.

It looks like Knox’s case is likely to proceed to the Italian Supreme Court (though whether she will be extradited if she loses is another matter). In Italy, the Supreme Court must hear every petition for appeal. By contrast, review by the California Supreme Court is discretionary, so the California Supreme Court can decline to hear an appeal. The Supreme Court grants review to only about four percent of the petitions requesting review. Review tends to be granted when there is a significant district split (meaning the Court of Appeals for the Southern, Central & Northern districts are ruling differently on the same issue), or when there is an important question of law that the lower courts need guidance on. The point is not to fix a wrong in any individual case, but to make sure the law of California as a whole is on the right track.

The underlying rational for the California system (and US system in general) goes back to our founding principals of protecting individual rights against the government. Our forefathers placed greater trust in a jury of peers than in appointed judges who were seen as loyal to the government. Therefore, we do not like appellate judges second guessing jury verdicts unless there is a clear error in the way the case was presented to the jury. Italy’s system takes a different approach by giving the defendant a second shot in front of a new jury.

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