My post for today is about the rules governing sentencing for murder in Italy. Not unexpectedly, the prosecution in the appeal of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito today asked the court to impose life sentences on both of them. This would be a stiffer punishment than the 26 and 25 years, respectively, that were handed down in the original trial. But what are the chances the prosecution will get their wish?
Once again, I feel obliged to make it completely clear that I am about to pontificate about things that I am absolutely unqualified to address. But I’ve gotten away with it in the past. Please feel free to comment below if you think I have any of these details wrong.
It doesn’t seem that the prosecution are pursuing with any vigour the line they argued unsuccessfully at trial, that life sentences were appropriate because the crime was premeditated. The criterion they are focusing on now is provided by Article 557 of the Italian Penal Code, which allows for life imprisonment for murders carried out for “depraved or trivial reasons”. In other words, it applies in cases where a murder appears meaningless and purely sadistic. And this is what was suggested today by prosecutor Manuela Comodi. Meredith Kercher, she said, was “killed for nothing“.
Obviously, the question for the courts, in the event that the convictions are upheld in the first place, is how well this assertion fits the facts. If the way the original trial against Knox and Sollecito went and, to a lesser extent, the proceedings against their co-accued Rudy Guede, the judges will have a lot of leeway to fill in the blanks and decide precisely what motivated the murder.
But they also face the problem of what to do when it’s virtually all blanks. We can know very little for sure about precisely what happened in the minutes and moments leading up to the crime. But we can speculate. Perhaps Kercher was killed for reasons which, though it seems perverse to express it in these terms, might be described as something other than “depraved or trivial”. There’s some suggestion in the evidence, for example, of a row over money. Or maybe there really was no comprehensible motive for the crime. But when you just can’t be sure, can you really make someone a life prisoner based on a leap of imagination? My guess is probably not.
It’s worth noting, though, that a life sentence may not add much to the status quo when compared to the current sentences being served. Life doesn’t mean life in Italy and Knox and Sollecito would probably be eligible for parole in 2028. That’s the same date as currently applies in Knox’s case, and it adds only a year onto Sollecito’s current likely jail-time. It might, thought, cause a delay of a couple of years in terms of their so-called Gozzini rights, which will allow them, after a certain period, to get day release from prison in order to work and will also grant them generous supervised periods out of detention (it came as a surprise to me too, but it seems that, even if their convictions are upheld, Knox and Sollecito could potentially be back in their own beds for up to 45 days a year, conceivably starting within the next twelve months if they were to get a slight sentence reduction).
Which brings us to another obvious question. If they lose their appeals, could Knox and Sollecito still get reduced sentences? And, if so, how reduced?
The minimum sentence for murder in Italy is 21 years, by virtue of Article 575 of the Penal Code. However, just as life doesn’t mean life, it turns out that minimum doesn’t mean minimum. Articles 61 and 62 of the Penal Code set out a number of defined aggravating factors and a general provision that anything suggesting the reduced culpability of a defendant can be presented as a mitigating factor, and the sentence adjusted accordingly. Amanda Knox’s many fans shouldn’t get over-excited, though, because it does seem like significant reductions in sentences for murder are rare, and really reserved for cases where there is a very significant issue about the responsibility of the perpetrator, such as low IQ. She won’t get it just for her charming personality.
At trial, Knox and Sollecito got 24 years each for the murder, with the addtional years of their sentence relating to staging a burglary, theft, carrying a weapon and, in Knox’s case, her false accusation of Patrick Lumumba. The 24 years took into account a lack of premeditation and acts which the court took to be slight signs of remorse (for example, covering the body after the crime) as mitigating factors, and the cruelty and sexual aspect of the crime as aggravating factors. I’m not sure that the appeal judges have an awful lot of room for manoeuvre here. Maybe a little, but it would seem hard to deny either that the crime was cruel or that there was a sexual aspect to it.
I also don’t think it is likely that the sentences will be commuted to anything less serious. Italian law does allow for crimes of unintentional homicide, but it’s clear that the facts of this case are not going to fit that. And it’s hard to see the court coming up with a scenario in which either Knox or Sollecito are mere accessories to the crime. Could anyone believe, for example, that they had nothing to do with the murder but took pity on Guede and decided to clean up after him? In theory, the Italian Criminal Code allows a reduced sentence if any one of the three can establish that they took part in the crime but didn’t intend the victim to die. But how can the court establish such a claim on behalf of someone who won’t even admit to being at the scene? It might even be supposed that either Knox or Sollecito got involved in a clean-up after the murder out of infatuation with the other. But surely they would have said so by now? Without evidence to support such a scenario, there’s nothing a court can do to help the dumbstruck.
One thing ought to be clear. The court will not reduce the sentences as any sort of compromise between guilt and innocent. If it has doubts about the convictions, they will be overturned.