American student Amanda Knox was released from custody in Italy this week, where she has been held since 2007 on suspicion of the murder and sexual assault of her former roommate, Melissa Kercher. Knox was originally convicted, but that was overturned on appeal because of flawed and circumstantial evidence, shoddy detective work, and a coerced confession.
Predictably, commentators on this side of the Atlantic tend toward one extreme reaction or another; they either exult that justice has been served, or they go the Nancy Grace route and spew mock outrage and professed certitude that Knox’s release represents a travesty of justice. As usual, both sides miss the more important point. Justice was definitely not served in this case.
This is not to say that it’s my opinion Knox is guilty; just the opposite. Whatever her guilt may have been, the evidence presented was highly suspect and did not tie Knox to the crime scene in any damning or incontrovertible way. No murder weapon was recovered, and the DNA evidence and its collection was reportedly not up to standards that would be accepted in an American courtroom. Ultimately, though, this is beside the point.
The real travesty of justice is perhaps best framed with a question. What happens to those who were responsible for caging a 20-year-old woman for 4 years, apparently without sufficient evidence of any wrongdoing on her part? Will they stand trial? Will they be locked away with no certainty of release? Will they be denied water or access to the toilet? Will they be hit every time they fail to remember a detail of the case?
Of course not. And this is the great hypocrisy that underlies every notion of criminal justice, not just in Italy or the United States, but in most places in the world today. Those who are under the most pressure to catch the “bad guys” are the least accountable for their own methods and mistakes. Law-enforcement agents, who routinely face the temptation to falsify evidence, coerce confessions, and dishonestly contribute to the arrest and imprisonment of innocents, can walk away, unmolested, on those occasions when a conviction is overturned.
They should be as liable for their wrongdoing as anyone else — more so in the case of those who knowingly and brazenly pervert the legal system. We see death-row convictions overturned on a fairly regular basis (and sometimes, tragically,not overturned). But we never see a false witness or a crooked official held to the same standards as the people they accuse. Neither their lives nor their freedom are ever forfeit.
Why? Because they represent the state and its legal system. To subject them to prosecution for their dereliction of duty would expose the great fictions of justice and due process by which the state keeps its people in subjection. If the great mass of people began to realize that they too can be wrongly arrested, even killed, for crimes they had not committed, then they might cease to oblige every grasping, expanding tentacle of the state.
Knox was convicted of slander for implicating Kercher’s employer in her death. (While this conviction was not overturned, it was subject to a lesser sentence, and she was released on time served.) But isn’t slander precisely what happens every time the state accuses an innocent individual?
When shall we convict the state of its crimes? Of slander, kidnapping, and murder? How many more must suffer at its hands before we realize what the state continually proves: that it absolutely cannot provide justice?