Burton Anderson: Beyond Vino

Burton Anderson: Beyond Vino
Life is a fiasco


Amanda’s Fort Knox

American student Amanda Knox, who was first convicted of the murder of her English housemate in Perugia, Italy, and then freed when the verdict was overturned on appeal, has signed a book deal with Harper Collins for $4 million.

That outsize reward for a richly undeserving celebrity got me to thinking about the strange workings of justice in Italy and America. It made me wonder how Knox might have fared as a student in a U.S. college town like, say, Waco, Texas, if she’d found herself in circumstances similar to those of Perugia four years ago. My guess is not so well, even if she is white and becoming enough to be called “Angel Face.”

My disgust at the Knox news was conditioned by an article I’d just read in The New Yorker: “The Caging of America” by Adam Gopnik. It noted that the more than six million persons in U.S. prisons surpass the peak totals held in Stalin’s gulags. Huge numbers of Americans are serving sentences “much longer than those given for similar crimes anywhere else in the civilized world,” wrote Gopnik, adding that, “Texas alone has sentenced more than four hundred teenagers to life imprisonment.”

Amanda Knox enjoyed star status long before her release last October. A campaign to free her, mounted by family and friends in her hometown of Seattle, swept up press, politicians, lawyers, and influential personages as high up the ladder as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Support spread to Italy, where it’s rumored that even President Giorgio Napolitano put in a good word for her.

Yet, as the drama unfolded, opinions split rather keenly on whether “Angel Face” was innocent or guilty—or somewhere in between. Knox’s overexposure on Italian TV left me, and many Italians, undecided. Was she “Foxy Knoxy,” the she-devil or strega (witch) that some Perugians screeched at her and family when they came within earshot, or the blonde, blue-eyed, plumply pretty picture of virtue as the U.S. media depicted her? The line from Knox’s legions of friends seemed to be: how could those cruel Italian judges and their hopelessly medieval legal system treat an all-American girl that way? Obviously she’s innocent. Just look at her.

Knox and her then boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, were convicted for their alleged roles in the sexual assault and murder of Meredith Kercher, and of covering up the evidence by simulating a burglary. The victim’s throat was slit during what prosecutors described as a drug-fueled sex game. An African-born man, Rudy Guede, was also convicted of the murder and is serving a sentence of sixteen years.

“Friends of Amanda,” buoyed by Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington and New York Times columnist Timothy Egan, claimed that evidence against Knox was inadequate, that she had been subjected to harsh treatment after arrest, and that there had been negligence in the handling of the evidence. Those allegations were based in part on Knox’s version of the truth—or versions rather, since her recollections tended to waver. Backers quietly overlooked the fact that Knox served three years—discounted in her four years of preventive detention—for falsely accusing the African-born owner of a bar where she once worked of the murder.

I, too, cringed when I heard that Knox had been sentenced to twenty-six years. My view is that most young people, however grave their mistakes, have qualities better redeemed in correctional institutions than in cages. Still, in Italy, with its antiquated legal system and overcrowded jails, convicts rarely serve a full term. The death penalty, as in most of Europe, was abolished as hopelessly medieval. Chances are that even if Knox had been confirmed guilty, she’d have been able to live most of the rest of her life free.

Not likely in America, where the penal system is aggressively punitive, even for young people—especially if they fall into the categories of black and Hispanic, which dominate the prison population. According to Human Rights Watch, the United States is the only country in the world with youth offenders (below 18) serving life without parole in adult prisons. There were about 2,590 at last count. The Supreme Court will consider arguments about the constitutionality of the practice in March.

Even if the court decides that the practice constitutes cruel and inhuman punishment (which reality renders a euphemism), I wouldn’t expect much progress on penal reform in a country where a gun-toting governor wins applause for touting his state’s record number of death sentences, boasting that he’d have no qualms if some of the executed had been innocent.

Life in prison without parole is extreme torture because it never ceases until the victim dies, a fate surely more cruel and inhuman than the death penalty. As Gopnik suggests in The New Yorker: “Lock yourself in your bathroom and imagine you have to stay there for the next ten years, and you will have some sense of the experience.” Or imagine perpetuating that Kafkaesque incubus for sixty or seventy years.

Among the 2,590 hope-deprived kids there must be some who—with a little love, understanding, and learning—could lead useful lives outside. A responsible society would guarantee all of them at least a chance at rehabilitation. Locking them up and throwing away the keys is as demented a solution as herding them into gas chambers. Medieval? In terms of cruelty, I'd say somewhere between fascistic and barbarian.

The Italian court found evidence against Knox and Sollecito flawed and inadequate in overturning the verdict. It’s hard to say how much influence her influential friends might have had. But after their heavy assault on Italian justice, a meek round of bravos greeted the somewhat surprising verdict that left their heroine scot-free. It might be hoped that they turn some of that zeal to weeding out injustice in their own backyards. Even Knox’s home state of Washington seems to have twenty-eight kids condemned to life without parole.

As for Angel Face’s credibility, well, I’d trust her about as far as I could throw her. And in my currently decrepit state, that distance would be considerably less than an inch. I truly hope her book flops—unless she summons her angelic nature and devotes profits to a worthy cause. For instance, movements dedicated to reforming the American penal system and its policies toward youth—a system under which, if she’d been tried, instead of being a literary luminary worth four million bucks, she might have ended up as just another loser locked away for life.

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