Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Angry About the Amanda Knox Appeal? This Might Explain Why Appeals Courts Do What They Do.

Let me start this off by saying I have NO education whatsoever on the Italian Judicial System.  I have no idea about the procedure, crimes, or admissibility of evidence in Italy.  I also don’t have any information about the Knox case other than what has been reported in the news.  I don’t know whether she did anything illegal or not.  I’m just a Louisville criminal defense lawyer who does Kentucky criminal appeals.  Not Italian.  That being said:

“Foxy Knoxy” as she has been dubbed by the press, is a free woman.

Per MSNBC: Amanda Knox headed home to the United States a free woman Tuesday, after an Italian appeals court dramatically overturned the American student's conviction of sexually assaulting and brutally slaying her British roommate.  Knox and Sollecito (a co-defendant) were convicted of sexually assaulting and murdering Kercher, who shared an apartment with Knox in Perugia. Knox was sentenced to 26 years, Sollecito to 25. Both had been in prison since Nov. 6, 2007, four days after Kercher's body had been found at the apartment.  According to MSNBC, the prosecution's case was blown apart by a court-ordered DNA review that discredited crucial genetic evidence.  So apparently, the basis for overturning Knox’s conviction was that the DNA evidence could not survive court scrutiny to be determined “credible” enough for admissibility. 

Let’s take a step back for a minute and just talk about appeals, in general.  In Kentucky, a Jury trial will be held at the District or Circuit Court level (depending on how serious the charges are).  If a Defendant is convicted at Jury Trial, they have the automatic right to an appeal.

When a case goes to Jury Trial, the Judge and Jury have two very different roles.  It may be helpful to think of the Trial Court Judge as a “referee” who calls the balls and strikes.  The Judge gets to decide matters of law, not questions of fact.  In more layman oriented terms, Judges don’t get to decide whether someone is or is not guilty.  That is the Jury’s job.  As far as today’s conversation is concerned, the Judge only gets to decide what evidence gets to come in, and what evidence has to stay out.  In order to decide this stuff, the Judge has to base the evidentiary decisions on the Kentucky Rules of Evidence (hereinafter, the “KRE”) and caselaw from courts which are binding on said Judge.

Let’s assume that this case happened in Kentucky.  Let us also assume that Knox was convicted on some DNA evidence, and that the DNA evidence had some problems with the “chain of custody.”  Specifically, the officer who testified at her trial informed the Court that he placed the DNA swabs in a little cardboard container.  However, when a lab tech from the Kentucky State Police crime lab testifies, the tech states that the DNA swabs arrived in a series of envelopes (NOT in a little cardboard container.  Knox’s attorney objects to the admission of the evidence at trial on the basis that the Commonwealth has failed to establish a chain of custody for the DNA swabs.  The Judge disagrees, and allows the evidence to be published to the Jury.  Later, the Jury finds Knox Guilty and Foxy Knoxy gets a Louisville criminal appeals lawyer and appeals the conviction.

Notice the Judge made a decision about whether the DNA evidence was admissible, but the Judge did NOT make the decision about whether Knox was Guilty or Not Guilty.  That was the Jury’s job.

When Knox appeals, she is appealing the decision of the Judge, not the Jury.  This is extremely important to understand.  Knox is appealing a decision that is purely evidentiary in nature.  She isn’t saying, “The Jury made a mistake because I am Not Guilty.”  In essence, she is saying, “The Judge made a mistake because chain of custody is needed for DNA swabs to be admissible.”  Those two questions are completely different. 

Apparently, the Appellate Court in Knox found that DNA evidence should not have been allowed into evidence because it was inherently unreliable.  If there was a problem with the reliability of the evidence, the Kentucky Court of Appeals probably would have come to the same conclusion.  Kentucky also has a rule concerning the scrutiny of credibility of evidence – balancing how “probative” the evidence might be against the “prejudice” that the evidence may invite.  Specifically, the Court of Appeals might have found in Knox’s case that, under KRE 403, the “probative value” of the DNA swab evidence was “substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice.”  If so, the Kentucky Court of Appeals would have reversed the Knox case also (assuming the error was not harmless error).

From my reading of the MSNBC report, it seemed like the Appeals Court in Italy simply overturned her conviction and set her free.  That may or may not be the case - I may not understand what happened.*  However, if the Knox appeal was done in Kentucky, the end result most likely would have been different.  In Kentucky, if you can prove to the Court of Appeals that evidence was wrongly admitted by the Trial Court, and the error was not harmless, the Court of Appeals will “reverse and remand” the case.  That means the case will be sent back down to be tried again in front of the Jury.  But the Trial Judge will be instructed to keep out the evidence that was erroneously admitted.  So in Kentucky, Knox most likely would not be free.  She would be sitting in prison waiting for a new trial. 

If you need to appeal a criminal conviction, don’t choose a lawyer who has only done appeals “every once in a while.”  You need a Louisville criminal appeals lawyer who can get results.  If you need an appeal in Kentucky, call the lawyers at Gruner & Simms, PLLC at 502.618.4949.  The consultation is free.

Results.  As fast as the law will allow.

*but the pictures of her getting on and off the airplanes after the appeal sure make it look like she is free now.

Questions answered in this post: why did Amanda Knox get set free; what happened in the Amanda Knox case; why are people angry about the Amanda Knox case; what is the difference between the Italian and American judicial system; how do I get a criminal conviction reversed; what is the procedure in Kentucky for appealing a criminal case; how do I find a good Louisville appeal lawyer?

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