Alessandra Tarantino, Associated Press
ROME — When crooked American financier Bernie Madoff was sentenced in New York, the leading Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera published a front-page cartoon mocking Italy's trial system.
On one side was a U.S. courtroom, where a judge was handing down a 150-year sentence after a six-month trial. On the other, an Italian courtroom with a judge handing down a six-month sentence after a 150-year trial.
That's how the country's No. 1 newspaper summed up Italy's slow-moving, and at times inconclusive, justice system.
The decision by Italy's highest criminal appeals court to overturn the acquittals of American student Amanda Knox and her former Italian boyfriend, and order a new trial in the 2007 slaying of her British roommate, is once again raising concerns both at home and abroad about how justice works in Italy.
It's a system where people cleared of serious crimes can have the threat of prison hanging over them for years, while powerful politicians such as former premier Silvio Berlusconi can avoid jail sentences almost indefinitely by filing appeal after appeal until the statute of limitations runs out.
"Lots of confusion and contradictions," said restaurant chef Angelo Boccanero, giving his impression of the Knox case as he sipped his morning espresso.
And it's not just the criminal courts that raise eyebrows.
The back log on civil cases is so severe that it hampers desperately sought foreign investment to Italy. Divorces can take years to process, meaning that couples who've had enough remain legally tied. And forget about getting quick compensation in a fraudulent property deal — it can take ages (if ever) before you'll see any money.
Successive governments have pledged to streamline proceedings but have so far failed to do so. That's largely because powerful people in politics, business and the judiciary have repeatedly fended off reform to protect their interests and the people close to them.
One criticism of the system is Italy's high number of lawyers. Milan, for example, has more attorneys than all of France. In civil cases, it takes an average of seven years to reach a verdict.
Defenders say that Italy's legal system is one of the world's most "garantista" — or protective of civil liberties. Defendants are guaranteed three levels of trial before a conviction is considered definitive and both sides are granted the right to appeal — although prosecutors often don't appeal minor acquittals. It's a system that sprang up in the postwar era to prevent the travesties of summary justice seen under fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, but in reality it means that justice can be delayed until it's denied as cases move at a snail's pace through the bloated legal machine.
Italy is also one of the leading voices in the world in campaigns to abolish capital punishment. In 1996, Italy refused to extradite one of its citizens wanted for murder in Florida, saying it did not receive sufficient guarantees he would not risk execution if convicted. He was tried in Italy, convicted and sentenced to 23 years in prison.
For Knox, the system allowed new evidence in the appeals trial that led to her 2011 acquittal. But it also is exposing her to a third trial — which in all likelihood will be followed by another round at the supreme court. Knox is not expected to attend her retrial. If she is convicted — and the conviction is upheld by highest criminal court — Italy could seek her extradition. The United States law allows extradition of its citizens.
Another key aspect of the Knox case: The Italian system does not include U.S. Fifth Amendment protection against a defendant being put in double jeopardy by government prosecution.
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