In the Criminal Justice System…

Found guilty — at least in the press — of a crime they didn’t commit. Vilified in the media and public. Falsely accused. It makes for gripping drama. It also makes for tragic reality.

I could just as easily be talking politics — the joke that is the 2016 election — as recent television shows. In this instance I’m talking about Netflix’s documentary, Amanda Knox, and HBO’s The Night Of.

One is the true story of an overzealous police detective, prosecutor and frenzied media hungry for a compelling story, the other is, well, a drama about the same thing.

Amanda Knox

amandaknoxAmanda Knox was an American student studying in Italy in 2007 when her British housemate was killed. The police detective and prosecutor almost immediately focused their investigation on her because she was ‘acting funny’ at the scene. By that they meant that she kissed her boyfriend at the house while the police were there and then later posted something on social media about how they were going to have sex that night, just a few days after her housemate was murdered. Strange, perhaps crass? Yes. Evidence of committing a crime? Not at all. Apparently, though, it was enough of an anomaly for the detectives investigating the murder. With her guilt already presumed, the police, prosecution and even media made sure to get the ‘evidence’ to convict her of the crime.

As a young, attractive woman accused of the crime the media was quick to jump on Knox, who had once posted on a social media account the nickname ‘Foxy Knoxy’, as a sex-crazed maniac who got caught up in a sex-game gone wrong. Stories emerged daily showing Knox posing with a gun (probably in a Halloween costume or perhaps a paintball gun, but definitely taken out of context no matter what) and her boyfriend at the time dressed in similarly inappropriate attire. Despite both photos obviously taken out of context and actually indicative of nothing, the media hoopla continued. Foxy Knoxy sold headlines. Later, after her arrest and imprisonment, she was lied to by being told she was HIV positive. Obviously, it had profound psychological effects on her. She kept a diary in prison which was, mysteriously, leaked to the press. Which, of course, drew more headlines and helped convince people of her guilt.

Though she was eventually found guilty in the Italian courts she appealed based on corrupted evidence. The appellate court exonerated her and set her free. Another court found her guilty and eventually went to the Italian Supreme Court. The Supreme Court found her innocent. The ‘evidence’ the police had on her in the first place was circumstantial and tenuous, at best. There was, theoretically, a knife that had her DNA on the handle and the DNA of the victim, Meredith Kercher, on the blade. An independent review of that knife found the DNA was corrupted in the lab an unusable.

Yet despite the lack of physical evidence Amanda Knox was almost from the beginning the only person investigated. Another person with a history of breaking into houses, Rudy Guede, was assumed to have been part of the sex-game gone wrong and convicted as well, but the media rarely touched upon his story. A known criminal committing another crime? Where’s the story in that? But Kercher’s family, and a lot of other people, still believe Knox, her boyfriend and Guede killed Kercher. Knox, in the documentary, said it best. You either believe she’s guilty or she’s innocent, there’s no in between. As she said, ‘Either I’m a psychopath in sheep’s clothing, or I am you.’ She’s you because the same situation could happen to you.

The Night Of

night-ofJust like it did to Nasir ‘Naz’ Khan, the protagonist of the HBO limited series The Night Of, which had a similar premise. Naz was accused of killing a woman, Andrea Cornish. There were a lot of drugs involved, he’d had sex with her and he fled the scene upon discovering her body. But he swore that during the time of the murder he was knocked out in the kitchen on a drug-infused high, so that he can’t remember what actually happened that night.

It’s a horrible defence, especially based on the preponderance of physical evidence, but the detective involved in the case again focused in on only the one suspect. Since Naz was Muslim the media, too, was quick to assume his guilt, the victim of racism and headlines. That he had no motive or history of any crime didn’t matter. It wasn’t until the trial that the police began investigating anyone else, mostly because the defence started presenting evidence that could point to reasonable doubt. Was any of it conclusive? No. Was any of it compelling and did it offer a motive for others? Most certainly.

What We Learned

What struck me about both the documentary and the drama was how similar they were. The guilt or innocence of both people is still in doubt. The media formed their own opinions rather quickly and basically played out a trial in the press. Both people may have been falsely accused, but definitely spent time in jail. I’m inclined to believe that neither Knox nor Naz actually committed the crimes of which they were accused; others disagree. The reality of their situations didn’t actually matter to the perception of them. They were unfairly abused by the very system that was designed to protect them. Some level of corruption or incompetence played into their trials. One day forever changed their lives.

In both things I’m struck by certain aspects of the justice system. Prosecutors, in particular, must be convinced of the defendant’s guilt. There must be a lot of mental gymnastics sometimes to go to trial. Sometimes, too often, people can be wrongly convicted. People are very much able to convince themselves of anything. Part of me is somewhat amazed that twelve people in a jury can actually agree on anything. There’s a reason there are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of different religions, political parties, TV stations and restaurants that all claim to be ‘the best’ or ‘the only’.

Humanity has a great ability to delude itself. But humanity also has a great propensity for following a leader. On a jury it only takes one strongly convinced person to swing the rest of the jury to their belief. This sort of delusion, ability to convince others and strongly held belief can make for fantastic drama in movies and television when it does, but can also lead to untold tragedy in real life. Truth matters, but who has the time to go find it.

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