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 US courtroom, where a judge was handing down a 150-year sentence after a six-month trial. On the other, an Italian judge handing down a six-month sentence after a 150-year trial.
That was how the country’s top 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 US student Amanda Knox and her former Italian boyfriend, and order a new trial in the 2007 slaying of her British roommate, is again raising concerns about justice in Italy.
It is a system where people cleared of serious crimes can have the threat of prison hanging over them for years, while powerful people such as Silvio Berlusconi, the former prime minister, can avoid jail sentences almost indefinitely by filing appeal after appeal until the statute of limitations runs out.
“Lots of confusion and contradictions,” said chef Angelo Boccanero, giving his impression of the Knox case.
And it is not just the criminal courts that raise eyebrows.
The backlog of civil cases is so severe that it hampers desperately sought foreign investment to Italy. Divorces can take years to process, meaning that couples who have had enough remain legally tied. And forget about getting quick compensation in a fraudulent property deal — it can take ages (if ever) before you will see any money.
Successive governments have pledged to streamline proceedings but have failed, 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 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 definitive and both sides are granted the right to appeal, though prosecutors often do not appeal minor acquittals. The system sprang up in the postwar era to prevent the travesties of summary justice under fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, but justice can be delayed until it is denied as cases move at a snail’s pace.
Italy is also one of the leading voices 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 exposes 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 US law allows extradition of its citizens.
Another key aspect of the Knox case: The Italian system does not include US Fifth Amendment protection against a defendant being put in double jeopardy by government prosecution.
“Our judicial system, like all judicial systems, is fallible,” said Stelio Mangiameli, a constitutional law specialist at Rome’s LUISS University, but added: “It’s not worse or better than the United States.”
He said that, in addition to guarantees for the defense, Italy takes pains to protect the rights of the victim.
“You need to consider when there is a crime, there is also a victim,” said Mangiameli. “In the Amanda Knox case, there is a dead girl and someone needs to respond for this death, no matter if American or French or any other nationality.”
But the process, which in some cases runs over decades, can leave people like Knox in judicial limbo.
In September, an Italian civil court ordered the government to pay 100 million euros in civil damages to relatives of 81 people killed in a 1980 air disaster whose cause has been attributed alternately to a bomb on board and to being caught in an aerial dogfight. The court held that the transport and defense ministries had concealed the truth, though a criminal court acquitted two generals for lack of evidence five years earlier.
It would seem natural that after three decades, the September decision meant the case was closed. Instead, appeals are pending.
For two decades, Berlusconi has been moving from trial to trial on charges that include corruption, tax fraud, and sex-for-hire. He has described himself as an innocent victim of prosecutors he routinely slams as communists.
The former premier has so far never had a conviction upheld by the highest court and never served any time in jail. His lawyers employ vigorous defense techniques that have included laws — one struck down as unconstitutional — blocking top government officials from prosecution. As premier, Berlusconihas enacted legislation that is widely seen as tailor-made to shield him from legal difficulties.