Extradition: Will Amanda Knox Be Returned to Italy?

Photo of the Amanda Knox homepage on a monitor screen through a magnifying glass. (Image credit: Gil C / Shutterstock.com)

In one of the most sensational murder trials — and retrials — in recent memory, an Italian court has found U.S. citizen Amanda Knox guilty of the 2007 murder of Meredith Kercher. 

The guilty verdict, however, has raised a thicket of thorny legal issues, including whether Knox will be extradited to Italy to serve a prison term for a crime she was found guilty of in her initial 2009 trial (that verdict was overturned on appeal in 2011, but a subsequent appeal declared her guilty once again this month).

Despite the operatic convolutions of the Italian justice system, there are some experts who believe the legal framework surrounding the extradition process may work in Knox's favor. [The History of Human Aggression]

Extradition: an ancient tradition

Extradition is a time-honored system to prevent criminals from escaping justice by escaping to another state or country, with legal precedents going back thousands of years. The ancient pharaohs of Egypt were known to negotiate the extradition of criminals from neighboring Hittite territories.

The process of extradition is usually based on an existing treaty or other agreement between two governments (though, if no formal treaty exists, one nation may still request — and be granted — extradition of an accused criminal from another country).

The result has been a complex web of international treaties of extradition among hundreds of sovereign nations. These treaties are occasionally updated as criminal codes change and diplomatic relations between countries run hot to cold.

The United States, for example, currently has no extradition treaty with China, North Korea, Iran, Russia and several other nations, according to the U.S. Department of State. Though there is a 1926 U.S. extradition treaty with Cuba, the collapse in diplomatic relations between the two countries makes it unlikely to be respected. Any of these counties could be the refuge of first choice for an American looking to escape the long arm of U.S. law.

Snowden: evading extradition

Edward Snowden, the whistleblower who exposed the extent of spying by the National Security Agency (NSA), took advantage of this list when he fled the United States, eventually landing in Russia. Despite repeated appeals by the U.S. Department of Justice and other entities, Russia has refused to extradite Snowden.

The Snowden case revealed some of the intricacies of extradition law: In a typical extradition request, the Justice Department will prepare a request, translate it as needed and transmit it to the U.S. embassy in the foreign country, which then forwards the request to local law enforcement officials — a complex, time-consuming process.

Because of the logistics involved, many extradition treaties allow for the provisional arrest of fugitives. Though the United States requested that Snowden be provisionally arrested when he landed in Hong Kong (his first foreign stopover after fleeing the United States), local officials demurred, allowing Snowden to escape to Russia — much to the chagrin of U.S. officials.

Additionally, Venezuela offered Snowden asylum, but flying him from Russia to Venezuela would force him to travel into the airspace of countries that have a U.S. extradition agreement, leaving him vulnerable to arrest. This resulted in a dramatic international kerfuffle when the airplane of Bolivian President Evo Morales was forced to land in Austria — Morales was (erroneously) believed to be shuttling Snowden from Russia to South America.

Limits to extradition

Even when two countries have an extradition treaty, the vagaries of law and public opinion can stand in the way of removing an accused criminal from one country to another.

Many countries will refuse to extradite a person if the individual may become a political prisoner, or if there is reason to believe that the accused will face torture, and most members of the European Union, Australia, Canada and other nations reserve the right to refuse extradition if the accused is likely to face the death penalty. [Mistaken Identity? 10 Contested Death Penalty Cases

In 1981, Ira Einhorn fled the United States for France after being accused of killing his girlfriend and stuffing her body in a trunk. After 20 years of legal wrangling — during which Einhorn's lawyers argued he should not be extradited, because he had been found guilty in absentia and might face the death penalty — he was finally extradited to the United States, where he was retried in 2002. (Found guilty, Einhorn is currently serving a life sentence without possibility of parole.) 

Even when countries have friendly relations and an extradition treaty, things can go awry in certain high-profile cases. In 1978, film director Roman Polanski fled the United States for France after pleading guilty to having sex with a teenage girl at the Los Angeles home of actor Jack Nicholson.

A French citizen, Polanski successfully evaded extradition until 2009, when he was arrested while visiting Switzerland, though Swiss authorities eventually rejected the U.S. extradition request. Polanski continues to live in France, which has also denied American extradition requests, and he makes only a handful of visits to other countries due to his outstanding extradition status (Polanski is the subject of an Interpol "red notice," akin to an international arrest warrant).

Knox's ongoing saga

Knox's latest guilty verdict won't be the last word in her ongoing legal travails, and her lawyer, Ted Simon, has said that any discussion of extradition is premature.

An extradition is "really not in play right now, because first of all, she has another appeal to the Supreme Court of Italy," Simon told CNN. "In Italy, under their system, you're still actually presumed innocent until that third, final stage."

Additionally, Knox may be protected by the fact that she has already been tried for the murder: U.S. "double jeopardy" law holds that a person cannot be tried for the same crime twice.

"She was once put in jeopardy and later acquitted," Sean Casey, a former prosecutor, told CNN. "Under the treaty (between the two nations), extradition should not be granted."

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Marc Lallanilla
Live Science Contributor
Marc Lallanilla has been a science writer and health editor at About.com and a producer with ABCNews.com. His freelance writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and TheWeek.com. Marc has a Master's degree in environmental planning from the University of California, Berkeley, and an undergraduate degree from the University of Texas at Austin.