Arrest of Two American Teenagers in Rome Raises Questions About Italy's Controversial Justice System

After two American teenagers were jailed in Rome, Italy, last week in connection with the stabbing and killing of a 35-year-old police officer, renewed attention is being given to the stark differences between the U.S. judicial system and the Italian one.

Finnegan Lee Elder and Gabriel Christian Natale-Hjorth, from San Francisco, confessed to having entered into a confrontation with police, who were dressed in plain clothes at the time of the incident. The police said they were trying to retrieve a backpack that the two men had stolen from an Italian citizen when one of the men allegedly stabbed a police officer eleven times with a large knife. Deputy Prime Minister Metteo Salvini has called for the two young Americans to be locked up for life. The situation has raised questions in the U.S. about the type of trial the two men will receive.

Unlike in the United States, Italy's criminal justice system allows the prosecution to lead an investigation, directing law enforcement's efforts. What's more, the judge presiding over the case is deeply involved in the investigative process. All of the information is then collected in what is known as an investigative dossier before the case begins. Experts say that this system could influence the judge before the trial has even started and work against the interest of the defense.

"The judge is involved in the investigation in Italy, and that doesn't happen in the U.S. If that took place in the U.S. every judge would be recused from a felony murder case because of a conflict of interest," Brian Claypool, an American criminal defense attorney, told Newsweek. "In Italy they are intimately involved in the fact finding and that clearly blurs their vision before they go to trial."

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Italy's Court of Cassation palace is seen in Rome on March 27, 2015. REUTERS/Remo Casilli

"In Italy, in a high-profile case of someone from the U.S., they will use the media to convince the public of a suspect's guilt. That would never happen to in the U.S," Claypool added.

In the recent case of 19-year-old Americans Elder Finnegan Lee and Christian Gabriel Natale Hjorth, the judge has already demonstrated that she has opinions. Lee, who is alleged to have stabbed the 35-year-old police officer, said that he was acting in self-defense because he was being strangled. But Judge Chiara Gallo asserted that she does not believe the claim because there was no visible evidence of strangulation on his neck. Instead, Gallo wrote that the two Americans demonstrated a "total absence of self-control."

Questions were also raised about whether Italian police had mistreated the men after images emerged of one of the suspects being blindfolded. Some observers began to ask if the case was similar to the infamous story of Amanda Knox, an American woman from Seattle who spent nearly four years in an Italian prison after being convicted of killing a British exchange student. Knox was eventually acquitted in 2015, but her case is sometimes cited as an example of the way Americans can become victims of character assassination and police misconduct in foreign court proceedings.

Like Knox, the two young men are expected to face a lengthy court battle and a potential life sentence.

Some experts argue that the Italian judicial system is so different from the American system that the two cannot be compared. But that doesn't necessarily mean that the Italian system is inferior or that the two young men will not receive a fair trial.

"We have the adversarial system here. They have a system that is rooted in the inquisitorial system. Most of continental Europe has that. The Anglo-American system is different," explained Martha Grace Duncan, a professor of law at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.

For example, Duncan points out that the U.S. system does not have the equivalent of a public prosecutor like the kind that would lead a case in Italy.

"It would be like the character inspector Javert in Les Miserable. They are trained and categorized along with judges and they have to submit to the same exams. They have lifetime tenure. They're supposed to be neutral during the preliminary investigation," Duncan explained. "The differences are very deep. And they don't like our system just like we don't like theirs."

Italy attempted to change its judicial system from an inquisitorial system to an adversarial one in 1989, but prosecutors stymied the effort. Italy's system also has a tainted reputation because it was created under Benito Mussolini's fascist dictators. Many point to widespread corruption in the system and the use of the media to sway the public. And even the obligations of witnesses are different in the Italian system.

"Witnesses aren't even given an oath to tell the truth," Claypool told Newsweek. "In Italy, they could find witnesses to come in and say that the teenagers were provoking the fight and not being choked. There's very little way to impeach these witnesses because they aren't under oath. There are no legal consequences for a witness to come in and lie."

The State Department did not respond to requests for comment about whether U.S. diplomats have been given access to the two men.