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Amanda Knox is free, but her case highlights the legal dangers for US students abroad

Posted by Alan Wirzbicki  October 3, 2011 05:47 PM

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After a sensational trial and appeals that dragged on for years, the verdict of an Italian court today clearing American college exchange student Amanda Knox of the 2007 murder of her roommate is welcome news for Knox and her family.

But Knox still spent four years in prison, and the case ought to be a warning to American students — and the American colleges sending them abroad — to take foreign justice systems more seriously.

Much of the reason that the Knox saga dragged on for so long was Knox’s failure to realize the gravity of the situation once her roommate was murdered at the apartment they shared in Perugia. While everyone else with a foreign passport and the slightest association with the case immediately skipped town to avoid dealing with an Italian justice system that can best be described as mercurial, Knox stuck around thinking that she could be helpful. She didn’t even hire a lawyer. The result was that she has spent four years of her life behind bars.

Thousands of Boston-area students will, like Knox, take a semester abroad in the course of their studies. While students going off to a third-world country might be more prepared for the exotic, those heading to more anodyne locations may not always be prepared for the vast differences or aware that the legal and constitutional protections of the United States are by no means universal. Italy is not the North End with olive trees, and the rules in the college town of Cambridge, England, are far different than those in Cambridge, Massachusetts. According to the State Department, over 6,600 Americans were arrested abroad in 2010 and about half that number were incarcerated. (This number only includes cases reported to a local embassy and may not include a number of minor infractions.) College students abroad may have to deal with law enforcement regardless of where they go and they must be as wary with police in Turin as those in Tijuana.

If Knox had been prepared for the serpentine civil code of Italy, she probably would not have gone to prison for a crime she most likely did not commit. Her case ought to be a warning for other students. Just because there is CNN in the hotel room, Budweiser on tap at the bar, and a McDonald’s at the end of the street does not mean it’s just like home.

Reuters/Tiziana Fabi: Amanda Knox reacts after an Italian court cleared 24-year-old American and her former boyfriend of the 2007 killing of British student Meredith Kercher and ordered they be freed.

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ABOUT THE ANGLE Online commentary and news analysis from the Boston Globe. The Angle is produced by Rob Anderson and Alan Wirzbicki. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @rcand.

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