WASHINGTON, D.C. October 24, 2012 – In 2009, in the town of L’Aquila, Italy, a monstrous earthquake killed 309 people, and ripped historic buildings and churches to shreds. Surrounding villages were destroyed. About 120,000 people were affected by the event.
In the weeks before the earthquake, there were a series of small tremors. Panic set in, and six of Italy’s top seismologists were called there to assess the situation. A government official, the Vice-Director of the Civil Protection Agency, gave interviews to the press after conferring with the group of six and told the locals that there was nothing to worry about. He told the town residents to relax and enjoy a glass of wine.
The world’s scientific community almost unanimously acknowledges that predicting an earthquake is almost impossible, and all agree of the increasing difficulty of that task the further in time it is in advance of the event.
This week (3.5 years later), the six Italian scientists and the government official were convicted of multiple manslaughters for their failure to adequately warn the town’s residents of the potential danger of the earthquake that had not yet happened. The prosecution’s case charged that they should have provided these warnings six days before the earthquake struck. The sentence was six years behind bars. Two attorneys representing some of those convicted called the Italian system of criminal justice “something out of medieval criminal law.”
Five thousand scientists worldwide, outraged, joined in a letter to denounce the trial.
In Milan, twenty-five owner-tenants of an apartment complex filed a civil lawsuit, 20 years ago, trying to recover monthly maintenance costs from two brothers, tenants who owned an office in the building. The unpaid charges initially were about 7,500 euros. Those charges now total over 100,000 euros. The case has wound its way through the Italian court system for two decades, despite rulings against the brothers, and efforts to auction the brothers’ shop. The delay is due to the legally allowed appeals process.
Italians taking a public bus need a ticket. It is possible to take an eraser and rub out the stamp on the ticket. Doing so is a criminal offense. The cost of the ticket is 1 euro ($1.33). This offense is eligible for a full criminal trial and two appeals, and the cost to Italy is in the thousands (of euros). Typically the people who would resort to this offense are poor. They would qualify for a public defender, who, if he or she did their job correctly, would demand a forensic examination of the ticket, which would cost another 1,500 euros.
The legal system in Italy is a complete failure, in both the administration of both civil claims and criminal prosecutions. Remember Amanda Knox? Notwithstanding that she was wrongfully convicted, the time involved for her exoneration was beyond ridiculous.
Consider some of these statistics as compared to other countries.
The United States Supreme Court reviews about 100 cases (appeals) per year. Italy, with about 1/5 of our population, has its high court review more than 80,000 cases per year.
Italy has over 40,000 attorneys specializing in appellate work. France, with a similar population, has 25. Italy has over 240,000 attorneys. France has 54,000.
The average time to settle a civil case in Italy is more than seven years; a criminal case is over five years.
There is a backlog of about 9 million cases in Italy (5.5 million civil and 3.4 million criminal).
Italy, when its prosecutors make mistakes (Amanda Knox case), pays compensation to those wrongfully convicted, and it also pays for delays. In 2011 Italy paid out over 84 million euros for over 50,000 claims. In 2003, the number of those claims was 3,500.00.
I use a legal information website (Findlaw) often as my source for facts and details of my work. Findlaw provides six “differences” between the Italian and U.S. criminal justice systems:
- Defendants do not have to take an oath to tell the truth.
- Convicted criminals can automatically appeal.
- The jury is not sequestered until deliberations.
- Juries for criminal cases include two judges and six citizens. One of the judges presides over the trial.
- Verdicts do not need to be unanimous; only a majority is required for a murder conviction.
- The jury has 90 days to file their explanation of why they made their decisions.
Your local, state and federal court system may not be perfect. Your encounter with court, civil or criminal, may produce results you do not like. You may accuse others involved in the process as being corrupt, fraudulent or worse.
The system you enjoy is far better than most around the world. Do not ask me which is better. I am not sure any is better. I cannot compare without complete information. None I know of is better. That I am aware, no other country’s laws provide a system that allows for fairness, timeliness or consistency.
Complain if you will that your day in court resulted in a raw deal. Ask Amanda Knox which country she would rather have been wrongfully arrested, tried and convicted in. Ask her if four years with countless appeals was reasonable. Are you aware that her case, technically, is not over? Doubtful she will return there to attend more of the proceedings as the prosecution continues its appeals.
Paul A. Samakow is an attorney licensed in Maryland and Virginia, and has been practicing since 1980. He represents injury victims and routinely battles insurance companies and big businesses that will not accept full responsibility for the harms and losses they cause. He can be reached at any time by calling 1-866-SAMAKOW (1-866-726-2569), via email, or through his website. He is also available to speak to your group on numerous legal topics.
His book The 8 Critical Things Your Auto Accident Attorney Won’t Tell You is free to Maryland and Virginia residents and can be obtained by ordering it on his website; others can obtain it on Amazon.