Amanda Knox won her life back, but not her story

Oct 5, 2011

With Amanda Knox back home in Seattle after four years in an Italian prison, the question is “when will she sell her story and how?”

But Knox, despite the fact that her conviction in the sexual assault and fatal stabbing of her British roommate Meredith Kercher was overturned, could find the media and movie markets crowded with others hawking her story, both in non-fiction and fictional form.

And, they can do so almost with impunity, according to one expert.

The fact is that while Knox has returned to the life of a regular citizen protected by defamation and libel laws that are much more friendly to people who don’t hold public office or are not famous because of their work or by choice, the high-profile case is of such strong public interest that her story really doesn’t belong to just her – the way a regular person’s story might.

“Technically she’s not a public figure under the first amendment defamation doctrine, although that’s kind of a technical point,” said Stewart Jay, a constitutional law expert and University of Washington law school professor.

“The problem is that it’s open to speculation as to whether in fact she’s actually innocent. She’s found to be not guilty, which means that the evidence wasn’t there to convict her. That doesn’t mean, in fact, that she didn’t commit the crime. It just means that the state couldn’t prove it. So, people are entitled to their conclusions based on their own assessment of the evidence. What you can’t do is misrepresent the facts,” Jay said.

If a writer, television or movie producer does misrepresent the facts in Knox’ case, then there is the potential for a libel action.

“But those cases are extremely difficult to win,” Jay said.

Meanwhile, in Seattle

Curt Knox told KOMO Radio his daughter Amanda hasn't slept much since arriving back in Seattle on Tuesday after four years in an Italian prison.

He said "she's literally running on adrenalin" as she reconnects with family and friends. He says it will take some time before the family figures out what the "new normal" will be.

A lot published already

In fact, there are already many books and shows about Knox available from before yesterday when her conviction was overturned amid doubts over DNA evidence.

Amanda Knox Lifetime movie trailer:

  • “The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox” by Nina Burleigh.
  • “Murder in Italy: The Shocking Slaying of a British Student, the Accused American Girl, and an International Scandal” by Candace Dempsey.
  • “The Monster of Perugia: The Framing of Amanda Knox” by Mark Waterbury.
  • “The Amanda Knox Story: A Murder in Perugia” by Kimberly Brown and Vook.
  • “Angel Face: The True Story of Student Killer Amanda Knox” by Barbie Latza Nadeau.
  • “Injustice in Perugia: a Book Detailing the Wrongful Conviction of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito” by Bruce Fisher.
  • “Take Me With You - Talks with Amanda Knox in Prison” by Rocco Girlanda.

“The truth about ''Angel Face'' Amanda Knox:”

The Washington Post (which compiled the above list) writes: “The public, obviously, is fascinated and publishers, clamoring for the rights to her own story, will no doubt see reason in showering her with an enormous advance.”

“I would be utterly astonished if she didn’t write a book because at least she’ll recover something from four years of anguish,” professor Jay said. “Moreover, she probably wants to tell her story in her own manner, in her own words and try to establish her innocence in the public’s mind. And that’s her right, too.”

The very technical part

Here’s Jay’s technical but very interesting take on why Knox will have a hard time fighting back against the onslaught of information and dramatizations centered on her:

“… technically speaking, if you’re accused of a crime, and it doesn’t matter if you’re acquitted or not, just you’ve been a criminal suspect, that does not make you a public figure for purposes of the New York Times’ standard. And the New York Times’ standard is extremely high, which means that if a public figure or a public official brings a libel action based on their status, or something they’ve done as a public figure, or as a public official, then they can only win if they prove what’s called actual malice. …

“So she’s technically not a public figure like that but there’s another set of doctrines which have to do with more that’s like burdens of proof. She may be a private figure, but it’s a newsworthy event. Which means that in order for her to collect damages for libel, she were to sue somebody, she would bear the burden of proof. She would have to prove that the statements were in fact false. And then for her to collect anything beyond actual damages, anything beyond out-of-pocket expenses, and emotional anguish, to recover punity damages, she would have to meet The New York Times’ standards of actual malice.

“And show therefore, somebody who writes a book about her was making statements that were knowingly false or in reckless disregard to the truth. And that would be really difficult for her to prove, since so much of this is going to be a matter of interpreting the evidence. So in other words, what she could actually win in a lawsuit would be relatively modest.”