Writer and journalist Amanda Knox understands firsthand the injustices one can experience when roped into the criminal justice system -- whether they’re innocent or not. The 32-year-old became a public name -- and media sensation -- in 2007, when she was wrongfully convicted for the murder of a fellow exchange student. After four years in an Italian prison and eight years on trial, she was finally acquitted in 2015. “I was redefined as something that I wasn't,” Knox tells ET’s Ash Crossan. “And I lost years of my life to prison for no reason.”
In the years since, Knox has since reclaimed her narrative through various projects like appearing in the Netflix documentary about her case, leading the Vice and Facebook series The Scarlet Letter Reports about the vilification of women, and her current podcasts, AMC’s The Truth About True Crime, which is co-produced by husband Christopher Robinson, and their interview series with formerly incarcerated people for CrimeStory.com.
“The reason why I think reclaiming your narrative is so important is because it's about truth. The truth matters,” Knox says. “And I've witnessed the consequences of people believing what they want to believe, instead of believing the truth.”
Understanding how the media can manipulate public perception and how one can be tried in the court of public opinion, it’s perhaps why Knox also appreciates the efforts of someone like Kim Kardashian West, who has recently transformed her persona to become the face of criminal justice reform.
“I love it because, one, it shows that a woman who has been written off as something in society is more than what we expected her to be, and two, I’m always excited when anyone of influence is putting that influence towards a good cause,” Knox says.
In 2018, Kardashian West made headlines when she came to the aid of Alice Marie Johnson, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment without parole in 1997. At the time, the Keeping Up With the Kardashians star went to the White House to advocate for Johnson’s commutation and ultimately helped get her released after 21 years in prison.
In the years since, Kardashian West has continued her partnership with #cut50 to advocate on behalf of several convicted criminals whom they believed had been unfairly sentenced and to help develop and promote policy that will put an end to systemic problems within the system. Kardashian West also released Kim Kardashian West: The Justice Project, a two-hour film documenting her ongoing efforts to expose injustices and advocate for real change in addition to studying to become a lawyer herself.
“I think she has proven herself to be immensely adept at diplomacy -- and I’m also very excited for her support of the Frederick Douglass project,” Knox says of the advocacy group, which was featured in the documentary. “You know, she’s looking at people who are innocent and guilty alike and is trying to bridge the gap between the incarcerated world and the free world so we all have that kind of greater understanding of each other.”
That effort to narrow the gap between those who are free and those who are behind bars is why Knox and Robinson have recently been shining a light on how the coronavirus pandemic is adversely affecting the prison population. “The Innocence Project estimates that between two and five percent of the prison population is wrongfully convicted. The massive size of our incarcerated population is upwards of 100,000 people,” Robinson explains. “That’s horrifying alone, that these innocent people would be subjected to the pandemic, COVID conditions. But even the guilty people, even people who 100 percent did it, do not deserve to contract COVID-19.”
In fact, they’ve been spending much of their time in quarantine by speaking with numerous people who have been incarcerated about the pandemic and issues related to physical or mental health, hygiene and social distancing. “I think the reason why prisoners are such a vulnerable population is because people are willing to write them off. They’re the last people to be considered as people who are deserving of our concern. And so, we’re trying to really shed light on the real conditions that are inside prisons right now, and the concerns of real people who are still incarcerated,” Knox says, explaining that what government officials are doing around the country to stem the outbreak doesn’t always include protection for people behind bars.
While the situation looks dire from the outside and needs real change to end the systemic problems on the inside, Knox is hopeful that the pandemic will reshape how people think about the current criminal justice system, which goes back to the very idea of how a conviction can redefine a person in someone else’s mind.
“One bright side of the pandemic is the potential opportunity for us to totally reconsider our assumptions about who needs to be in prison and what other alternatives there are to protecting society and protecting those individuals who have made mistakes,” she says. “We need to acknowledge that these are human beings. They aren’t just criminals.”