On Friday April 23rd, 2021 dr. Eleonora Di Molfetta defended her PhD thesis titled: Injustices under the shield of the law: An exploratory study of judicial practices towards foreign defendants in an Italian criminal court. We recently interviewed her to inquire about the focus and results of her PhD studies. You can read about it below.

1. Can you tell us a bit about what you researched, and why?

Ever since I was a law student, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of punishment. At that time, I wanted to become a judge. But then, I found a bigger passion, that is academia, so it seems only natural for me to conduct research on this topic. In my research, in particular, I explored judicial practices towards foreign defendants without a valid residence permit in an Italian criminal court. I was mainly interested in understanding how courtroom actors make use of discretion when foreign defendants stand trial, and what are the objectives and rationales behind their decisions. My interest for investigating this particular group of defendants stems from the circumstance where immigration, in the last decades, has had a major impact on our societies. This is visible not only in media and political discourses, but also in the policies that Western countries implemented to discourage and obstruct global mobility. This circumstance made me wonder whether national judicial practices towards foreign defendants have been affected by global developments.

2. Briefly summarized, what are the main research methods you employed during your PhD studies?

In short, what I did was going to the place where law becomes alive. I spent more than a year in an Italian criminal court conducting a courtroom ethnography, which gave me the possibility to witness first-hand the making of decisions. I observed trials involving foreign defendants without a valid resident permit, mostly charged with street-crimes. Also, I interviewed judges, public prosecutors and defence attorneys to delve into the meanings of their decisions. I conducted an analysis of judgments involving foreign defendants given the importance of the ‘written production’ of criminal courts, especially in civil law jurisdictions. And last, but not least, I conducted a local media analysis to get a picture of the societal discourses which courtroom actors are exposed to.

3. In a couple of sentences, can you tell us something about the main findings and conclusions of your research?

My research concludes that the way in which decisions are made is largely affected by the socio-legal context in which a criminal court is embedded. Criminal courts serve their community; hence courtroom actors’ use of discretion reflects broader instances. The findings of this research shed light on how the local context responds to and dialogues with global processes, and how such dialogue is unique depending on the different legal, organizational, cultural and social traits of such a context. This is relevant because it questions the extent to which certain conceptual or theoretical framework, for example ‘crimmigration’ (a term coined to indicate where migration enforcement is integrated in the criminal justice system) have the same meaning across different local and national contexts.

4. In what way do these findings contribute to the academic community?

Courtroom ethnographies which specifically focus on foreign defendants are extremely rare. So, this research provides insights on a topic that has rarely been explored so far. Also, I hope that the findings of this research will stimulate a debate on the circumstance where every phenomenon or group of people under study need to be put into perspective. At times, the socio-legal context is something taken for granted, a rather underexposed dimension. If this research has one merit, it is to show how examining the trans-local context in which a court is embedded provides a more nuanced picture of judicial practices, together with a better understanding of ‘why’ things are the way they are.

5. How do these conclusions contribute to society, or practitioners in your field of study?

My hope is that a better understanding of judicial practices towards foreign defendants would help to defeat stereotypes and generalization in public opinion, too often unaware of what is behind political and media storytelling. At the same time, I fully realize that immigration is a highly political and emotional topic, and the circumstance where this research can break down the wall of ‘the fear of the others’ is unlikely. Hence, a more ‘realistic’ hope is that this research would have an impact on judges, public prosecutors and defence attorneys, meaning that it would make them to reflect on the way justice is delivered to non-members of the society.

7. What is next for you in your career? Will you stay in the academic community or pursue a different path?

I am currently looking for an opportunity to pursue a stimulating academic career. I love academia, I don’t think I see myself somewhere else. But I also thought I would never get a short haircut and I did. So, I’ve learned my lesson: never say never.

8. Last question…. If you could pass one word of advice to people who are doing a PhD or wish to conduct a PhD, what would that be?

Enjoy the ride. I won’t say that it is an easy ride because it is not. It is hard work. And it is also challenging. It is likely to encounter obstacles, have unproductive days, experience writer’s block and even feel that things are absolutely not going as one planned to. At the same time, it is a great learning and growing experience. It does not only allow to enhance one’s research skills, but also to improve one’s capacity to deal with difficulties and to overcome obstacles. So, my advice is enjoy the ride at the fullest and, when bad times come, do not make a mountain out of a molehill.

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