April 29, 2013

The Amanda Knox circus—again


Amanda Knox, even while appearing on prime time television in America to promote her book Waiting to Be Heard, is facing yet another murder trial in Italy for a crime—of which, in 2011, after spending four years in prison, she was found innocent by an Italian appeals court. In throwing out the murder case against her, that court declared that the prosecution’s charges were “not corroborated by any objective element of evidence.” The revival of the baseless charges against Knox, and the tabloid frenzy it will no doubt stoke, proceeds from a five-year-long judicial circus in Italy.

Amanda Knox’s ordeal began on November 1, 2007 with the brutal murder of Meredith Kercher, a 21-year-old British exchange student, in a ground-floor flat in a cottage shared by four young women in Perugia, Italy. When police arrived the next morning, they found Kercher’s body with several knife wounds, her clothing strewn around, and a broken window. They did not find a murder weapon. It was a holiday weekend; the seven other tenants of the cottage—including four men in the basement flat—all claimed to have been away on the night of the murder, including one other exchange student who was there when the police arrived: Amanda Knox. Knox, an angel-faced 20-year-old student from Seattle, Washington, told police that she had spent the night at the home of her new boyfriend Raphaele Sollecito. Sollecito, who was standing with her, confirmed her alibi.

While the police investigators had no immediate witnesses to the murder and no murder weapon, they had a blood-stained bedroom in which the coroner determined that the victim was sexually assaulted and stabbed to death. This crime scene was crucial to solving the case since, as the great French criminologist Edmond Locard suggested nearly a century ago, even the most careful criminal is likely to leave behind a hair, clothing fiber, a fingerprint or other trace of himself or herself. The crime scene in Perugia contained more than enough such clues fully to identify the assailant. There were 14 identifiable fingerprints in the room, a palm print on the blood-stained pillow under the victim’s body, a sneaker print in the blood on the floor. DNA of a person other than Sollecito or any other tenant was found inside Kercher’s vagina and on her purse. (Kercher’s money was missing from that purse.) All those clues were marks of a single individual, though it took over a month to identify him. He was Rudy Guede, a 20-year-old drifter from the Ivory Coast, who had broken into other homes in the area. Less than a week before the murder, Guede had even been temporarily detained by police in Milan for breaking into a nursery and stealing an 11-inch kitchen knife.

The crime scene could establish from Guede’s fingerprints that he had been inside the victim’s room, from his DNA inside Kercher’s vagina that he had had sexual contact with her, and from his sneaker impression found on the floor in her blood, his palm print found in her blood on the pillow, and his DNA found on her purse, that he had been in the room after she was stabbed. His description, moreover, fit that of a black man whom two witnesses had seen on the street running away from the cottage that night

Shortly after the murder, Guede had fled to Germany. It took more than a month to capture him. He was then extradited to Italy, tried, and in October of 2008, convicted of both the sexual assault upon Kercher and Kercher’s murder.

The belated identification of a local burglar as the intruder and sexual assailant did not, however, end the ordeal of Amanda Knox. In the interim, the chief prosecutor, Giuliano Mignini, had developed a theory that Knox—whom he described as a “she-devil”—had murdered her roommate and staged the evidence of a break-in. Knox had been imprisoned. For Mignini to abandon his “she-devil” theory, even after Guede’s arrest, could prove an embarrassment. In an earlier, so-called “Monster of Florence case,” he had already advanced a “Satanic theory”—in which he attributed a string of unsolved murders to a Satanic cult who killed young women to use their body parts in black masses. His efforts in that pursuit of a non-existent cult resulted in him being criminally indicted for prosecutorial misconduct. (He was still under that indictment in 2007.) If his “she-devil” characterization of Knox were to fail as well, the prosecutor might be further discredited.

The solution Mignini now found was to expand the “she-devil” theory to include Guede, and to claim that Knox teamed up with Guede and her boyfriend to kill her flat mate after a sex game.

The initial crime scene investigation had not produced a shred of evidence that Knox had been in the room at the time of the murder. Under interrogation, Knox had, however, lied to police. She had falsely told them that she had witnessed the Congolese-born owner of a nearby bar, Patrick Lumumba, murder Kercher. Knox had worked part-time for that bar. Lumumba denied having ever been at the cottage. He was, nonetheless, arrested—as were Knox and her boyfriend Sollecito. Lumumba was fortunate enough to have a solid alibi for the night of the murder. He was released. Knox repudiated her accusation. In her new book, Waiting to Be Heard, she says the accusation was a pure fabrication, induced by police intimidation.

The false statement makes Knox a liar, but not at all, by implication, a murderer. A recent study of criminal justice in the U.S. by law professor Brandon Garrett shows it is not uncommon for innocent people to lie under police pressure; indeed no fewer than 40 people out of 250 who were convicted and later exonerated by DNA evidence, had falsely confessed to crimes they did not commit.

In Knox’s case, Italian prosecutors in their subsequent investigation did find two bits of DNA that could support a conspiracy theory. The first was taken from a knife found in Sollecito’s kitchen and matched Knox’s DNA. The second bit of DNA was taken from Kercher’s bra clasp and matched Sollecitto’s DNA. As it turned out, both DNA samples were later invalidated by the appeals court because of a serious flaw: the police technician who examined them had failed to change her lab gloves between examining DNA samples, raising the possibility of cross-contamination. That “evidence” was invalidated, leaving none. In the absence of any physical evidence against them, Knox and Sollecito were acquitted by the appellate court.

In Italy, prosecutors have the right to appeal an acquittal. On March 25, 2013, at the request to the prosecutor, a court of Cassation overturned the acquittal of Knox, ordering her to be tried again for a crime, which an appellate court had found there was absolutely no evidence that she committed. The United States Constitution, under its double jeopardy provisions, protects individuals from being retried for crimes of which they have been acquitted. It would be a violation of Knox’s constitutional rights as a United States citizen to return her to Italy to be tried again. It would also, of course, be a travesty of justice for an Italian prosecutor to use her case as a means to revive a his reputation, as an advocate of Satanic and “she-devil” conspiracy theory.

Edward Jay Epstein will be discussing the “Amanda Knox Ordeal” online on Tuesday at 7PM via the Shindig platform. More information here

Edward Jay Epstein's book The Annals of Unsolved Crime is available now from Melville House.