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Prosecution on Trial

By: Carol Iannone
July 23, 2014

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A review of Waiting to Be Heard: A Memoir, by Amanda Knox and Honor Bound: My Journey to Hell and Back with Amanda Knox, by Raffaele Sollecito and Andrew Gumbel

In the late evening of November 1, 2007, a young British student named Meredith Kercher was murdered in her bedroom in the apartment she shared with three other women in Perugia, Italy, just a few weeks into her Erasmus year abroad. The body was not discovered until the next day.

Giuliano Mignini—the public minister, or prosecutor, in charge of the case—together with his investigative team, rapidly began to piece together a sensational story of drugs, sex, and violence involving multiple killers in some sort of satanic ritual, although this latter element would float in and out of subsequent iterations of the narrative. At first, and from the distance of newspaper reports, there seemed to be some plausibility in this. The victim had been stripped, assaulted, stabbed, and badly bloodied. The killing had taken place on the day after Halloween, licit and illicit substances were widely available in Perugia in all forms, and some kind of drug-fueled sexual malfeasance did not seem out of the question. November 1, the feast of All Saints, is a holiday in Italy, and the start that year of a four-day weekend, so Meredith’s roommates were out, along with the four young Italian men who lived in the flat below, leaving the house quite empty.

University of Washington student Amanda Knox was also sharing the flat during her year of study abroad, and was the first to enter the apartment on November 2, after spending the night with her boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, a 23-year-old from the south of Italy in his last year of his computer science studies. Meredith’s body was hidden behind the locked door of her bedroom, but there were other disturbing signs—the front door open and some traces of blood.

Nevertheless Knox proceeded to take a shower and get dressed for the day, as she had been doing every morning of her weeklong affair after spending the night at Raffaele’s. Then she noticed an unflushed toilet in the flat’s other bathroom. Feeling uneasy, when she returned to his apartment for breakfast she asked him to come back with her to the cottage. Calls went back and forth and around the world, to parents, relatives, roommates, friends, and the police. Soon the house and environs were swarming with people, media, and several levels of Italian law enforcement. At a certain point, Meredith’s door was broken open to reveal the horrifying sight.

* * *

Unbeknownst to them at the time, suspicion fell almost immediately on Amanda and Raffaele. Their having been first on the scene figured in that. Then the camera caught them in a long embrace that was flashed around the world and that seemed callous and self-absorbed given the circumstances, while Amanda’s blank, uncomprehending expression was somehow interpreted to be one of pitiless unconcern.

As the morning and ensuing days progressed along with the investigation, everything the two newly minted lovers said and did, and everything they said they did and had done, seemed to bother everyone in their vicinity, or at least would do so in retrospect. Every act, every mood, every utterance, every facial expression, and every phone call was construed by the authorities, a gleefully cooperative media, Meredith’s British friends also studying in Perugia, and, eventually, by much of the attentive public, to suggest suppressed guilt and/or stolid insensibility.

Amanda’s taking a shower in the bathroom that had traces of blood was suspect, for example (a photo showing the bathroom sprayed for evidence with a pink chemical made it look as if she had blithely splashed about in a chamber of horrors), as was the timing of Raffaele’s call to the police. There was evidence of a break-in—a shattered window in the bedroom of one of the two other roommates, both Italian women in their late twenties who worked for a local law firm—but the authorities decided almost immediately that it had been staged by Raffaele and Amanda to cover up their involvement in the murder. The police believed that it was impossible for anyone to scale the second story of the cottage.

* * *

Secure in their innocence, rather absorbed in each other, thinking they were helping the prosecution by saying what they had observed of the situation, Amanda and Raffaele were open and unwary, not always alert to the circumstances and the impression they were making. And their behavior was not beyond reproach.

A native of Seattle, Amanda was something of a free spirit, the opposite of Old World restraint, known to sing out when dining in a restaurant. While waiting to be questioned at the police station (the questura) she teased, flirted, and exchanged kisses with Raffaele, sometimes sitting on his lap. At another point, she did some stretches and exercises to ward off weariness (later falsely reported as turning cartwheels).

Still unaware that they had become suspects, Amanda and Raffaele were separately subject to eight hours of abusive interrogation starting on the night of November 5, on top of the many hours of questioning they had endured in the previous days (Amanda was subject to a total of 53 hours of questioning in five days). They were denied lawyers, as well as food and drink and bathroom breaks, and in Amanda’s case, even a translator for some of those hours despite her Italian being weak at that point. A dozen detectives were involved in the interrogations, working in relays, bullying, badgering, threatening, demanding that the pair confess. Amanda was slapped on the back of her head to “help her remember.” Mignini eventually sued both Amanda and her parents for reporting all of this to the media. Though such interrogations are supposed to be on tape, evidently none was made that night.

The interrogators insisted that an innocent text message exchange between Amanda and Congo-native Patrick Lumumba, her boss at Le Chic, a club she worked at two nights a week, was an appointment for a meeting on the evening of the murder. Prompted to imagine what might have happened, still trying to cooperate, Amanda concocted a scene at the flat with herself present and Lumumba as the killer. She signed a statement to that effect in sleepless confusion in the early morning hours. Shortly afterward, she wrote another statement trying to clarify that she had imagined the scene, but only muddied things further.

For his part, subject to the pressure of harsh interrogation, Raffaele confused the days and allowed that perhaps Amanda had not been with him all through the night of the murder, undercutting her alibi. Later their “confessions” were disallowed in the criminal trial because they had been improperly obtained, although not Amanda’s morning-after statement, which would prove especially damaging because it seemed to be voluntary and could still be read as obscurely admitting some kind of guilt.

* * *

An atmosphere of fear pervaded the small medieval city and the authorities felt the need to solve the frightening crime quickly. Without checking what would prove to be his solid alibi, the police raided Lumumba’s apartment the morning of the 6th, brought him out in handcuffs, and arrested him. On the basis of their “confessions” and what the investigators bragged was their ability to judge guilt from behavior and attitude, the two dazed and frightened young people were also arrested that morning and driven through town with horns blaring, a ritual normally reserved for notorious criminals and Mafiosi. The authorities announced the case closed. Amanda and Raffaele were imprisoned that very day, and would not see freedom again for four years.

Lumumba soon had to be released, of course, in what should have been a major embarrassment for the prosecution (he later sued Amanda for slander and won), but, marvelously, the right “fourth” person emerged within a few days. A bloody fingerprint found in Meredith’s room belonged to Rudy Guede of the Ivory Coast, a local hanger-on known to the police with a history of carrying a knife to break-ins and burglaries, including on the second story. He had fled Perugia shortly after the murder, was apprehended in Germany on November 20 and was extradited to Italy on December 6. This should have been a major turn in the case. Instead, Mignini simply substituted Rudy for Patrick and continued to maintain the sex-game theory. The supposedly more promiscuous Amanda, angry with the supposedly more sexually reticent Meredith, had enlisted her new boyfriend and Guede to draw the girl into four-way sex. Mignini claimed that the trio, high on hashish and probably alcohol (the two students had admitted to smoking pot during the day and evening of the murder), threatened Meredith with a knife; when she resisted, they killed her. Guede at first denied that Amanda and Raffaele had been there, but then came to see, or was led to see, the advantage to himself in implicating them in his crime.

* * *

Even at a distance, and even through the hysterical reporting and sensational headlines, it was possible to see that the evidence was not adding up. Footprints, shoeprints, blood drops—nothing ever came out dispositively as evidence against Amanda and Raffaele, while copious and definitive evidence of Guede’s guilt emerged—on Meredith, in her bedroom, on her belongings, in the hallway, in the toilet. Claims of a cleanup with bleach seemed ridiculous, for Amanda and Raffaele could scarcely remove only traces of themselves while leaving those of Guede, who opted for a fast-track trial, was convicted, and sentenced to a prison term of 30 years (soon reduced to 16).

But like the flight of Fama in the Aeneid the false story took wing and took hold. As it is said, a lie is halfway around the world before the truth has its boots on. Websites went up, for and against. In the ensuing days and weeks, Amanda was depicted in the tabloid press for days on end—with the aid of leaks from the authorities—as a heartless manipulative seductress, with Raffaele as her smitten, near-virginal thrall. The papers couldn’t get enough of the pretty, photogenic 20-year-old temptress with the bright blue eyes and still a bit of the little girl in her looks, an angel face hiding a wicked soul.

Insiders fed details to the eager media. The prison authorities tricked her into revealing all the men she had slept with in her life by telling her, falsely, that a blood test showed the HIV virus, and then leaked the information to the media, with the impression that she had slept with seven men during the few weeks she had been in Europe, rather than over a period of years.

This may be the first crime of the 21st century in which all the exuberant and unguarded self-exposure encouraged in young people today was made to count so much against them. Their writings, emails, journals, diaries, blogs, and My Space pages were rifled for “clues,” and almost everything was portrayed as evidence of depravity and/or guilt, such as Raffaele’s interest in Japanese manga comics, which depict scenes of violence—imagine that. Amanda’s childhood nickname Foxy Knoxy, given for her prowess on the soccer field, became volpe cattiva—wicked fox—and held to signal sexual deviousness. A good student who loved her family and had worked several part-time jobs to afford her year abroad, who was rather indifferent to her beauty and something of a tomboy, was turned into a stage villainess, a luciferina and more. From the Daily Mail: “Foxy Knoxy: Behind the Hollywood smile, a liar, a narcissist, and a killer.” And the more sedate London Times was not always better: “Amanda Knox: angel faced killer with ice cold eyes” and “Diary reveals Foxy Knoxy’s sex secrets.”

Phones were tapped and rooms were bugged in the hope of catching them revealing their guilt. Stray comments, mistaken recollections, and observations later better recalled: everything was turned against them and taken as far as it would go. Amanda saying “I was there” in a completely different context was leaked and spread as a confession of being in the bedroom during the crime. The London Telegraph: “Tape ‘Puts Knox at Meredith’s Murder’ Scene.”

* * *

Realizing that their self proclaimed hunches, instincts, and capacity for behavioral analysis were insufficient, the authorities produced some physical evidence, but it was alarmingly scant given the bloody chaos in the bedroom: a large kitchen knife picked out of a drawer at Raffaele’s apartment because it looked as if it had been bleached to destroy evidence that was said to have Amanda’s DNA on the handle (not surprising) and, supposedly, a tiny spot of Meredith’s DNA on the blade; a tiny bra clasp that had been ripped or cut from Meredith during the murder and that was not collected until several weeks after the crime (in a different place from where it was originally photographed) which was said to carry Raffaele’s DNA. The defense experts challenged the reliability of these results and the methods used to obtain them. When this evidence was re-examined in the appeal, independent experts were able to refute it decisively, establishing that it overall failed to meet accepted protocols—was too “low copy” to produce a profile, was so miniscule it could not be retested, and may have been contaminated from mishandling. Eventually it was learned that the knife had not been bleached and was too big for the wounds suffered by Meredith anyway, except for the one across her throat which could have been made by any sharp object. The prosecution then argued that the weapon must have been Raffaele’s penknife, but that too showed no traces of evidence. Whatever knife Guede had used, of which an impression was left in blood on Meredith’s pillow, he managed to discard.

As the trial proceeded Amanda’s every movement was studied, discussed, criticized, and taken as evidence of her wickedness. Her smiling at her family and supporters in the courtroom—some of whom had made great sacrifices to be there—was evidence of her continuing insensibility to the enormity of her supposed deed. Mignini or his subordinates, along with the media, kept the fires burning with false or premature reports that seemed to suggest mystery and unanswered questions. There were too many wounds to be have been made by one killer, they suggested (not true); the sweater Amanda wore the night of the murder was purportedly missing (it was right on top of her bed where she had placed it the morning she took her shower); receipts could be produced proving that they had purchased bleach the morning after the crime (such receipts did not exist); an eyewitness saw them together near the cottage shortly before the murder (he had the wrong night).

Mignini was himself under investigation for overreaching in a different case, in which he had proposed satanism as the motive for a string of murders that had occurred years before. In another of the oddities of the justice system in Italy that affected this case (in addition to the prosecutor’s working actively on an investigation), he was allowed to continue on the Kercher murder while his own case proceeded.

* * *

On the basis of faulty or nonexistent evidence, singularly unreliable if not downright laughable witnesses, the hunches and behavioral analyses of the investigators (a duvet placed over the dying Meredith indicated a female killer, for example), the fuzzy narrative of the sex game gone wrong—to which was added some problems Meredith was supposed to have had over some of Amanda’s hygienic habits, dutifully reported by her British friends—all delivered by Mignini in an incomparably histrionic summation to the court, a guilty verdict was handed down two years after their arrest. Amanda was sentenced to 26 years and Raffaele 25 years, longer than either of them had been alive. Two years later they were freed when the appeal judges ruled that there was no evidence involving them in the murder. Unfortunately, however, that is not the end of the case.

Amanda was a fluid—perhaps too fluid—writer who scribbled steadily in her journal throughout the ordeal, but any writings that emerged at this point often seemed to be a jumble of thoughts, feelings, observations, and conjectures, that could, and somehow did, lend themselves to willful misinterpretation in the hands of the authorities who were able to confiscate them. This has been corrected in her clear, cogent, compelling, and well-composed account of the whole experience, Waiting To Be Heard: A Memoir, in which she chronicles how her nightmarish experience changed her from “a naïve quirky twenty year old” to “a matured, introspective woman.” Raffaele too has produced a thoughtful memoir, Honor Bound: My Journey to Hell and Back with Amanda Knox. Amanda remarks how painful it was to go through it all again, but she can be assured that it was well worth it. Disciplined by their harsh experience, they came to understand themselves better and why they were so vulnerable to manipulation. Nothing excuses what was done to them, of course, but they do see their part in it all.

* * *

“We were both young for our ages,” Amanda writes, “still immature, more in love with love than with each other.” She slept with Raffaele the first night they met and consented to be his girlfriend in the few days they were together, but she knew something was wrong. “This is moving too fast,” she recalls. For the inexperienced Raffaele, however, it was love at first sight, a colpo di fulmine. She was his first real inamorata and he wanted to introduce her to his family. “We barely knew each other,” she laments, and yet she admits she needed him. After the discovery of the crime, his chief concern was to care for her. “He was sensitive,” she writes, “and I felt calm around him.”

She’d also discovered with Raffaele that she liked being in a “relationship”—that is, sleeping with someone one actually cares something about. Although the story of Meredith being sexually less experienced and Amanda a slut was not quite true—both had had amours, and Meredith was sleeping with one of the Italian boys in the apartment below—Amanda had tried some sexual experimentation once abroad.

“Casual sex was, for my generation, simply what you did,” she explains matter-of-factly, adding how friends would even tease her for any reservations she may have had about it. “Hellooo, Amanda. Sex is normal,” she pictures her friends saying to her, delivering this gem of contemporary teenage wisdom in eye-rolling exasperation. Somehow she felt she had to rise to the challenge of her time—having sex with no emotional involvement whatsoever, evidently the sign of coming of age in the era of Sex and the City, and being on her own in Europe seemed the perfect opportunity. She indulged in a couple of one-night stands (one of them at the cottage, making its denizens rather uncomfortable and later fueling the slut story), but after both, no surprise, she felt only emptiness. “Amanda, maybe uninvolved sex just isn’t for you,” a wiser sounding Meredith remarked to her roommate and friend of a few weeks.

Furthermore, Amanda reflects, “without any solid ties, I’d been lonelier in Perugia than I’d realized.” She didn’t like the whole Perugia student social scene, and was aware that the job at Le Chic did not really suit her. Indeed, the student experience in the lovely Umbrian town seemed to consist largely of drinking, smoking pot, taking drugs, club-crawling, bed-hopping, and fitting in where needed what seemed to be rather undemanding coursework. The whole thing cries out for some old-fashioned adult supervision, if some old-fashioned adults might still be found.

This, at any rate, can explain their plunge into the affair which bound them to each other, blinded them to the net that was closing in, and produced the amazing cluelessness that they themselves can now record—their not understanding the repeated insinuating questions, the disdainful remarks, the dirty looks, and the need for a little more decorum in their behavior, not to mention a lawyer.

* * *

But if they were so much younger then, they’re older than that now. These books, written in the first flush of freedom, tell how they endured their Kafaesque ordeal with strength and increasing maturity. Their accounts of prison life are surprisingly absorbing and colorful—the tough, crazy, peculiar, and endearing characters; the desolate moments and brighter spots. Both earnestly try to make the most of their time, pursuing their studies and their languages, making themselves useful where possible. Amanda’s account is especially vivid, given that she writes in her native tongue and her powers of observation are remarkably acute. The inmates saw her as a murderer at first but came to regard her affectionately and to believe steadfastly in her innocence.

And her understanding of life deepened. Amanda’s family is evidently typical of today’s growing cohort of Nones. “I wasn’t baptized as a baby,” she tells us. “Growing up, I never went to Sunday school, never said grace before meals, never prayed before bed. I stereotyped religion as a backward institution that offered false comfort and prevented people from coming to their own conclusion.” She hasn’t become a believer, but her outlook changed as she began to appreciate the compassion and decency of the prison chaplain, Don Saulo. “Instead of thinking that religion inhibited individuality, I came to see it as the collective wisdom of countless generations,” she writes. “I respected it as a way to examine fundamental questions…. Religion was Don Saulo’s language, and it gave me a way to talk with him about my feelings, insecurities, and ideas.”

Raffaele too appreciated his time with the prison chaplain and found comfort in his religion. He “look[ed] to Jesus as a source of strength, a higher power beyond the ephemera of each day’s battles and anxieties,” and prayed even for his enemies, as Christ instructed. But on “a bad day,” he admits, he reproached him: “You were crucified because you did a lot more for others than you should have,” he wrote in his journal, and “sometimes I wonder if it was worth your while.” The reader sympathizes, given the malevolence of the forces against him. Interestingly, perhaps regrettably, it’s hard not to notice that the Italian Raffaele, with his knowledge of Dante and the classics, has had a more thorough education than the American Amanda.

They both also go through the case against them and how it was built, step by dishonest step, and demolish it, but this had already been done in a number of books that came out after the guilty verdict was handed down in late 2009. These books (Murder in Italy, by Candace Dempsey; The Monster of Perugia, by Mark Waterbury; Injustice in Perugia, by Bruce Fischer; and The Fatal Gift of Beauty, by Nina Burleigh) disperse the fog, lies, and misunderstandings surrounding the case, dispel all the questions, and resolve all the supposed mysteries—the timing of the calls to the police, the scaling of the second story, the glass on top of the clothes, the blood drops, the shoe prints, the footprints, the knife, the bra clasp, the DNA, the supposed evasions of Amanda and Raffaele.

And the books on the other side also appeared, exposing more emphatically the weakness of the prosecution’s case. In Barbie Nadeau’s anti-Amanda book, Angel Face, based on her reporting for the Daily Beast, and featuring an enthusiastic introductory endorsement by Tina Brown decisively declaring guilt, the author blandly reports that 14 smeared fingerprints at the murder scene might have been Amanda’s and Raffaele’s!

* * *

When the first appeal overturned the guilty verdict and declared the pair not just “not guilty,” but “innocent,” it righted a terrible wrong. Two young people had spent four years in prison for nothing. That indeed should have been caso chiuso—case closed. But amazingly, the prosecution managed to secure a retrial (more peculiarities of the Italian justice system), at which, astonishingly, the two were declared guilty once again in January of this year. The judges’ report explaining the new guilty verdict was released in April. There will be yet another appeal.

One has to believe that they will ultimately be vindicated, but the question that remains demands an answer: How could such an egregious miscarriage of justice happen?

Yes, in their rush to solve the crime, the prosecution and investigators made enormous mistakes and then quite simply didn’t want to admit it, and so concocted the case against the two naïve young people who happened to be at the scene when police first arrived. And yes, the media stoked the worldwide hysteria, reminding us that we are not so far away from the witchhunts, scapegoats, and pitchforks favored by our peasant ancestors, although they usually required more evidence.

But the errors of the authorities evidently go further back than the misdiagnosis of the crime, to Rudy Guede himself. The fact that he had never been prosecuted for his history of break-ins and burglaries has led those familiar with law enforcement to believe that he was working as an informer for the Perugia police. Thus, in mitigating his guilt and casting the major share of blame on Amanda and Raffaele, the authorities are shielding their initial error in letting Guede stay free—free to break into another domicile, free to take the life of a poor unsuspecting British girl.

* * *

It gets thicker and uglier. In the prosecution’s scenario, Rudy has become a victim! He was abandoned by his own parents and adopted by a wealthy Italian family who offered him many advantages but finally gave up on him. He was struggling to survive without gainful employment and so fell into stealing and became easy prey for the wicked temptress. And there is a handy racial component to his story as well. At one point Mignini pled that the court not allow “the poor black boy” to “be punished alone,” especially since the real culprit was supposedly Amanda. Mignini and Guede’s lawyer Walter Biscotti have been spectacularly successful in minimizing his involvement. In February 2014 he was allowed out on day parole to study at a university near Perugia, after serving less than six years of his sentence.

His ridiculous lies in maintaining his innocence—he and Meredith were engaged in consensual sexual activity when he excused himself to go to the bathroom, whereupon an intruder killed her—were not believed by the court, but somehow his saying that Amanda and Raffaele were the intruders is believed. In one of the pieces of grim comedy in this case, he even released statements denouncing the two supposed killers, and demanding they be brought to justice. “I want to underline that the people who committed this terrible crime are still free,” he fumed in a letter to his lawyer, duly released to the press.

Inexplicably, Meredith’s family, as well as Meredith’s British friends who went to Perugia with her, continue to believe that Amanda and Raffaele are guilty, having been mesmerized by the prosecution to accept that the crime was some outlandish ritual, and not what it sadly was, an ordinary break-in and robbery that resulted in murder when Meredith returned home unexpectedly. As a result, they seem scarcely even to have noticed the outrage of the reduction of Guede’s sentence, and now his parole.

A picture of Meredith appears on the internet, achingly pretty, with a bit of the little girl still about her. So we have it: a beautiful young woman, full of love and promise, brutally cut off from life; two innocent young people made to suffer lengthy false imprisonment and an ongoing nightmare of lawsuits and litigation, their lives wracked by false accusations that have blackened them in the minds of many; and the brutal killer given a light sentence and early freedom. Yes, some might well call it diabolical, only not in the way the prosecution has claimed.