A True Tale of an Italian Witch Hunt
by S. Michael Scadron
An abridged version of this piece has been published in the CSMonitor.
Dating back to seventeenth century Salem, fast forwarding to the McCarthy era, and continuing with a spate of overzealous child abuse prosecutions during the 1980's and 90's, America’s courtrooms periodically harken back to the middle ages. The United States is not the only country in the western world looking to ferret out and punish its witches. Unfolding in Perugia, Italy over the past few years is the demonizing of an American foreign-exchange student convicted of murdering her British housemate in a drug fueled orgy. The sex game scenario is one dreamed up by the prosecutor, embellished in the media, but unsupported by the evidence before the court.
Before November, 2007, Amanda Knox was a typical college student. According to family and friends, back home in Seattle Amanda played soccer, partied hard, dated boys, attended class, and impressed her teachers with diligence and creativity. She practiced yoga, enjoyed hiking and rock climbing, loved music and studied guitar. She fed the homeless and nursed sick friends. On the honor roll at the University of Washington, she majored in foreign language studies. From a family of modest means, Amanda worked several jobs to earn her way to Italy as a foreign-exchange student. On a November day that year, at age 20, her world changed, her life turned inside out. From a free-spirited college kid to a prison cell, 6000 miles from home.
Giuliano Mignini reigned as the public minister and chief prosecutor of Perugia when one of Amanda’s housemates, a British girl named Meredith Kercher, was found murdered in the cottage she shared with Amanda and two Italian girls. Mignini was under indictment himself at the time for abuse of power in an unrelated case. Mignini subscribed to a modus operandi in which he prosecuted those who disputed his theories in the press for such crimes as interfering with an investigation. In a sensational serial killer case known as the Monster of Florence, the investigation of which spanned several decades, Mignini had gone a bit too far by intimidating and illegally wiretapping journalists and various public servants. He would later be convicted of the charges against him. In the meantime, his investigation in that case, focusing on bizarre theories of satanic rituals, had hit a dead end.
In their book, The Monster of Florence, Douglas Preston, an American writer, and Mario Spezi, an Italian journalist, tell how Mignini was drawn to the theories of a crackpot named Gabriella Carlizzi, who ran a conspiracy theory website. Carlizzi believed that a satanic cult known as the School of the Red Rose was behind the Monster of Florence killings and 9/11. After Meredith’s murder, Carlizzi announced on her blog that “[t]he human sacrifice of the student [Meredith Kercher] bears a close connection with the ... Monster of Florence....” She’d later claim that the crime possessed “the characteristics of a ritual culminating in human sacrifice.” It seems the public minister of Perugia was listening.
Undoubtedly, Mignini’s reputation had suffered as the result of his indictment and he needed a break to help restore it. Amanda, lucky girl, would become his prize demon, and her Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, collateral damage.
Amanda and Raffaele have always maintained that they spent the night of the murder at his place, smoking dope and watching a movie. In the days following the murder, Amanda was subjected to more than 40 hours of questioning by police. For some reason, she aroused their suspicion, possibly because of her romance with an Italian boy. In terms of life style and morality Perugia is a conservative city. In the days following the murder, Amanda and Raffaele, who’d been dating for one week, were seen and photographed together, caressing and kissing, in the vicinity of the crime scene. The chief police inspector would later claim that he didn’t need evidence to conclude that Amanda was guilty; he could judge by her behavior. At one point, such behavior included Amanda saying that she “could kill for a pizza.” As the Italian press would put it, if she could kill for a pizza, what else would Amanda kill for?
Understandably, the police were under immense pressure to solve the case. On November 5, four days after the murder, Amanda and Raffaele were called to the police station, put in separate rooms, and subjected to an interrogation that lasted all night. Mignini supervised the questioning. The police provided no interpreter even though Amanda had been in Italy for less than two months. When she asked whether she should have a lawyer present she was told that a lawyer would only complicate matters. She would later testify that at some point the police turned on her. “It was like a crescendo,” she recalled. The Police called her a stupid liar and slapped her on the back of the head in order to help her better remember her role in the murder. She denied being involved in the crime, or that she was protecting anyone.
The police then asked her to imagine what had happened. Exhausted and spent, she stated that she had a dream-like vision in which she heard the screams of the victim. She named Patrick Lamumba, her boss at a bar where she’d worked, as the actual killer. The police had come to suspect Patrick because of an email Amanda sent him the evening of the murder. Patrick told Amanda he didn’t need her to work that night. “See you later,” she emailed back, “have a good evening.” The police took “see you later” to indicate something sinister was to occur. No less than 12 officers took turns in browbeating Amanda until she made statements they could use against her. She later retracted her statements but the police claimed they had her “confession.” They announced to the press with great fanfare that they had solved the case.
The Italian media went into a frenzy, labeling Amanda a she devil and sex predator. Mignini would refer to her in court as Luciferina, the mythical woman with the face of an angel and the soul of a devil. In short order, Amanda became the Monster of Perugia. She, Raffaele and Patrick were arrested and held for murder. Mignini’s theory, leaked to the press, was that all three killed Meredith because she refused to participate in a sex game, a premeditated sacrificial rite. Only later, when the crime scene was analyzed, did the arrests and press announcements seem too hasty. The DNA analysis did not point to Amanda or the two men arrested but to a homeless drifter from the Ivory Coast named Rudy Guede who had a history of break-ins and harassment of women. Rudy had fled to Germany, but was soon caught and extradited back to Italy.
It turned out that evidence of Rudy was everywhere in Meredith’s room: bloody footprints, DNA fingerprints, palm prints, bodily fluids, hair, and even fecal matter. By the same token, there was an absence of evidence of anyone else: no blood, no hairs, no fingerprints, no saliva, no DNA. Rudy’s initial story was that he’d had consensual sex with Meredith, after which he went to the bathroom with his i-pod and earplugs. He heard a scream and ran out to find that an intruder, an Italian man, had broken in and slashed Meredith’s throat. The intruder fled, shouting at Rudy that he, a black man, would be blamed. Although Rudy’s story would change, neither Amanda nor Raffaele were present in his initial version.
Amanda and her family breathed a sigh of relief. Surely, they thought, she’d at last be exonerated and released, her brief nightmare over. But it was not to be. Mignini and the police had announced to the world the case was solved. They could not afford to lose face. Mignini agreed to the release of Patrick who had an air-tight alibi, and simply substituted Rudy for him, notwithstanding that neither Amanda nor Raffaele had any connection to Rudy. He stuck to his theory, based on pure speculation and fantasy, that the two men – now Raffaele and Rudy, rather than Patrick – held Meredith down while Amanda stabbed her in the throat. All because Meredith refused to be a part of their drug fueled sex orgy. Never mind that Amanda had no trace of violence in her past, had never been arrested, and had never so much as behaved aggressively toward anyone.
Steve Moore, a retired FBI agent with 25 years of investigative experience, including investigation and prosecution of violent crime, has thoroughly studied the Kercher case. Based on his review of the evidence, Moore concludes that there is an absence of evidence that would have to be there if Amanda and Raffaele were involved in the crime. In an article entitled The Mountain of Missing Evidence, Moore makes the following observations:
1. Meredith’s room would have been filled with the bloody footprints, hand prints and smears of three people, not one, if the prosecutor’s theory is true. Yet, evidence of the presence of Amanda and Raffaele in the cottage at the time of the murder is missing. Moreover, it would have been impossible to remove all traces of evidence of Amanda and Raffaele while leaving all evidence of Rudy in tact. Thus, the prosecution’s theory that Meredith’s room was cleaned is not credible.
2. If the prosecutor’s theory were true, that Amanda stabbed Meredith in the throat while Rudy and Raffaele held her down, there would be blood-stained clothes, underwear and/or shoes of the attackers. Yet, no blood was ever found on any of their clothes or shoes. No discarded clothes were ever found.
3. There would have been bruises, cuts and other injuries to Amanda and Raffaele, yet neither had so much as a scratch. There was not a single hair of theirs in the room. Raffaele’s glasses were not broken or bent. So, they were not involved in any struggle with Meredith.
4. According to the scenario laid out by the prosecutor, there would be significant blood residue, yet not a speck of blood was ever found in Amanda’s room or Raffaele’s apartment, the most likely places they would have changed their clothes or cleaned up.
The prosecution conceded that Amanda had no history of violent or aggressive behavior. Amanda’s family describes her as a sweet young woman incapable of hurting a fly. At most, they say, she can be quirky, especially in tense situations, behavior that at times might be misconstrued as insensitive. In her book, Murder in Italy, Candice Dempsey explains Amanda’s behavior as follows:
Amanda Knox has always been eccentric, even by Seattle standards, a strong girl who believed in speaking her mind, in telling all. Her parents had worried about her studying abroad, saying that she sometimes lacked common sense....Everyone agreed that Amanda was book smart, not street-smart. She prided herself on being her own person, not like anyone else.
Whatever else might be said of Amanda, nothing in her past so much as hinted at meanness or vindictiveness, much less violent behavior. Yet, according to agent Moore, if the prosecutor’s theory of the crime is correct, such action on her part would be sociopathic in the extreme, behavior that could not possibly have been so well hidden from those who knew her before.
Mignini never came up with a credible motive. E-mails show that Amanda and Meredith got along well, aside from the typical roommate squabbles. They attended the Perugia chocolate festival together in October, and a video shows the girls performing karaoke with a third woman. They sound a little off key, a bit tipsy perhaps, but it’s clear they’re having a good time.
In the weeks and months ahead, Mignini searched and came up with a few pieces of evidence in an attempt to discredit the accused and bolster his theory. There was nothing, however, to implicate Amanda in Meredith’s murder, just speculation born of gossip and innuendo, usually false, about her alleged promiscuity or postings on those internet sites so popular with teenagers. Even her prison diaries were lifted and sold to the tabloid press, though they contained nothing that would suggest Amanda was culpable in any way. She became popularly known as Foxy Knoxy in the international media. Readers might be forgiven for not knowing that Foxy Knoxy was a nickname afforded Amanda by her soccer teammates when she was eight years old due to her crafty moves on the soccer field.
The Italian Supreme Court in Rome ruled portions of Amanda’s confession, obtained in violation of her rights, inadmissible. But the jury heard her full statements anyway because they were presented as part of a civil suit for slander brought against Amanda by Patrick. The slander suit was heard in conjunction with the murder trial.
Of the physical evidence presented at trial, only a large kitchen knife lifted from Raffaele’s kitchen, alleged to be the murder weapon, and a bra clasp belonging to Meredith are of note. The knife contained Amanda’s DNA on the handle and traces of Meredith’s DNA on the blade. The problem for the prosecution was that a coroner concluded that the knife was inconsistent with the victim’s wounds. The DNA on the blade was insufficient to be attributed to Meredith. Amanda’s DNA on the handle could easily be explained in that she used the knife for cooking.
The bra clasp allegedly contained DNA that could be in a class that included Raffaele’s DNA. It also contained the DNA of five other people. The biggest obstacle for prosecutors was that even though it had been plainly visible on the floor during the initial search, the clasp was not picked up until six weeks later when it was discovered in a swept up dust pile. For this reason, any DNA testing would be inherently unreliable, most likely the result of contamination. As with other evidence in the case, the defense team was not allowed to conduct its own independent testing.
After thoroughly examining evidence collection techniques in this case, Agent Moore concluded that at every step investigators’ actions were counter to established and recognized practices.
Chris Halkides, an Associate Professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of North Carolina - Wilmington, has evaluated the evidence in the Kircher-Knox-Sollecito case, presenting his findings on several aspects of the case in a series of blogs entitled View From Wilmington. Especially problematic, according to Halkides and several forensic scientists upon whose work he relies, is the failure of investigators to disclose the electronic data files of the DNA evidence that underlies the DNA test results. Disclosure of such files is particularly important in a case like this involving low level samples of DNA. Without the low level samples on the knife or the weak, mixed DNA on the bra clasp, the case, as a whole, is insubstantial.
Amanda spent a year in prison before being charged with murder and a second year while being tried. The court convened only two days a week and the judges urged the jury to immerse itself in press accounts of the case in their spare time. Despite the relentless vilification of Amanda in the press, she and her family were hopeful that the paucity of evidence would result in acquittal. Wrong again. When the jury announced its guilty verdict in December, 2009, Amanda was so distraught the prison guards had to hold and console her all through the night.
In the days following the verdict many in the United States expressed outrage. Senator Maria Cantwell, from Amanda’s home state of Washington, issued the following press release:
I am saddened by the verdict and I have serious questions about the Italian justice system and whether anti-Americanism tainted this trial. The prosecution did not present enough evidence for an impartial jury to conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Ms. Knox was guilty. Italian jurors were not sequestered and were allowed to view highly negative news coverage about Ms. Knox. Other flaws in the Italian Justice system on display in this case included the harsh treatment of Ms. Knox following her arrest; negligent handling of evidence by investigators; and pending charges of misconduct against one of the prosecutors stemming from another murder trial.
The Senator stated that she was in contact with the U.S. Ambassador to Italy, Secretary of State Clinton, and the Embassy of Italy in Washington, D.C. It seems unlikely, however, that the State Department will intervene while the case is on appeal, in light of its policy of non- interference with the judicial process of a sovereign nation. Indeed, to do so might invite a backlash that would ultimately work to Amanda’s disadvantage.
The Italian judges and jurors did not buy into Mignini’s theory lock, stock, and barrel. But their reasoning, set forth in a voluminous report issued 90 days after the verdict, was equally speculative and bizarre. They reasoned that when Meredith refused Rudy’s sexual advances, Amanda and Raffaele came to the aid of this rapist who they did not know, rather than to the aid of Amanda’s friend and housemate. Recognizing Amanda’s non-violent history, the judges found no premeditation or malice. Rather, in a sex game fueled by drugs, events spiraled out of control. Amanda got 26 years and Raffaele 25. Rudy, in a separate fast track trial, had already been convicted and sentenced to 30 years (reduced to 16, on appeal).
Amanda is presently spending her third year behind bars, her ultimate fate uncertain as the case slowly grinds its way up the appellate ladder. Independent judges will be involved in her appeal, which will be heard this coming November. Amanda and her family hope that the appeal process will have more integrity than what has gone before. If the case is decided on the facts, Amanda will go free because there is no evidence to implicate her in the crime upon which the court may justifiably rely. If the case is decided on some other account, such as protecting the political ambitions of local authorities, she may remain in an Italian prison for some time.
Mignini is not content to have Amanda locked up in an Italian prison for a mere 26 years. On appeal, he is seeking to extend her sentence to a life term, which in Italy computes to 30 years. Moreover, he has brought criminal slander charges against her for telling her version of the all night police investigation when police allegedly hit her on the back of the head. The police have denied striking Amanda. Her slander trial is scheduled to be heard in the fall, around the time of her appeal. If convicted on the slander charges, Amanda may face up to six additional years of incarceration.
On top of everything, Mignini has brought criminal slander charges against Amanda’s parents for repeating Amanda’s version of the interrogation in a media interview. One can be excused for asking whether the public minister wants to bankrupt Amanda’s family to such an extent that they are forced to abandon the fight. Alternatively, might these extra charges be an attempt to deprive Amanda of her parents’ visits for at least a portion of her sentence?
Amanda’s defense team will be presenting new evidence of its own on appeal that might free not only Amanda and Raffaele, but Rudy as well. A jailed Italian mobster has claimed that his brother, whose whereabouts is presently unknown, killed Meredith. In March of this year, Lucianno Aviello told Amanda’s attorneys during videotaped interviews that his brother came home one night wearing a bloodstained jacket and carrying a flick knife, saying that he had killed a girl during a botched robbery. He asked Aviello to hide the blood stained knife and a set of keys. Indeed, police never had recovered Meredith’s keys.
According to Aviello, his brother claimed that he and an Albanian man broke into the house and found Meredith and Rudy there. When Meredith saw them, she screamed like mad and defended herself by scratching and hitting out at him. In response, Aviello’s brother slashed her throat. Aviello says that he can prove it because the evidence – knife and keys -- are buried at his home. In fact, there had been evidence of a break-in at the crime scene, but police theorized that the break-in was staged, allowing them to adhere to the sex game scenario as an inside job.
Aviello had sent several letters to the court during the trial, but Mignini and the judges ignored them. Mignini told the British and Italian media that Aviello’s claims were irrelevant since the court had deemed him not credible and didn’t interview him. This assertion is curious in light of the fact that Italian prosecutors have used Aviello’s testimony in the past in several mob trials.
If the appeals court allows Aviello to testify, it will be interesting to see if the knife and keys contain Meredith’s blood or DNA on them. If so, Amanda, Raffaele, and possibly Rudy, will all be exonerated. Whether anything comes of Aviello’s story or not, several questions persist about the verdict and, in general, about how the case has been handled.
First, as soon as Amanda, Raffaele, and Patrick were arrested on the morning of November 6, 2007, the police and prosecutors came up with a narrative about the crime that held that the killing of the British student resulted from a drug fueled orgy which was part of a premeditated sacrificial rite in which all three participants took part. There appears no evidence to support such a narrative as opposed to, for example, a botched robbery. Is the police narrative, which persisted through the trial and verdict, fact or fantasy?
Second, when the forensic evidence came in establishing that Rudy, who had a history of break-ins, was the only person who could be linked to the crime scene, why were the charges against Amanda and Raffiaele not dropped for lack of evidence? Could it be that the original narrative had so taken hold in the media that the police needed to save face? Moreover, was it necessary to hold to the original narrative to salvage Mignini’s career?
Third, the police and prosecutors went about collecting evidence based on flawed methodology. Could it be that instead of amending their theory to fit the facts, they made up facts to fit their theory?
Fourth, did police and prosecutors fuel the media frenzy directed at Amanda? How was the media able to develop a persona of the Seattle native so at odds with the persona known by her family and friends? Did the negative press ultimately seal Amanda’s doom?
Finally, the jury’s report rejected the prosecutor’s theory of the crime to the extent that the jury found no malice. Yet the jury’s reasoning seems to defy common sense because it concludes that despite no motive, Amanda teamed up with a miscreant she did not know in order to attack her friend and housemate. Did anti-Americanism play a role in the trial and verdict as Senator Cantwell has suggested? If not anti-Americanism per se, was Amanda’s status as an outsider a factor in her guilty verdict?
These are a few of the perplexing questions that will likely be considered by the Court of Appeals in November. Meanwhile, Amanda spends her time in prison keeping in touch with family and friends by mail. She is limited to visits two days a week and speaks on the phone to her family in Seattle for ten minutes every Saturday. She is taking correspondence courses toward her college degree, and, as necessary, she assists with her appeal, primarily by translating court documents. As a language student, she takes pride in helping semi-literate Italian girls write letters home.
Holidays are particularly hard on Amanda. In a letter to a family friend, she recalled that when she was younger, on Mother’s Day, she’d help her mom cut big branches of lilacs from the yard and bring them to her Oma’s [grandmother’s] to put in a vase. “I can still remember their fragrance.”
What comes across in Amanda’s letters is that she still finds joy in whatever small pleasures she can, as on those occasions when music is brought into the prison.
The most awesome of news! Somehow, just somehow, Don Saulo brought a piano into the prison!!! Yesterday we were playing and talking music, since I help him out by playing the guitar (he helps me by putting a guitar into my hands), when I recognized a Hebrew song that one of the nuns had put on for us to listen to. It lead to a great conversation about religious music and also popular culture. I recalled for him when I performed in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and I had fun explaining for him the song ‘Matchmaker’, one of my favorites from that play.
Kind of random, but a fun moment for me here.
Amanda wants her supporters to know that she does not blame Italy or the Italian government for her predicament. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I like Italy. Those who have accused me and condemned me are wrong and my conviction is unacceptable, but I would be living without hope if I couldn’t believe that justice could happen here in Italy. That is my hope.”
Only time will tell.