Updated Jan. 30, 2014
The murder of British student Meredith Kercher in Perugia, Italy on November 1, 2007 caused a global controversy. Not so much for the crime itself, although it was certainly a brutal murder, but because of the disputed guilt or innocence of two of the three defendants, American Amanda Knox and Italian Raffaele Sollecito.
by Robert Walsh
On January 30, 2014, an appeal court in Florence, Italy found Amanda Knox and her former boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, guilty for a second time of the 2007 murder of Meredith Kercher, a British student attending the University of Perugia. Knox, in absentia, was sentenced to 28 1/2 years and Sollecito to 25 years. She refused to attend the latest trial, opting to send a long email to the court while remaining in the United States – asserting her innocence and that of Sollecito – a move which has antagonized some Italian officials.
Both Knox, who also attended the university as an exchange student and was a flat mate of Kercher’s, and Sollecito were originally convicted in 2009. Two years later, an appeal court overturned both convictions, ending four years of imprisonment for both defendants. Following that ruling, Italy's highest court, the Court of Cassation, departed from its normal role of dealing with legal technicalities and ordered a retrial before the appeal court based in Florence.
Those proceedings, before two judges and six lay jurors, began in November. At the retrial, the prosecution did not produce any new evidence or proof that Knox or Sollecito were in the bedroom when Kercher was stabbed to death in 2007. It merely changed its theory of the case from some sort of ritualistic sex game gone bad to Knox murdering her flat mate because Kercher criticized her lax housekeeping.
Although Sollecito, now 29, attended a good portion of the retrial along with his father, he was not in the courtroom when the verdicts – after 11 ½ hours of deliberation – were announced. Knox, 26, returned to Seattle following her 2011 exoneration.
The question that is fair to ask, given their shaky original case, mishandled forensic evidence and continuing public relations problems over the case, is why were Italian prosecutors still pursuing Knox and Sollecito? To be blunt, the most plausible answer was a vendetta born of anger at being ridiculed at home and abroad and a stubborn reluctance to accept that there may well have been a miscarriage of justice. Italian authorities had already expended enormous amounts of time and resources on this case. They've also had to put up with hostile global media coverage, repeated high-profile criticisms of their investigations and handling of the case and they didn’t want to be seen to endure so much trouble and have squandered so much time and effort only to publicly admit an error. The more they pursued this case, the worse the criticisms will be. The worse the criticism, the less they wanted to be seen to admit a blunder.
Another possible cause of this vendetta may have been inspired by the 2013 publication of Knox’s book, Waiting To Be Heard, allowing Knox to achieve a good dose of vindication and a $4 million advance from Harper-Collins. The book recounts the over-the-top police interrogations she was submitted to, her four years in an Italian prison, and her exoneration on appeal in 2011. In a post-publication interview with the National Post, Knox said most of the advance has already been used to pay legal fees and expenses incurred during her trials, imprisonment and appeals. She also told the National Post she will not change her story regarding alleged police misconduct simply because of threatened defamation lawsuits by Italian police and prosecutors.
Soon after the verdicts were announced, defense attorneys vowed to appeal the reinstatement of the original convictions to the Court of Cassation once the Florence court publishes its justification of its verdicts in late April of 2014.
“It’s evident we will appeal,” said Luciano Ghirga, one of Knox’s attorneys. “We continue to say that there is no evidence,” The New York Times reported the next day. An attorney for Sollecito, Giulia Bongiorno, said the trial had been “empty of proof and evidence” and pledged to appeal. These appeals could easily take two or more years to make their way through Italy’s convoluted justice system.
A request by the prosecutor to issue arrest warrants for the defendants was rejected by the Florence court. The court ruled that Knox was legitimately in the United States and that Sollecito only be required to surrender his passport and not leave Italy.
Only if all subsequent appeals are denied could Italian authorities begin extradition proceedings for Knox’s return to serve her sentence. The decision to honor Italy’s request for extradition rests solely with the U.S. Secretary of State. Because Knox was exonerated previously, the United States will most probably not agree to extradite her to Italy. Doing so would be a violation of the U.S. Constitution's prohibition against double jeopardy. But then, again, one never knows what might happen in the politically charged atmosphere this case has generated.
Now that Knox has been re-convicted she will be unable to enter any European Union country without almost certainly being arrested and held pending an Italian extradition request. European law and various EU treaties would oblige other EU nations to do so.
Furthermore, if she enters any country with a vested interest in either pleasing the Italians or displeasing the U.S. State Department, then they may opt to detain her and offer her to the Italians as a fugitive.
Contrary to popular belief, countries do not need a standing extradition treaty to detain fugitives of another state and offer them for extradition. A notable exception to standard extradition is the EU itself which refuses to extradite prisoners to any country where they even might face the death penalty. As neither Knox norSollecito (who, unlike Knox, has attended the latest trial) would face execution if convicted, that rule wouldn’t apply.
Knox, now 25, is currently enrolled at the University of Washington in Seattle and expects to graduate in 2014.
To many observers, it was a farce for the Court of Cassation to order a retrial. Judge Hellman of the original appeal court – the court that exonerated Knox and Sollecito – was outraged by the decision to allow another retrial. Hellman has claimed unequivocally that the Court of Cassation has stepped outside its own authority by interpreting trial evidence instead of strictly confining itself to legal technicalities as required under Italian law. Hellman is suggesting the Court of Cassation effectively retried the original murder case rather than assessing the lawfulness (or otherwise) of the original investigation and trial. Hellman has also made it clear, to use his exact words, that the “Ruling has explained to the judges in the new trial how they should convict the two accused.” His prediction about that was borne out by the new guilty verdicts.
One of the distinctive aspects of the case has been the level of international media coverage. That a murder case involving a British victim and African, American and Italian defendants would attract multinational media attention is no surprise at all. What has given the case a quite tacky aspect has been the kind of media coverage it has attracted. Amanda Knox has suffered from negative publicity as much about her alleged lifestyle in Perugia as her alleged guilt in the murder. She’s been vilified for behaving like a libertine by many Italian media outlets which used her “party girl” lifestyle to sell papers while lambasting her as some kind of scarlet woman. British tabloids have used her looks to her disadvantage, labelling her “Foxy Knoxy” and suggesting she fits the profile of a cold-blooded femme fatale.
U.S. media, on the other hand, have largely been more supportive towards her, not that this has necessarily helped Amanda Knox. No country likes to see its own system of justice pilloried by foreign media and Italy is no exception. It has been suggested that, far from helping Knox’s case, U.S. media criticism of Italian justice was what hardened the resolve of Italian prosecutors to continue pursuing the case against her.
The Murder of Meredith Kercher
The murder of British student Meredith Kercher in Perugia, Italy on November 1, 2007 caused a global controversy. Not so much for the crime itself, although it was certainly a brutal murder, but because of the disputed guilt or innocence of two of the three defendants, American Amanda Knox and Italian Raffaele Sollecito.
Rudy Guede admitted to being present at the crime scene when the murder was committed and watching as Kercher bled to death, but denied being the actual killer. However, the forensic evidence points firmly to Guede’s guilt. A bloody handprint of his, covered with the victims’s blood, was on Kercher’s bedroom wall. Italian forensic police testified that Guede’s DNA was inside the victim.
Following his trial, Guede was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison. That sentence was reduced to 16 years during his appeal hearing when Guede agreed to testify against Knox and Sollecito. Guede becomes eligible for parole in 2014 due to his reduced sentence. Just because he will be eligible for parole is no guarantee he will be released.
Following Guede’s trial and conviction, Knox and Sollecito went on trial in 2009 for their alleged roles in the murder of the 21-year-old Kercher. Both were found guilty and sentenced to more than 25 years. Under the Italian two-tier trial system, the case was then referred to the higher-level court to be heard a second time, after which judges would either confirm or reject the lower-level court's verdict. In 2011 the higher-level court overturned the initial convictions, issuing a ruling lambasting the police’s handling of the investigation. Judges also singled out major defects in the collection, handling and analysis of critical forensic evidence used by the prosecution.
Unlike in the United States and Great Britain where exonerated defendants are protected against being retried for the same crime, Italy operates under the Code Napoleon which offers no protection against double jeopardy. Under Italian law prosecutors have the same right to appeal acquittals as defendants to appeal convictions. Both prosecutors and defendants can go from the higher-level tribunal to the Court of Cassation (Italy's highest judicial body, equivalent to the U.S. Supreme Court). Prosecutors appealed the higher-level ruling and, in March 2013, Italian prosecutors won. The higher-level ruling quashing the murder convictions was itself overturned and the court granted a prosecution request for a retrial. That retrial began in November 2013 and lasted until January 30, 2014, when the Florence appeal court upheld their 2009 convictions.
Amanda Knox refused to leave the United States to stand for retrial, but Raffaele Sollecito, frequently in the company of his father, attended a good portion of the retrial. He was not present in the courtroom when the verdicts were announced.
Meredith Kercher had a passion for Italy and its people, language and culture. She started a degree course at Leeds University in 2007 studying European Politics and Italian, electing to spend her foreign study year at the University of Perugia. While at Perugia she studied modern history, political theories and the history of Italian cinema. She was fluent in Italian and supported herself with the usual low-paid student work including promotional work for a local company, working as a tour guide and bar work at local nightclub Le Chic, owned by a Congolese immigrant, Patrick Lumumba.
It was through Lumumba that she met Amanda Knox when Knox took a job at Le Chic. Through Knox she met co-defendants Rudy Guede and RaffaeleSollecito.(Knox has denied ever having met or known Guede, but Candace Demspey, author of Murder in Italy, has stated unambiguously that Knox did meet him at least once. In a recent letter to Italian authorities Knox herself stated she met Guede only once, but never after that.)
Picturesque Perugia is a popular place for students, especially foreigners. The nightlife is vibrant, foreigners – both tourists and students – come and go in large numbers and local people generally welcome foreigners.Kercher lived with two Italian students and Amanda Knox. They shared a flat at Via Della Pergola 7, regarded by locals as one of Perugia’s less desirable neighborhoods, and seemed to get along well. Doubtless there were the usual occasional flatmate arguments, but nothing serious. Just two typical students abroad, sharing a flat and picking up casual work to pay the bills.
Knox, originally from Seattle, had enrolled at the University in Perugia to study Italian, German and creative writing on a one-year course, starting in 2007. She secured a room in the same flat as Kercher just prior to the start of the 2007 academic year in September. She met Sollecito at a classical music concert in mid-October 2007 and the two became a couple only a week before Kercher’s murder.
Sollecito came to Perugia from the town of Bari. A couple of years older than Knox and Kercher, he was nearing the end of his own course in computer engineering. His grades were good and there was nothing unusual about either Sollecito's background or lifestyle.
On November 1, 2007 Kercher was found dead on her bedroom floor. She had been physically restrained, sexually assaulted, beaten and slashed with a knife. The cause of death was two stab wounds to her neck. Suffocation also played a part, her naked body being discovered on her bed covered from head to foot with a quilt. An upstairs window had been broken into and Kercher’s two cellphones were missing along with her house keys, two credit cards and some cash. At first the broken window and stolen property suggested a burglary gone terribly wrong. Police soon discounted this theory. The broken window was around 12 feet above ground level and the missing cellphones were soon found in a nearby garden. The other stolen items and cash were never recovered which did indicate theft was a motive.
Ensnaring Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito
Kercher’s murder was discovered by her Italian flatmates, who immediately notified the police. The flatmates initially reported a break-in. After finding bloodstains, they found Kercher’s bedroom door was locked and, despite repeatedly calling her to open it, they got no answer. Fearing for her safety, they broke it down and found her body.
The police quickly began investigating and started by interviewing people closest to the victim. Murder investigations frequently involve starting with the victim and then those closest to him or her. Knox and Sollecito being among the first interviewed implies nothing about either their guilt or innocence. Murder is very often a personal rather than professional crime. Knox (Kercher’s flatmate) and Sollecito (Knox’s new boyfriend) were interviewed separately and their stories compared for discrepancies. As they were being interviewed as witnesses and not (at the time) interrogated as suspects, nothing they said was admissible in court under Italian law. But their status as witnesses also meant they weren’t given the standard protections afforded to suspects such as immediate access to lawyers. Nor were any audio recordings or film footage taken of their initial interviews. .
Sollecito and Knox initially claimed they were together at Sollecito’s flat at the time of the murder. Knox had been told by a text message from bar owner Lumumba that she had the night off. Business was slow that night and it didn’t look like she’d be needed. Both Knox and Kercher worked at Le Chic as barmaids.
The stories Knox and Sollecito told didn’t hold water for very long.
Both were interviewed several times over the next few days. It was Sollecito who changed his story first. (His account originally agreed with Knox's, claiming that they'd spent the whole evening at his flat. He now changed his story, stating that he'd only been with Knox for part of the evening, wasn't entirely sure when she'd left his flat and that he'd spent the rest of the evening at home alone using his computer.
According to Sollecito, investigators told him that Knox had cracked and implicated him in the murder. Sollecito later alleged that police had heavily pressured him to save himself by implicating Knox, threatening to prosecute him for the murder unless he named Knox as the ringleader. Sollecito further claimed that, while he himself had no intention of cracking, he wasn’t sure they wouldn’t bully Knox into implicating him. He was sure that they were trying to do exactly that.
Knox alleges that, once she formally became a suspect instead of a witness, police employed physical abuse, verbal threats and intense pressure to force a confession. At her appeal Knox claimed police slapped her at least twice during questioning. She also accused them of denying her food, drink, sleep and bathroom breaksand that, as she spoke little Italian, the police interpreter not only mistranslated her words but attempted to twist them and pressurise her still further.Italian officers present during her interviews deny all those allegations.
At one point investigators told Knox they had transcripts of the text messages between her and Lumumba when he gave her the night off. Knox claims police interpreted her use of the common phrase “See you later” in her final message to mean that Knox and Lumumba were co-conspirators planning to meet later and commit the crime. It was then that Knox did something very foolish. She accused Lumumba of murdering Meredith Kercher. She claimed he was obsessed with Kercher and she was sure of his guilt.
In doing so she both changed her initial story (of being at Sollecito’s flat for almost the entire evening) and made an entirely baseless accusation against Lumumba.That false accusation would have serious consequences for both of them. She was now claiming that she'd met Lumumba at the Piazza Grimana, accompanied him to her flat and actually seen him murder Kercher.
Why an innocent person would implicate herself in a murder while falsely accusing an innocent man is hard to understand, but Knox herself alleges that police mistreated her during her questioning and kept pressing her to admit her involvement in the crime. The statement containing these new claims was in Italian, a language Knox wasn't fluent in and wouldn't have been able to read fully before signing it.
Knox also acted oddly both immediately after the murder and during her initial interviews. Her emotional state regularly fluctuated between apparent indifference, crying fits and seemingly clowning around which only increased police suspicions. It also generated increasingly hostile media interest and public opinion. Her unpredictable behavior isn’t evidence of guilt so much as of stress, fear, mental fatigue and perhaps not fully realizing the seriousness of her situation. That said, it isn’t hard to see how it could be considered inappropriate by conventional expectations and suspicious to police officers.
Knox admits she practised yoga techniques at the police station between interviews. She’s also admitted spending some of her time between interviews sitting on Sollecito’sknee.
Other students and mutual acquaintances told police that Knox’s initial response toKercher’s murder seemed disinterested and seemingly callous. When questioned about her apparent aloofness and “inappropriate” behavior Knox stated, understandably, that individuals deal with stressful situations in their own ways. She also said she was under immense stress and pressure and that she never intended to offend anybody or arouse any suspicion. Contrary to police claims, Knox also denies that, in addition to yoga, she also performed cartwheels while waiting to be interviewed.
As a result of Knox’s accusation regarding Lumumba, the bar owner was arrested. He spent two weeks in detention until his alibi (being at Le Chic throughout the night of the murder) was verified. He was released without charge and eliminated as a suspect. During the investigation, his detention and subsequent lawsuit against Knox for calunnia (an Italian form of slander prosecuted as a crime, not as a civil case) he incurred substantial legal fees. His business also suffered greatly. The negative publicity forced him to sell Le Chic to pay legal fees and business debts.
After successfully suing the Italian police for false imprisonment and the loss of his good name and business, Lumumba was awarded 16,000 Euros. His successful lawsuit against Knox brought further compensation when Knox was ordered to pay his legal fees for both his initial two weeks in jail after her false accusation and for his successful lawsuit for slander. The judgment required Knox to pay 62,000 Euros to Lumumba in damages and to serve three years in prison. The prison term was later reduced to time served after Knox won her initial appeal on the murder conviction. It is not known whether she has paid Lumumba.
If things were difficult for Lumumba they were about to get much worse for Knox and Sollecito. Sollecito had also changed his story. He now claimed that Knox had not been at his home for the entire evening and that he’d spent most of it alone using his computer. Changing his story did nothing to allay police suspicions, especially when police examined his computer and refused to accept he’d been using it on the evening of the murder. They also wanted to know why, after Knox’s texts with Lumumba, both Knox and Sollecito switched off their cellphones for three hours that coincided with the murder. Knox claimed she wanted to avoid Lumumba changing his mind and calling her into work that night. Investigators clearly didn’t believe her, although the response was reasonable.
By changing his story –and only making his own situation worse – Sollecito destroyed Knox’s original alibi. With those facts and Knox’s inappropriate behavior, Italian police stopped viewing them as witnesses to be interviewed. Now they became suspects to be interrogated and anything they said could be used against them in court.
The Ivory Coast Drifter
So far, investigators had Knox and Sollecito facing possible murder charges and Patrick Lumumba facing financial and personal ruin. There was only one other suspect to examine more closely. That suspect was Rudy Guede. He’d already had run-ins with Italian police on suspicion of burglary, threatening behavior involving a knife and was suspected of dealing cannabis and hashish.
Both Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito came from law-abiding, respectable backgrounds. Rudy Guede's background was more turbulent and rather less law-abiding. Originally from the Ivory Coast, Guede, from age 5, had lived in Italy since 1991. His father had returned to the Ivory Coast in 2004 and left Guede in the care of friends, family and a local priest before he was adopted by a local family at the age of 15.
Guede became an underachiever, dropping out of college courses in hotel management and computing. At the time of the murder he had been fired from a job as gardener for his adopted parents who had also evicted him after finally losing patience with his lifestyle and behavior. Guede became a petty criminal, arrested more than once on suspicion of burglary and drug-dealing. His most recent arrest occurred only days before the murder when he was picked up for suspected burglary during which he allegedly threatened the homeowner with a long-bladed knife while escaping.
Police came to believe that Guede’s alleged drug-dealing was how he first met Knox and Sollecito, who both used marijuana freely. As he knew Knox and Sollecito, he also met Meredith Kercher. He first became acquainted with all of them only a couple of weeks before the murder. He knew Knox and Kercher’s address and had previously been found inside their flat. Residents didn’t know how he entered or why he was there. They did know that they had found him sitting asleep on the toilet. Some say he took a particular interest in Meredith Kercher.
Guede was suspected by police of having burgled a lawyer’s office by breaking in through an upstairs window. Only days before Meredith Kercher’s murder, the owner of a nursery school in Milan had caught Guede burgling the nursery school. When confronted Guede allegedly threatened the owner with a long-bladed knife to make his escape. According to Italian forensic experts working the Kercher case that knife was similar to the weapon used to murder Meredith Kercher.
On hearing the police wanted to question him, Guede promptly disappeared. He left Italy and turned up in Germany where he was promptly arrested as a fugitive and returned to Italy. Guede presumably thought leaving Italy put him outside the reach of Italian police. Within European Union member states there’s often considerable co-operation between national police forces. The European Arrest Warrant allows (and obliges) member states to return fugitives wanted in other EU countries. If Guede thought he was safe simply by entering a different EU country, he was wrong.
Guede was formally charged and held in preventive detention to await trial. Rather than plead not guilty and try clearing his name, Guede opted for a so-called “fast-track” trial which was his right under Italian law. Guede was returned to Italy on November 20, 2007. His trial began in February, 2008.
At trial, his claims of non-involvement in Kercher’s murder were thoroughly discredited by forensic and DNA evidence. His DNA was found all over Kercher’s bra strap. A bloody handprint was found on the bed under her body and it matched Guede’s handprint. Prosecutors could prove that he knew Kercher, that he had been present at the crime scene and that his DNA was found not only at the crime scene but also on and inside Kercher’s body.
Guede’s claim that Kercher had invited him into the flat and consented to sex was given no credibility by the panel of trial judges. On October 29, 2008 Guede was convicted of murder and sexual assault. He drew 30 years (later reduced to 16 years on appeal) and will soon be eligible for parole. It’s possible that he might be leaving prison before Knox and Sollecito’s cases are adjudicated.
Despite Guede being by far the most likely suspect, Knox and Sollecito were still regarded by prosecutors and police as prime suspects. With their changing, contradictory stories, seeming lack of verifiable alibis and Italian forensic experts claiming to have found solid evidence of their participation, including DNA evidence linking Knox to what prosecutors claimed was the murder weapon and linking Sollecito to the clasp of Kercher’s bra, it wasn’t long before they were both formally charged with her murder and held to await trial. Their situation looked bleak.
On November 8 they came before Judge Claudia Matteini. It was during an adjournment that Knox met her trial lawyers for the first time. Having met her lawyers only that day, Knox had no time to discuss her case with them or prepare a case for being granted bail. Judge Matteini denied bail for both Knox and Sollecito and ordered that both be detained for a year, long enough for a trial to be arranged.
Knox and Sollecito remained in jail until their trial started on January 16, 2009. They would be tried not before a jury, but before a presiding judge, a deputy judge and six lay jurors. The Italian system is based on the Code Napoleon, a different legal system common in Continental Europe. The Code Napoleon system isn’t used in the United States or the United Kingdom where a single judge and 12-person jury are the norm in criminal trials.
The First Trial of Knox and Sollecito
Their trial began before Presiding Judge Cristiano Massei, Deputy Judge Beatrice Cristiani and the six lay jurors at the Perugia Court of Assizes. The prosecution claimed that Knox and Sollecito teamed with Guede to attack, rape and murder Meredith Kercher, that the supposed burglary was faked by Knox and Sollecito (hence the easily-recovered stolen cellphones) and that the murder was either a group sex game gone wrong or the result of a feud between Knox and Kercher. The prosecution claimed that they had DNA evidence, that Knox and Sollecito had changed their stories under interrogation, that they had improvised a cover story and that Knox had falsely implicated Lumumba to protect their real co-conspirator, Rudy Guede.
The prosecution also alleged that Kercher couldn’t have been physically restrained by a single person and that Knox’s “inappropriate” behavior after the murder and at the police station suggested guilt.
A police crime scene photograph.
The physical evidence, according to the prosecution, was heavily in favor of Kercher being overpowered by more than one person. Prosecutors claimed that a knife found in Sollecito’s cutlery drawer was the murder weapon and that, on searching his flat, they noticed a strong smell of bleach which, police claimed, was evidence of the knife having been thoroughly cleaned after the murder. Guede’s shoe prints, fingerprints and DNA had been found all over the crime scene and, as prosecutors alleged he was a co-conspirator with Knox and Sollecito, that this too pointed to their guilt.
According to the prosecution case Knox performed the actual murder while Guede and Sollecito helped restrain the victim and fake the burglary. As evidence of there being more than one attacker they cited the fact that Kercher had no defensive wounds on either her hands or arms. Defensive wounds are very common on victims trying to escape an attacker armed with a knife. Their absence from Kercher’s body was a circumstantial piece of evidence used aggressively by prosecutors. They claimed that Knox had repeatedly banged Kercher’s head against the bedroom wall, forcibly gripped her face to restrain her, forcibly undressed her, repeatedly slashed her with a knife and finally stabbed her twice in the neck while Guede and Sollecito restrained Kercher. They also suggested that two knives might have been used to commit the crime, rather than just the one police had actually found. Proof of Sollecito’s involvement, according to the prosecution, came from his DNA being found on the clasp of Kercher’s bra, which was found at the scene having been cut away from the rest of the garment.
The defense case was, arguably, somewhat more solid. No shoe prints, clothing fibres, hairs, skin cells or DNA from Amanda Knox were found either on Kercher’s body or at the crime scene. Defense DNA experts claimed that DNA on the alleged murder weapon (alleged to be Sollecito’s by the prosecution) consisted of a trace too small to be identifiable as the victim’s. Claiming that police forensic experts had incorrectly collected, handled and analyzed the evidence the defense demanded the prosecution provide dates for the examination of each individual exhibit. If exhibits were examined on the same day (and examined incorrectly) then the risk of contamination was greatly increased.
Police experts refused to provide those dates and were not ordered to by the trial judges. The defense also asked the judges to order the evidence be turned over to an independent forensic and DNA experts for re-examination. They especially wanted new DNA tests and to confirm whether the victim’s wounds actually matched the knife claimed by prosecutors as being the murder weapon. The judges denied their request.
Prosecution claims that Knox and Kercher had a fractious and confrontational relationship despite being flatmates was also challenged by the defense. They produced their own selection of text messages between the defendant and the victim to support their claim that the two women were perfectly friendly and didn’t have any feud with each other.
Defense lawyers freely used their clients’ allegations against the police. Both defendants accused police of using brutality, threats, intimidation and frequent attempts to turn them against each other. Knox claimed that police deprived her of basic necessities during her initial questioning. They also claimed that police ensured Knox had no access to a lawyer, any representative of the American Consulate or Embassy or even a visit from her relatives until after she had been charged. The defense alleged police knew that Knox’s mother was due to arrive in Italy and, the day before she was scheduled to arrive, police increased their pressure on Knox in an effort to make her crack before her mother visited and could involve U.S. consular officials.
Another defense angle came from the initial interviews with the defendants. The absence of film or audio recordings neither proved nor disproved the defendants’ claims of police misconduct. But, according to the defense, police couldn’t disprove those allegations either. It was a somewhat shaky plank in the defense case that, bluntly speaking, came down to whether the judges believed the police or the defendants. At the original trial they clearly believed the police.
The defense was unsuccessful. On December 5, 2009 both defendants were found guilty. Knox received 26 years (with an additional fine and three years added later for falsely accusing Lumumba). Sollecito received 25 years. Both were sent to Capanne Prison to await their mandatory appeal to the higher court.
Italian criminal courts operate under a two-tier system as part of the Code Napoleon. Having been through the first grade level (primo grado) the judgments had to be confirmed or rejected at the second grade (secundogrado) after which they would officially be convicted. If confirmed by the second-grade court then their only option for appeal would be to the Court of Cassation (the Italian Supreme Court). Appeals there could only be brought over legal technicalities or mistakes made during the investigation and first-grade trial. Fortunately for the defendants their lawyers had a number of points to raise at the second-grade hearing.
The second-grade hearing is effectively a second trial. It began on November 24, 2010, presided over by Judges Claudio Hellmann and Massimo Zanetti. This time the judges did order independent reviews of the DNA and forensic evidence as originally requested by the defense team. The independent review was damning for the prosecution, police forensic experts and the police themselves. Sapienza University experts Carla Vechiotti and Stefano Conti, both widely respected within the European forensics field, reviewed the DNA-related evidence and submitted a report running to 145 pages. Much of their report detailed incompetence and carelessness on the part of detectives and police forensic experts.
Forensic expert Patrizia Stefanoni was castigated by independent analysts.
According to Conti and Vechiotti, the work of forensic expert Patrizia Stefanoni was bungled and flawed, failing to conform to internationally accepted standards of proficiency. They further accused Stefanoni of the much more serious error of giving evidence in court that was unsupported by her own laboratory findings. Vechiotti has also stated that, from the time she was chosen to perform the independent review, unspecified “important documents” were being withheld from her.
The independent experts stated that DNA found on the alleged murder weapon was of insufficient quantity to identify it as Kercher’s. They also quoted some of Stefanoni’s own testimony during the first-grade trial where she herself admitted that she perhaps should have double-checked her own scientific findings but hadn’t actually done so. Regarding the bra clasp used by the prosecution and confirmed as having Sollecito’s DNA, the experts noted huge errors in collection and handling of the clasp. On crime-scene pictures the clasp is obviously marked for collection and examination. It was also found some distance from the rest of Kercher’s bra.
By Stefanoni’s own admission police and forensic experts then forgot about the clasp and it wasn’t actually collected until 46 days after being found at the scene. Even then, the clasp itself was found in the middle of a pile of other objects found at the crime scene. If any of those objects had Sollecito’s DNA on them then being left in an unsorted pile for so long could easily have transferred his DNA to the clasp. Equally important, while Guede’s DNA was found all over the straps of the bra, Sollecito’s was found only on the clasp.
Anybody with even basic forensic knowledge is unlikely to consider such evidence as having huge evidentiary value. The risk of cross-contamination is simply too great. And how, if as the prosecution claims, Sollecito was physically restraining Kercher during the actual crime, could his DNA not be found on her clothing or her body? The experts also questioned the validity of the clasp as evidence when they requested it be re-examined. They were told that it was now too rusty and unfit for re-examination because it had been incorrectly stored by police forensic experts. This wasn’t as conclusive as test results proving cross-contamination, but it certainly bolstered defense claims that evidence-handling by the police forensic experts was substandard. Further proof of that claim was presented in the video footage of the clasp being recovered by the police forensic team themselves. That footage clearly showed the clasp being handled by Stefanoni wearing a visibly dirty latex glove.
Another important shot fired by the defense concerned DNA evidence used against Amanda Knox. According to the prosecution they had Guede’s DNA all over the victim and the crime scene. They had what they considered incriminating DNA from Sollecito on the bra clasp. What they didn’t have was any forensic traces of Amanda Knox on Kercher’s body or in her bedroom which was the crime scene itself. No shoe prints, fingerprints, hairs, clothing fibres or DNA from Amanda Knox were found either on Kercher’s body or in her bedroom.
The second-grade hearing could have confirmed the findings of the first-grade hearing. It could have rendered a verdict of “not proven” rather than a full acquittal. What the judges did was to quash the murder convictions against Knox and Sollecito while upholding Knox’s conviction for falsely accusing Patrick Lumumba. Even after they increased her fine and prison sentence for libelling Lumumba they still ordered her release, ruling her libel sentence had already been served while awaiting her murder trial and appeal. Both Sollecito and Knox – imprisoned for the last four years – were now freed. The judges’ ruling placed the police firmly in the firing line.
Their ruling was damning for police detectives and forensic experts. According to the appellate judges the verdict against Amanda Knox “Was not corroborated by any objective element of evidence.” They disputed the testimony of a supposed witness, a tramp named Curatolo, who claimed he saw Knox and Sollecito near the crime scene at the time of the murder. The judges felt that homeless heroin addicts are seldom the most reliable witnesses. They criticized the original trial judge, Massei, especially the fact that he used the word “probably” at least 39 times in his written ruling deciding their guilt.
They also criticized the police regarding their interrogations of Knox. They described her interrogations as being “Of obsessive duration,” stating that in their opinion her changes of story and fluctuating emotional state were signs of extreme mental pressure and stress rather than guilt. They also noted that, despite the police and prosecution claiming that Knox and Sollecito conspired with Rudy Guede, there was no evidence of phone calls or text messages between either Knox and Sollecito and Guede himself.
In short, although the second-grade finding didn’t explicitly state that Knox and Sollecito were either railroaded or convicted through incompetence that was the impression that was left.The appellate judges excoriated both the police and the prosecution’s forensic experts in their ruling. In a British or American case that would almost certainly have been the end of the matter. It wasn’t.