Death in Perugia: Meredith Kercher, Amanda Knox and the new global class war
Seven years ago, Meredith Kercher was murdered in Perugia. Last month, an Italian court reconfirmed the conviction for her murder against Amanda Knox and her then-boyfriend. The evidence is overwhelming, so why is the world convinced of Knox's innocence? The Kercher murder is a story of new global class divisions and who benefits from them, says Crikey's writer-at-large.
When private legal matters become public, it is usually wise to avoid forming a judgement. Usually, but not always. For every trial whose fascination is merely lurid, shocking and voyeuristic, there is a Dreyfus affair, in which all the prejudices and assumptions of a civilisation are compressed into a single courtroom, a single case.
In recent weeks, we have seen that illustrated by two cases that have lingered for a decade and more. Renewed accusations of child sex abuse against Woody Allen surfaced and dominated the news — ironically crowding out the other big trial, the re-conviction of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito for the murder of Meredith Kercher in Perugia in 2007. In this case, the crowd got it wrong. To take an interest in the utterly undecidable Allen case serves no purpose; it is simply a proxy way to have a debate about how evidence should be assessed in child abuse cases. Channelling it through the doings of New York royalty only distorts the argument. But the Meredith Kercher case is different. Though the evidence against Knox is very strong indeed, she has all but been declared innocent in the public eye, and the indifference to her very likely acts of violence — and to the victim of the killing — is very disturbing. Furthermore it is a case that, beyond itself, concerns gender, or even gender and race. It is about a global fate in a new world of class.
By now everyone thinks they know the facts, so it’s worth starting from the beginning. On November 2, 2007, the body of Meredith Kercher, a 21-year-old UK exchange student, was found in her bedroom in the flat she shared with three other young women in Perugia, central Italy. Kercher had been repeatedly stabbed, the fatal blow being one to her neck, through which she suffocated in her own blood.
Her body was found when her housemate Amanda Knox and Knox’s boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, called the police, after Knox had returned to the flat from Sollecito’s place and found evidence of a break-in. However, another group of police had already arrived — they had found Kercher’s mobile phones dumped in a garden and traced them to the address. When Kercher’s door, which was jammed, was forced open, her body was found beneath a quilt. Forensic analysis would put her time of death at around 11pm the previous night.
Police began investigating the house and quickly determined that the break-in was staged. The window in one of the other bedrooms was smashed, and a four-kilogram rock lay in the centre of the room. Glass lay on top of the objects there — nothing, including computers and jewellery, had been disturbed. No glass lay outside, and any burglar would have had to climb the outside wall, open the shutters, climb back down and chuck the rock. The scene was consistent with the rock being thrown from inside, using the shutters as a buffer.
When police began interviewing Knox and Sollecito as witnesses, their accounts of the morning began to fall apart. Both said they had spent the night at Sollecito’s nearby apartment, waking at 10.30am. Knox said she had come to the apartment and found the front door open, blood spattered in the bathroom and faeces in the toilet — but had not checked the house and had instead taken a shower before calling Sollecito and then her mother in Seattle, where it was 3.30am. Phone records would later suggest that Sollecito’s call to the police to report a break-in occurred after, not before, the first cops arrived, investigating the dumped mobiles. Later, records would establish that Knox and Sollecito had both turned their own phones on at around 6am that morning.
Gradually, police suspicions began to shift to Knox and Sollecito. Sollecito changed his story almost immediately, saying that Knox had left his flat that night and only returned about 6am. Knox, waiting at the police station, told one of the other young women in the share house (they and their boyfriends had alibis) that Kercher had been stabbed in the neck — but at this stage Knox had not seen her body, nor had that information been communicated to her. Interviewed in the early hours of the morning, Knox told police she had been in the house when Kercher was killed, and she named Patrick Lumumba, the owner of a bar where she worked, as the killer.
“Very little of this evidence was reported in the feverish coverage of the trial. Instead, Knox’s behaviour afterwards became the focus …”
Though Knox later claimed she had been up all night and had been bullied by police, she had actually slept for a few hours before the interview and gave a statement within a couple of hours. Throughout, she disconcerted people by her behaviour — necking and giggling with Sollecito, doing cartwheels and yoga in the waiting room. Though no evidentiary weight was placed on this, these were the details flashed around the world. Lumumba, as his name suggests, was a Congolese immigrant. He was on remand for two weeks before managing to get bar patrons to provide an alibi for him for the night. Knox claimed harassment and tiredness had caused her to “remember” him killing Kercher, but she made only half-hearted attempts to retract her statement.
By that point, both Knox and Sollecito had been arrested. Forensic analysis showed that Kercher’s wounds couldn’t have been inflicted by a sole attacker — the depth and angle showed she had to have been held. Police had searched Sollecito’s apartment, noticed a strong smell of bleach, and found a knife matching a bloody print on Kercher’s sheets. Though it had been thoroughly cleaned, it had partial DNA traceable to Kercher on the blade, and the same for Knox on the abutment of the handle — consistent with the knife being used for sideways stabbing, rather than cooking on a surface. Forensics analysis from Kercher’s flat found DNA from Knox and Kercher commingled in the bathroom, and a surprising absence of DNA for Knox and other co-tenants elsewhere — consistent with a thorough cleaning.
Police also found ample DNA for another person on Kercher and in her bedroom, which they traced to Rudy Guede, an unemployed kid from the Ivory Coast, whom both Knox and Kercher had befriended and who had been at the apartment before. Guede had previously been accused of break-and-enters and of threatening with a knife, though he had never been convicted. When brought in, Guede said he had been at the flat, fooled around consensually with Kercher, and gone to take a dump. Guede said he had heard screaming and had come out to find Knox and Sollecito stabbing Kercher, then Sollecito had said, “there’s a black guy, there’s a suspect, let’s go” and he and Knox ran. Guede further claimed that he had tried to staunch Kercher’s bleeding, and then, panicked, ran for it. Guede’s story would change several times across the case, implicating, absolving and then implicating Knox again.
As the investigation continued, further evidence piled up. Sollecito’s cleaning lady said she had found two bottles of bleach at his flat that she did not recognise as being there before. A local reporter found a witness — a homeless hippie type in his 60, who lived in the town square near the Kercher/Knox house. He said he had seen Knox and Sollecito in the square at nine and then later close to midnight of that night, the latter time looking down at the house from the square (which was on a rise) and talking animatedly. Several witnesses in the area around the house came forward with reports of an appalling and sustained scream around the 11pm mark. Six weeks after the initial search, a bra clasp from Kercher’s bra — it had been cut off her body — was found under furniture. It had Sollecito’s DNA on it. It had been found and marked earlier, but then forgotten in the bagging of evidence. A search with luminol, which discloses bloodstains not visible to the naked eye, found footprints of three people — Guede, and prints consistent with Knox and Sollecito, and consistent with cleaning. And nearly a year into the process — with Knox and Sollecito still awaiting trial in the slow Italian system — the same reporter found the manager of a small express-style supermarket who identified Knox as coming into his store — which lay between Sollecito’s flat and the Knox/Kercher house — at 7.45am that morning and going to the cleaning products section, though he had not seen what she subsequently bought. Investigation of Sollecito’s background found he had a knife fetish and a taste for violent manga comics and videos.
Very little of this evidence was reported in the feverish coverage of the trial. Instead, Knox’s behaviour afterwards became the focus — her necking with Sollecito, turning cartwheels, and her and Sollecito’s visit to a store on the day the body was discovered, where Knox bought underwear — some say lingerie — and Sollecito was allegedly overheard to say that she could wear it later and he would fuck her. None of this was central to the police case, which was built on the DNA evidence, the staged break-in, witness ID, phone records and the inconsistencies of Knox and Sollecito’s stories. But they did use it as strengthening evidence for the case they had already built.
Nothing that was done by the Italian police and prosecutors differed significantly from procedures in Anglo-American court systems. But they did search more earnestly for a motive than our system might have done, and in doing so both judges and prosecutors built up a substantial and speculative narrative around Sollecito and Knox. They were, several judgments in the process concluded, two narcissistic rich kids, killing out of desire for a thrill — Sollecito was recorded as having wanted to do something that night that “wasn’t boring”, not like just another night. The period of November 1-2 is of course All Souls Day, or Il Giorno Dei Morti, or “the day of the dead”. Both Knox and Sollecito turned off their mobile phones around 9pm, something records suggest they did not usually do.
Explicit motive remained elusive, and it was here that the Italian system gave a false lead to an eager global press. Working backwards from the overwhelming circumstantial evidence, they envisioned some form of sex game/argument/taunting gone wrong, partly from Knox’s and Kercher’s attested-to antagonism. Knox was unpopular with the other three young women, doing yoga exercises mid-conversation, singing at all hours, never cleaning up, and bringing home a number of one-night stands during the month they lived together (she had been going out with Sollecito for 10 days when the murder occurred). They, Kercher especially, objected to having strange men in the house — Knox interpreted this as prudishness.
“Much of this evidence was a standard and accepted indication of culpability.”
Much of this evidence was a standard and accepted indication of culpability. There was post-event manic behaviour and lack of evidence of upset or disturbance, a stunning failure of empathy — Knox asked, the day Kercher’s body was found, whether they would have to pay the rent for the remainder of the month on the house, now that it was a sealed crime scene — and the covering of the body, which usually indicates murder by a person known to, and involved with, the murderer. In conversations taped by police, Knox and her mother discussed how the 3.30am phone call could be “explained”. Knox also lied about whether or not she had received a text from Patrick Lumumba on the night of the murder (telling her not to come in to work, as it was too quiet); at the time she had falsely implicated Lumumba in the murder.
However, in discoursing rather grandiloquently on Knox’s apparent narcissism and traces of sociopathy, the court system fed the global media exactly what it wanted. It was the “single white female” story, two young women (who resembled each other to some degree) caught in a strong clash of identity — hardly uncommon to share house living, or one’s early 20s — that spun out of control with the admixture of violence. The argument was quite plausible, but not essential — the case rested on the evidence that Guede could not have killed Kercher alone, if he killed her at all, and extensive evidence pointed to Knox and Sollecito.
Guede pleaded guilty to the murder in a “fast-track” process that allows a reduced sentence as recognition of admission. He was sentenced to 30 years; this was knocked down to 16 on appeal. During Knox and Sollecito’s trial, the defence attempted to throw doubt on the chain of evidence, with little success, and to query the eyewitness, who appeared to mention events in the square on both the October 31 and November 1 — and was a heroin user, to boot. However, he remembered a fairly clear sequence of events from November 1, and Knox had been working in Lumumba’s bar on October 31, ruling that date out.
With the overwhelming weight of the evidence, both Knox and Sollecito were duly convicted on December 5, 2009, the case automatically put for appeal. The prosecution initially assumed this would be a formality, and had it been, there things might have ended — had the appeals court not — to everyon’s surprise vacated the judgment, acquitting Sollecito and Knox, who immediately headed for the airport. And there it might all have lain, had the Italian police and prosecutors not come to believe that they were now fighting on behalf of Meredith Kercher, as Amanda Knox went from prisoner to unlikely global culture hero.
Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito, having been convicted, and then on October 3, 2011, acquitted on appeal, of the murder of Meredith Kercher (pictured), were released from prison, with Knox scarpering back to Seattle. The prosecution had realised from the start of the procedure that the process was odd, with the junior of the two lead judges, Massimo Zanetti, saying “the only thing we know is that Meredith Kercher is dead”. The lead judge, Pratillo Hellmann, was a commercial court judge, unfamiliar with DNA evidence.
They also realised that something else was shifting, for it was in the months following the initial conviction that social and cultural power came into play. Meredith Kercher’s family were middle class, her father a freelance journalist. Sollecito and Knox’s families were rather more high-powered. Knox’s father was a vice-president of finance of the Macy’s retail chain, a multibillion-dollar business with a lot of power in Seattle, their hometown — and one twinned with Perugia. From the beginning of the trial, Knox gained the intensive support of the USA-Italy Foundation, a business group with substantial connections in both countries, and to the United States embassy in Italy. As the appeal process got underway, Knox’s parents hired forensic experts to contest the findings and a PR firm to manage the media. Reps for Knox were sent to media outlets to argue the case for her innocence, and it was at this point that the narrative began to change — from Knox as a deadly femme fatale to that of an innocent party, guilty of prejudiced, sexist attitudes. Meanwhile, an imprisoned career criminal and Camorra mobster, Luciano Aviello, claimed this his brother — now on the run — had killed Kercher, after they had broken into the house in error. Known as a perjurer, Aivello later claimed that Sollecito’s wealthy family had offered him 300,000 euros to tell the story.
In their reasons for acquittal, the appeal judges found that proof beyond reasonable doubt had not been achieved on the claimed staged nature of the break-in, that there had been manifold errors in handling forensic evidence, and that the witness was not reliable. Both Sollecito and Knox were freed and she was spirited to the airport by the USA-Italy Foundation. The prosecution promptly appealed the appeal. In March 2013, the Supreme Court ordered a rehearing of the appeal — and it was as scathing of the first appeal as the appeal was of the initial judgment. The higher appeal faulted the first appeal for relying almost completely on the defence’s hired experts — whose credentials the prosecution questioned — in faulting the DNA evidence, for disregarding evidence pointing to a staged break-in, and for dismissing evidence that the attack could not have been staged by a single person. The case was thus put to trial again, although this was more a hearing of existing evidence, and with the appeal objections dismissed, Knox and Sollecito’s conviction was upheld/reinstated on January 30, 2014. The judges have another three months before they have to release the full report on their reasoning, and they will very likely take it.
By now, public opinion in much of the Anglophone world had swung behind Knox. There were many reasons for this. The Italian justice system matches Anglo ones — an appeal can vacate a judgement, but can in its turn be vacated — but the Italian presumption-of-innocence throughout changes the terminology. In other words, the Italian system is more scrupulous, but it looks less so. That is true of its slow pace — Anglo-American trials are sprints, in which sleep-deprived barristers try to defend someone as a trial changes direction daily; the Italian system allows time to rally (though it also condemns one to years of remand). Some mishaps in the forensic process did not contaminate evidence and were no greater than in most cases, which have less visibility. The US and British justice systems regularly vomit back people who have spent 10 or 15 or 20 years wrongfully locked up because the system wants to give the appearance of decisiveness, and thus has much less scope for appeal than does the Italian system. That process, especially in the US, usually has a racial aspect — and there is something deeply unsettling about Knox’s implication of an innocent black man, and her limited attempts to clear him afterwards.
“… most likely an example of what happens to you if you fuck with the global rich.”
But such an appearance of rigour in the Anglo judicial system plays easily into a Protestant-nation caricature of a Catholic one — muddled, lackadaisical Italy, great for charming little cities, less so when something goes wrong in them. In the case of Knox and the US, that prejudice fused with the protectiveness towards an American, especially one who tended to be judged by the world for a certain particularly American style of behaviour — self-regarding and performative in a way few Americans mind but that had clearly antagonised her housemates (two Italians and a Brit) and others. The American defensiveness of Knox — which reaches hysterical proportions on the umpteen websites devoted to claiming her innocence — is in part a memory of European anti-Americanism during the Cold War, now largely vanished, but still keenly felt. Much of the reflexive belief that Knox and Sollecito have no case to answer comes from the fact that the evidence is overwhelmingly circumstantial rather than direct — and the mistaken TV crime drama belief that “circumstantial evidence” is not conclusive. In isolation it isn’t, but when it all builds to a scenario that can admit to no other reasonable explanation, then it suffices. This, arguably, is the situation in the Kercher trial.
There is also the question of corruption, which may be more pertinent, given that judicial appointments are often narrowly political in Italy. The supporters of Knox assert it in the initial judgments and subsequent ones, though it is difficult to see what the motive would be. By contrast, the first appeal with its peremptory dismissal of much of the evidence accrued in the trial obviously serves the interests of Knox and Sollecito — who appears to have left a half-arsed run for the border too late. Not only them; days after the appeal acquittal, a dozen politicians from Berlusconi’s PDL party signed a letter accusing prosecutors of over-reaching in the Kercher case and claiming this to be typical prosecutorial behaviour — a claim Berlusconi was making at the time in an attempt to derail prosecutions against him. That the first appeal was so comprehensively overturned suggests that it was, for whatever reason, an outlier. That Knox was permitted to leave the country immediately suggests a reason for it.
There is something else, more disturbing about the Kercher/Knox/Sollecito case, and that is the way that sympathy has swung round to Knox beyond simple US fealty — and often a sympathy that some claim as a feminist act. What is unsettling about this is that one suspects that sympathy is less about objection to stereotyping, justice, etc, than it is about a desire to identify with the living rather than the dead, with convicted killer rather than victim. Knox is here and Kercher is gone, and animal sympathies, rooted deeper than morality, go not merely to the survivor but to someone who has exercised her will. That split is always with us — we know that we should have solidarity with the victim, but something in us resists such identification. Culturally, that tension is handled by crime fiction — figures like Ripley or Hannibal Lecter allow us to identify with creatures of pure will, and grant us relief from the discontents of moral life. Knox’s perpetual media presence, her sleek patrician air, her status as an American, all add to that. It’s why Salon publishes a disgusting puff piece for someone’s Knox fanfiction; why Slate and Spiked waded in with know-nothing pieces where they would have been more scrupulous otherwise; why The Guardian, chasing a US audience, runs what is virtually a 10-minute soap opera/video commercialfor Knox, “interviewed” by a journalist who has cultivated a connection with her for three years; why Jezebel can publish this bizarre piece in which finding someone guilty of murder becomes tantamount to slut-shaming; and why Mamamia, that daily bulletin from the Republic of Stupid, has an article that says:
” I think Amanda Knox is innocent.
“Yes, I’m a jury of one. Currently 16,317 kilometres away from where the crime took place. And I am aware that I am basing my personal verdict not on forensic evidence heard in a courtroom but on feverishly watching the story unfold over seven years on international television … Reflecting on the case, that’s how I feel too. You see, I have accidentally over-identified with Knox. She is my age. She’s got blue eyes and dark blonde hair …”
It then goes on to rehash the findings of the first appeal, without noting that the initial trial and subsequent second appeal, contradicts them. What’s common to all of them? An utter indifference to the circumstances of Kercher’s death. There are many small questions about much of the evidence, and much of the above account could be questioned. But the question is not “is there any doubt”, but “is there reasonable doubt”, quite a different thing. Having a working justice system demands that spurious doubt not be entertained as a get-out clause from difficult decisions; it applies also to how we regard someone who is, after all, a convicted murderer.
Furthermore, there’s an indifference to the different fates accorded here: Guede, who asserted his innocence, then changed his story and copped a plea, knowing what chance a black immigrant would have, whether innocent or guilty; Sollecito and Knox guilty or innocent, seeking to evade justice through money; and Meredith Kercher in a messy student room, bleeding out and conscious of her approaching death all the while, no one’s object of enraptured identification, and most likely an example of what happens to you if you fuck with the global rich.
Guy Rundle is Crikey's correspondent-at-large. He was co-editor of Arena Magazine for 15 years, and has written four hit stage shows for Max Gillies, two musicals, numerous books and produced TV shows including Comedy Inc and Backberner.