Perhaps one should ration oneself to once a year, for the phrase “in a hundred years, people won’t believe …”. If so, I’d like to use mine now, for the trials and tribulations of Amanda Knox, the young American woman who has just been released on appeal in Italy, her conviction for murder quashed.

Knox had been convicted in 2007 for the murder of Meredith Kercher, a young British exchange student in Perugia. Kercher’s death, at her flat, was appalling — forensic evidence showed that her throat had been slit, that she had been s-xually assaulted, that she died slowly.

Knox shared the flat with Kercher and two others, but would later claim not to be there on the night of her death. Instead she had spent the night at the apartment of her boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito. However, both were questioned almost immediately by the police, held overnight, and allege that they were deprived of sleep and food.

Much was made of their concessions they made about what was ostensibly possible — thus Sollecito’s concession that he could not be certain that Knox was at his flat while he was asleep, had great significance placed on it. Knox, on her second day of interrogation, stated that she had been at the flat on the night of Kercher’s death — and also that her boss, an African bar owner named, of all things, Patrice Lumumba, had been at the flat.

Lumumba had an alibi, and Knox would later confess that she’d made up the story about him being there — but it would be a costly fabrication. Two weeks after Knox’s murder, DNA evidence would place an African-born occasional thief Rudy Guede at the scene — indeed his DNA would be found all over Kercher’s body, and inside it, and a bloodied hand print on her back matched his hand.

Guede opted for a specific Italian device, a “fast-track trial”. Though pleading not guilty, he did not challenge evidence against him and the trial was held in-camera. He claimed he was in the flat for a s-xual assignation with Kercher and was out of her room, and wearing earphones, when “other people” entered Kercher’s room and killed her. He said he struggled with “an Italian man” leaving the house.

Guede was convicted of murder, but his story left scope to continue the prosecution of Knox and Sollecito. Here they had the bad luck to encounter Perugia prosecutor Guiliano Mignini, who was desperate to recover his reputation after the 20-year investigation of the “monster of Florence” serial killer case, which he had not only ballsed up, but been accused of abuse of process.

Mignini prosecuted Knox and Sollecito with obsessive focus. With Knox placing a black man at the scene, a likely scenario assembled in the public imagination — exchange students, two pretty young girls, black guys, a little dope, a lot of booze. The prosecution threw every conceivable possibility at the court — s-x games, jealousy, dope psychosis, satanic rituals and all of the above.

Knox had put herself at the scene and stories of her behaviour thus acquired significance — her jealousy of Kercher, a somewhat preppyish arrogance, a story that she had been laughing uproariously and literally turning cartwheels at the police station.

Last but not least was her strange smile, seen during broadcast of the subsequent trial. It was, even to the most open-minded observer, very odd, and in moments of easy judgment, symptomatic of a certain type of woman — the manipulative queen bee, dispatching her rival, in a game that had got completely out of hand (for devotees of that classic of ’70s “transactional analysis” Games People Play, the game in question is “Bitch”, which author Eric Berne dryly noted, sometimes ends ‘in prison or the morgue’).

The trouble was, the whole case against Knox and Sollecito, was full of contradictions. Following alleged police bullying, Knox had placed herself at the scene, a statement she almost immediately retracted. Weeks later, the police claimed to find DNA of Knox on a kitchen knife used in the killing, and DNA of Sollecito on Kercher’s bra.

The late appearance of this material placed it under heavy suspicion. The Knox family, applying the full court press to the case, managed to get a body of US forensic scientists to sign a letter claiming that the Italian tests were outdated. It was clear that the chain of evidence of the bra DNA was absurdly contaminated.

Witnesses placing Knox and Sollecito away from Kercher’s apartment had earlier been discounted; those placing Knox near the apartment at the time — though contradicted — had been taken on face value. Faced with the collapse of his case, Mignini had played to the deepest cultural strains of Italian life, constructing Kercher as the holy virgin, and Knox as the satanic whore.

The panel of judges — professional and lay — didn’t buy it this time, and released Knox on appeal, after which she immediately departed for Seattle, never to return. Given the shakiness of the evidence, that appears to be the correct decision. Yet lingering questions remain. Does police intimidation alone (which the police deny) account for Knox’s creation of a whole narrative placing herself in the flat, and a black man as well — albeit not the black man who was there?

Guede may well have been robbing the place — but he wasn’t a professional thief, simply a barfly who occasionally drifted into crime. The alternative scenario is that he, Knox and Sollecito were at the Kercher-Knox flat, and something very crazy spun out of control. Guede’s story, by that account, is partly true, but also modified — not being in the room at the time of the murder — in an obviously exculpatory way. Knox and Sollecito’s account of being at his flat is contradicted by several other witnesses. It is all a mystery that is unlikely to be resolved.

There are thousands of wrongly convicted people in European jails, but Knox’s story caught the public imagination for obvious reason. S-x, jealousy, youth and beauty were involved. There was the air of a demi-monde — the global network of exchange students, getting their rocks off far from home — that intrigued and provoked envy. There were African migrants, on whom Europeans project a fantastic amount of fear and Mandingo fantasy.

And there was an American young woman who seemed to embody her country’s relationship to Europe tout court — simultaneously manipulative and guileless, naive and decadent. The whole thing was Daisy Miller meets Mildred Pierce. No one could get enough of it.

But in the aftermath its other aspect emerges — the Kercher/Knox/Sollecito trial stands as a symbol of the utterly archaic nature of justice, not just in Italy, but across the world. Italian policing and justice came in for heavy criticism, most of it justified — the country combines insouciant postmodern corruption with unreformed medieval processes.

But following the Troy Davis judicial murder in the US, and a string of UK appeals releasing people on appeal five, 10, 15 years after conviction, the spotlight must surely turn on the medieval conceit common to all Western justice systems — the conflation of legally established guilt with moral, individual guilt, regarded as certain. Though the legal system ostensibly separates these, the whole performance of the law is directed against it.

The accused — innocent before a verdict — sits separated from other citizens in the court (in the US, where they sit at a table with their lawyer, they are brought in handcuffed and shackled); when remanded — still innocent — they come under the control of the same prison system as the guilty, with the same privations; the prosecution, in advancing this case, throws in any amount of psychological interpretation, freighted with whatever cultural prejudices are pertinent to the place or the time.

Should the person be found guilty, either by confession or after 10 days of fraught deliberation, the judge then launches on a total denunciation of their character, finding — in serious crimes — the roots of their wrongdoing in their malign character. Whether unquestionably guilty or appealing their case, they are shipped off to the total punitive institution of the prison — from which, should they be acquitted on appeal, they are immediately removed and the initial judgement is magically rescinded.

Far from being a “wicked person pursuing your selfish and perverted interests, causing untold pain” etc, etc, you are now “an innocent person tragically wronged …etc”. All of these practices are grounded in medieval ideas that suggest that social acts arise from essential individual being — that evil is located within the corporeal individual (hence all the performances of bodily transfer of non-violent prisoners), and that a sovereign — the judge — can wholly define an individual, through words from on high.

Surely a genuinely modern justice system would involve the total separation of the remand system from the prison system (and conditions of non-punitive sequestration when people have to be remanded); a reasonable latitude for the defence case, with a limit on the capacity of the prosecution to advance unsupported arguments about motive, character, etc; a strengthening of the inquisitorial aspect of Anglo-Saxon system trials, especially with regard to evidence for reasonable doubt; automatic appeal and review of serious convictions, during which period, the convicted prisoner is not subjected to punitive regimes or conditions; and an abandonment of the freewheeling judgment, following conviction.

Such reforms would not take care of the manifold inequalities of the justice system by way of money, etc; but what is often ignored is the way that the medieval structure of contemporary justice exacerbates such inequalities (a more defence-oriented inquisitorial system might reduce the advantage rich defendants have, for example).

But most importantly it would lessen the absurdity that is present in trials such as that of Amanda Knox. For Knox is probably innocent, and through all the time she was, was treated as a she-devil, and locked in a dank cupboard-size cell. Yet there is also some chance that she is guilty — even as she flies home to be honoured for her faith and fortitude in the face of a great wrong done to her.

Peter Fray

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