Is Amanda Knox guilty or innocent? New Netflix documentary seeks answers
As a new documentary on one of the trials of the century lands on Netflix today, Siobhan Brett looks at the renaissance of true crime stories on our screens
One thing has always been certain about Amanda Knox, and that's that she's difficult to read. Throughout her trial for the murder of Meredith Kercher, subsequent appeal and eventual release, she puzzled the world's media, because nobody knew what to make of her. Was she - in the words of American journalist Barbie Latza Nadeau in the opening line of her biography on Knox, "an honor student from Seattle who met anyone's definition of an all-American girl: attractive, athletic, smart, hard-working, adventursome, in love with languages and travel"? - or was her pretty face "a mask, a duplicitous cover for a depraved soul"?
Beyond guilt or innocence, this is the question that juries, judges, journalists, and the general public have been tormented by for years. It is one - among many - that a Netflix documentary on the case, released today, will seek to address.
A student from Washington living in central Italy in the late noughties, Knox was found guilty of the violent murder in 2007 of her college roommate, Meredith Kercher, alongside her ex-boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito.
In 2011, after almost four years in prison, Knox was exonerated. In 2013, she was retried, and in 2014, sentenced to 26 years in prison. Finally, last March, she was acquitted.
Almost a decade has passed since Meredith Kercher was killed. Knox is again living in America. She works as a freelance writer and columnist for a regional newspaper, the 'West Seattle Herald' (her latest was on the Washington Midsummer Renaissance Fair, prior to that, on the subject of tattoos).
Knox maintains a public, if sleepy, Twitter account, where she has posted at least one selfie, many photographs of plants and flowers, and praised, in turn, Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and the legalisation of same-sex marriage.
But her route from convict to exoneree, lined as it has been with people perversely interested and prying, was less than direct. The media interest in Knox raged in a sustained way, long after she was acquitted. The name of Rudy Guede, the man currently serving a sentence for the murder of Kercher, is, unreasonably, not at all a familiar one.
Per 'Vanity Fair''s website, Knox, who cooperated with the documentary-making, will "speak on film bluntly and with icy precision about the pain, lies, and excruciatingly inventive worldwide headlines surrounding her travails".
The appetite for evidence, and for objective programming that zeros in on the more cryptic elements of an investigation, continues to build. In pursuit of promising material, US broadcasters and networks are dialing back to household-name crimes of the 80s and 90s and sizing them up again, scutinising as though for the first time. Where the story revolves around an exoneree, is it even more valuable?
"Undoing a conviction is like unbaking a cake," said Greg Hampikian, US biologist and director of the Idaho Innocence Project, whose DNA findings in the Knox case led to the overturning of the sentences against Knox and her co-accused.
"Post-conviction processes have evolved a lot. But the idea of life post-conviction is still a new idea," he said. The public is growing more interested in the inspection of certain ambiguity in the investigation of crime, trial, conviction, and sentencing, Hampikian said.
He suggested that yes, the Netflix show will likely present a level of detail containing information and perspective that would override the far-reaching interest in the media's depiction of the case, the salacious caricature brought by day-to-day coverage of the event. Work on the documentary began in 2011.
Since Kercher's murder, Knox has repeatedly had her psyche scrutinised, her precise features and mannerisms studied, her personal diaries plundered, and her story parsed by any number of reporters in different guises.
Even after her acquittal, Hampikian recalls having to draw the blinds during a holiday dinner in the Knox family home, to which he had been asked, in order to shut out tabloid paparazzi.
Two years ago, Latza Nadeau's book was made into a film. Writing in the 'Guardian' last year, columnist Deborah Jane Orr, lamenting the feverish objectification of Knox that characterised media coverage of the case suggested that a "… fictionalised film… offers a much more truthful account of the case than the speculative contentions of investigators, criminal and journalistic."
According to Jean Murley, an associate professor at City University of New York and the author of a 2008 book about true crime, the genre is increasingly "taking up the offer to critically examine reality, not just to serve it up on a plate for prurient interest or voyeuristic thrills".
"True crime has shifted away from mere narration of crimes and criminality, and towards narrating the conflicted and problematic systems that produce crime and criminals," Murley said. "This is doing audiences a service, and audiences are responding most favourably."
Evidence supporting Murley's assessment is everywhere. Larry Karaszewski, the co-creator of one of the hit true crime releases of the last 12 months, 'The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story', said that nothing he and his screenwriting partner Scott Alexander have ever produced has provoked the same response from viewers.
"I can only speak for Scott and I, but we love the minutiae," Karaszewski said. "With OJ, we had a story so high profile, one everybody felt they already knew everything about. We think a biopic involves a sense of 'fait accompli'. We prefer to examine 1,000 other ways something could have gone."
Karaszewski said that the series was "no longer about the murder". "It was about race," he said. "It was about the police department. Being about these highly relevant subjects, it no longer felt like a period piece. I think about Marcia Clark [lead prosecutor in the Simpson trial] when I hear people calling Hillary [Clinton] "unlikeable", or complaining about her laugh."
Books written by the people involved in the case were heavily relied upon in the creation of the 10-part series, he said. "In the case of OJ, everybody involved had written one, if not two, books. The decision not to talk to anyone, or sympathise with one side of other, was seen by some as disrespect. But we viewed it as respect," he said.
More than 20 books about the trial of Amanda Knox have been released. Knox, too, added to this body of work in 2013. But the upcoming documentary reportedly relies not on books at all, but on fresh and contemporary accounts from Knox, Sollecito, and Julio Mignini, the Italian prosecutor who brought the case to trial.
Mignini has been described as coming off poorly in the documentary's interviews. On there being blame to lay in one place, Hampikian took a tempered view.
"I don't know about there being bad actors," he said. "It is mainly a bad system. It allows people to take shortcuts. Human beings are guilty of a lethal confidence of thinking we are right. We are willing to execute or imprison based on our views."
The documentary, however, is not at all expected to come down on a side. It is expected to delve further and more clearly than ever into the story. This should satisfy both the curiosity of a viewer for whom the "Foxy Knoxy" portrayal feels post-factual, and each of its almost 10 years, as well as that viewer's demand for the truth an adrenalised media neglects to get to.
True crime’s multimedia renaissance
The podcast that needs no introduction. Spun off from ‘This American Life’ and downloaded 100 million times, the non-fiction production hinges on the life and trial of Adnan Syed, convicted of killing his girlfriend.
The Jinx (2015)
A six-part HBO documentary series about Robert Durst, the American “real estate mogul” connected with the disappearance of his wife and two separate murders.
The People v. OJ Simpson (2016)
The first instalment of a season of crime programming by FX Films presented the criminal case that gripped America for much of the 1990s, in a new light.
Making a Murderer (2016)
Ten episodes of the Netflix documentary explore the murder conviction and imprisonment for almost 20 years of a man named Steven Avery (pictured) in Wisconsin.
The $12m dollar true crime movie, starring Steve Carell, is obliquely based on the story of John E. du Pont, a philanthropist who murdered an Olympic wrestler in 1996.
Starring David Duchovny, this NBC show, now in its second season, is loosely based on the record of Charles Manson, the notorious American serial killer and cult leader.
The Case of: JonBenét Ramsey (2016)
Upcoming CBS show about the 1996 killing of child pageant star Ramsey (above). “Part documentary, part narrative feature”, the show will facilitate a kind of contemporary reinvestigation by experts.
– Siobhan Brett