Is Amanda Knox really the other victim . . . ?
Caitriona Palmer in Washington on why there is growing concern about the conviction of a young 'sex killer'
Published 13/11/2010 | 05:00
For three years, near the medieval Italian town of Perugia, a 23-year-old American student named Amanda Knox has sat in a prison cell, convicted of the brutal slaying of her British roommate, Meredith Kercher.
To the tabloid press and Italian gossip mill, she is a heartless "she devil": a "sex predator" with an appetite for the kinky who allegedly slit the throat of 21-year-old Kercher in a drug-fuelled sex game that went horribly wrong.
But to a growing chorus of international forensic and investigative experts, Amanda Knox and her Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, are innocent. Unwitting victims, they say, of a massive miscarriage of justice and a case so inconsistent and weak that it would not hold up in a court of law elsewhere.
This week, Knox was back in court facing slander charges for claiming that she was hit twice on the back of the head by police during questioning about her roommate's death in 2007.
Already serving 26 years for the murder of Kercher, Knox faces an additional six years if the Italian jury finds her guilty.
It is just one more headache and distraction for Knox's defence team who are gearing up for the battle of their lives when they return to court on November 24 to begin an appeal against her murder conviction.
Speaking exclusively with the Weekend Review this week, Amanda's mother, Edda Mellas, said that her family was hopeful about the outcome of the appeal.
"I am cautiously optimistic about the appeal. We have a very strong case because Amanda is innocent and there is no forensic evidence of her in the crime scene," Mellas said.
"If they just look at the evidence objectively, they will correct this mistake and free two innocent people. I hope they have the courage to do the right thing."
"There is no DNA (relating to Amanda)," Paul Ciolino, a private investigator hired by the CBS television network to investigate the case, told the Weekend Review. Experts note that Knox faces an uphill battle in Perugia, where the foreign language student's notoriety as a femme fatale is unrivalled, and where members of the same court will try her appeal.
"She will have a very hard time because it is a small town and once you've been found guilty in a small town anywhere, it's very hard to come back from that," said Candace Dempsey, an Italian-American journalist and the author of Murder in Italy, a true crime book about the Knox case.
Controversy also surrounds the presence of Giuliano Mignini -- the powerful lead prosecutor in the murder trial and the proponent of the sex-game allegation -- who gambled his personal reputation on convicting Knox and Sollecito.
Last year, Mignini was convicted by a court in Florence for abuse of power charges in a separate murder investigation that involved alleged Satanist cult members. He received a suspended 16-month prison sentence.
The court ruled that Mignini had exceeded his powers by tapping the phones of police and journalists investigating the sensational 'Monster of Florence' serial killings that terrified Italy between 1968 and 1985.
Although Mignini is awaiting the result of an appeal, he is still allowed to perform his legal duties and will return to the courtroom at the end of this month to fight Knox's appeal.
"When a prosecutor has ever been accused -- much less convicted -- of serious misconduct, they pull them from all prosecution cases. However, it's not the case in Italy," Ciolino said.
Knox's saga began on November 2, 2007, when the body of Meredith Kercher was discovered in the cottage that they shared.
The University of Leeds student was found with her throat slashed and with multiple bruises on her body -- evidence that she had fought desperately for her life. DNA evidence was splattered all over Kercher's room and apartment, including a bloody handprint on the wall and the bloody imprint of a knife on her bed.
Despite their claims that they had spent the night alone at Sollecito's apartment, Sollecito and Knox soon became suspects. Investigators cited Knox's bizarre behaviour -- kissing and cuddling with Sollecito in front of television cameras -- as strange for someone in her predicament.
Following an all-night interrogation -- during which Knox claimed to be under severe duress -- investigators obtained a confession from her in which she claimed to have been in the apartment at the time of the murder but pointed the finger at a local bar owner with an airtight alibi.
Mignini's theory of a sex game gone wrong -- a premeditated sexual rite fuelled by drugs -- began to take hold. But almost all the forensic evidence at the scene belonged to someone else -- a homeless drifter called Rudy Geude who had fled Perugia after the crime.
"His footprints, his fingerprints, his DNA -- it's all over the place," said Ciolino. "And it's not like a little bit or maybe. It's absolutely no doubt about it that it's (Geude's) DNA."
With the bar owner exonerated, Geude went on trial and was found guilty of complicity in the murder of Kercher. He was originally sentenced to 30 years in prison; reduced to 16 years last December on appeal. According to experts, the conviction of Geude -- and the lack of physical evidence implicating Knox or Sollecito -- should have spelled the end of the case.
But convinced of his sex-game theory, Mignini pressed on, using Knox's confession and the discovery of a weak strain of Sollecito's DNA on a bra clasp belonging to Kercher. However, Knox's defence team argues that the clasp -- which had lain undiscovered for six weeks after the murder -- was contaminated with the DNA of several other individuals too.
"If that nails Raffaele, then the police should also arrest the other people whose DNA is on that tiny metal bra clasp," Dempsey said. "Meanwhile there is no trace of Amanda in the murder room. She's a human being, not a tropical butterfly. How did she commit a brutal stabbing and float right out of there?"
Dempsey, who covered Knox's trial, believes that Knox's best chance for freedom lies in the Italian authorities allowing independent testing of the DNA and computer evidence -- a move they've resisted so far.
"The knife doesn't fit the wounds nor the bloody imprint on the bed. And yet that's holding them to the crime," she said.
"I keep going back to the DNA evidence. If they allow for independent testing at the Perugia level, then maybe Amanda has a chance. If they don't, then she won't be celebrating with tarallucci e vino (cookies and wine) anytime soon."
From her cell in Capanne, Amanda is continuing her degree at the University of Washington and perfecting her Italian and German language skills. Her mother says her spirits are "ok" but that sometimes she has "moments of terror that this will not be cleared up".
"There is the fear that because there was a mistake in the first trial and two innocent people were found guilty, that this mistake could happen again."
But Ciolino remains pessimistic, warning that Knox may have to take her appeal all the way to Italy's Supreme Court before she has a real chance at freedom.
"They're going to wind up in the Italian Supreme Court eventually, where I think cooler heads will prevail. Unfortunately for her she's going to spend four or five years in prison before all of that ends."