Amanda Knox declared innocent after four-year fight
After an extraordinary trial that featured accusations of Satanism, police brutality and drug-fuelled violence, a controversial murder conviction has finally been overturned.
The university town of Perugia used to be a quiet Italian backwater. That was before 21-year-old British student Meredith Kercher was found dead in her bedroom one morning in 2007. She had been stabbed to death.
As details of the murder case exploded onto headlines around the world, the city became the scene of a media feeding frenzy. Every detail of the killing was picked over by eager reporters, who seized gleefully on the enigmatic figure at the centre of the case: Kercher’s flatmate and, perhaps, killer – Amanda Knox.
Young, photogenic, from a wealthy American background, Knox was the perfect murder suspect – at least from the newspapers’ point of view. She had, the Italian press quickly decided, the ‘face of an angel’, but the soul of a ‘diabolical she-devil.’
Knox and her Italian boyfriend, Rafaelle Sollecito, were accused of killing Kercher as part of a drug fuelled sex-game gone wrong. They confessed to using cannabis on the night of the murder. Knox was known to have slept with ‘several’ men in Italy – as prosecutors put it: she was ‘devoted to lust, drugs and alcohol’. To tabloid reporters, the contrast between her demure, respectable appearance and her supposed secret debauchery was irresistible.
It was amid this fever of journalistic speculation that Knox was tried, convicted and sentenced to 26 years in prison. Sollecito got 25. A third defendant is serving 16, having been convicted in a separate trial.
While most in Italy and the UK rejoiced to see ‘the witch’ condemned, Knox’s supporters in the US vowed not to give up the fight. Defence lawyers immediately launched an appeal. Knox, they said, was no monster. Friends from back home in Seattle described a bright, friendly, straight-A student from a solid middle class background – a person totally incapable of murder.
Yesterday was the final day of that appeal. At 11am, the eight-member judging panel retired to consider its verdict. There is little hard evidence. In the end, the judges will have had to decide based on what sort of person they believe Amanda Knox to be.
Proof and prejudice
There are some who claim to have seen the truth about Knox – to have understood the true nature of her character, and therefore to know the answer to this murder case. Prosecutors, for example, claim to have seen a ‘Lucifer-like’ personality lurking beneath her calm exterior.
Others say that in a case like this, people’s perceptions vary based only on their prejudices. Conservative Italians see a drug user with an active sex life and conclude that she is also a murderess. Americans see a pretty girl from a respectable family and conclude that she is an angel. Can such constructed narratives, however convincing, be any basis on which to judge a murder trial?
- Should assessments of someone’s character be taken into account in a murder trial? Does it matter, for example, whether Knox was or was not a good person in everyday life?
- The Kercher case attracted a huge amount of attention from the world’s media. But is murder really news? Why do journalists focus on crimes like these – and should they?
- Choose a historical figure and write two short articles, one arguing that your chosen subject was an angel and one arguing that he or she was a devil. How easy is it to put both sides? And how useful do you think this kind of extreme approach is?
- Different countries have different rules about isolating jurors and judges from stories in the media. Italy is unusual in demanding no isolation at all. How important do you think it is? Draw up some rules of your own as to what sort of outside influences jurors should be able to be exposed to.
Some People Say...
“You can always tell a murderer by the look in their eyes.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- What evidence was there in this case, other than judgements on Knox’s character?
- Not much. Knox made an incriminating statement which put her at the scene of the crime but only after four days of interrogation with no lawyer present. Her defenders say you can make anyone confess to anything with harsh interrogation, and that Knox was bullied and tricked. The statement was later ruled inadmissible.
- Anything else?
- DNA evidence which linked Knox to the crime scene was demolished by independent experts. The only thing suggesting Knox was there at all was her own behaviour.
- What behaviour?
- Prosecutors say she was freakishly calm and cheerful, even when accused of murder. Defenders say her behaviour was typical for a frightened young woman under extreme pressure.
- Feeding frenzy
- The metaphor comes from sharks, which, when they smell blood in the water, sometimes cluster round prey in a frenzy of activity, biting anything that moves.
- Good looking on camera. People are also sometimes said to be ‘telegenic’, meaning ‘good looking on film’.
- Behaviour considered sinful or wanton. An unrestrained surrender to basic appetites.
- Judging panel
- In Italian law, cases like this are heard by a panel of two professional judges and six ‘lay judges’ who are ordinary members of the public. In most legal systems, these would be jurors.
- As an illustration of how perceptions can vary based on perspective, consider this: in a survey of Italian students, only 20% of men thought Knox was guilty, compared to 69% of women.