The case of Amanda Knox, and the murder of her English roommate, Meredith Kercher, in the Italian town of Perugia, is a real-life mystery as compelling and terrifying as any work of fiction. In fact, Knox and her Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, seem to have been convicted of this crime based on a work of fiction spun by a powerful prosecutor, a remarkable dearth of hard evidence, and assumptions with no basis in fact. Writers who dream up tales of terror could not have invented anything more chilling than Amanda’s nightmare in Italy.
Amanda Knox is an exceptionally good student, early riser, peace-and-lovenik fan of the Beatles, who leaves Seattle to go to Perugia and study Italian. She becomes a roommate in a house in a somewhat sketchy part of town, sharing it with the English girl and two young Italian women. She meets Raffaele, son of a well-to-do family, who is studying computer science at the university. A week into their romance, Amanda and Raffaele return to her house, finding evidence of a break-in, and call the police. As the police search the house for Italian-style “evidence” of theft, they find Meredith in her room, behind a locked door, foully murdered.
Amanda might have left Italy immediately, but she felt the need to stay in Perugia and help the police with their investigations. The case is assigned to the well-known prosecutor, Giuliano Mignini, who decides that this free-spirited American girl looks like a perfect suspect. She and Raffaele are subjected to all-night questioning and verbal as well as physical battery at the station; she is confused, can’t get her story straight, but of course it might be hard for anyone to remember exactly what it was they did, at what time, a few days earlier. Unfortunately, she tried to pin the blame on someone else, changed her story, and made a mess of things. Under pressure, Amanda did not fare well at the initial questioning, and was arrested along with the mild-mannered Raffaele.
Mignini concocts a tale: this profligate American and her Italian boyfriend decided to have some fun with Meredith, and try to force her into a sexual game. When she refuses, they kill her. Mignini describes them as “drug-crazed,” but their drug intake consisted of a joint, which would have made them less inclined to get off the sofa, and not more likely to commit murder.
The real horror in this tale is the Italian justice system Mignini is facing charges of evidence tampering in another case, when he is put in charge of this investigation. He later loses that case and is convicted, and given an 18-month jail term for it, which is suspended. The six jurors who are assigned to hear the case are not kept from reading the lurid international press accounts, or watching the news. In court, jurors were bored, “such as the silver-haired man who had continued his habit of sleeping through the defense testimony.”
Throughout Dempsey’s book are terrifying details, such as the prosecutor arriving on the scene and shaking the hand of the investigator wearing a sterile latex glove (so Mignini’s DNA should have been everywhere at the murder scene). A knife taken from Raffaele’s kitchen drawer was assumed to have been the murder weapon, and the uncertified lab in Rome, which handled many samples of Meredith’s DNA, found a speck of it on the knife, selected at random by an investigator because it was big and shiny (and the wrong size to have inflicted the wounds). Even though the test equipment warned that the reading on the knife was too low for accuracy, it was submitted as evidence anyway, and Italians claimed that their conviction of Amanda and Raffaele’s guilt was based on the incontrovertible DNA evidence.
Outside the courtroom in the Hall of Frescos, where the case would be decided, a carnival atmosphere prevailed. A merry-go-round had been installed, among the holiday decorations, and people thronged to be there at the finale of the “trial of the century” – like a scene dreamed up by Fellini.
One wonders what goes on in the subconscious of the prosecutor, which would dream up so sexual a fantasy with no evidence. For that matter, it is equally bizarre that the jury could convict two people for whom there was not a single shred of actual evidence at the murder scene. Plenty of evidence was found to convict another man, Rudy Guede, as his DNA was all over the room. Nonetheless, Rudy ended up getting 15 years, while Amanda and Raffaele got 26 and 25 years.
This is a Byzantine tale that leads one to suspect that Americans are not particularly safe in the bel paese. Amanda’s behavior, eccentric by Italian standards, her choice of clothing, her habit of showering “too often” or leaving the bathroom messy, convinced people in the country she loved that she was capable of murder. Amanda and Raffaele have now been in jail for two years; an appeal is pending. One can only hope that reason, and a truly fair assessment of the evidence, will finally release them from this nightmare.