Her killer did a bad job. It was amateur work: There were bloody fingerprints and footprints all over the apartment, and the killer even defecated in the toilet and forgot to flush. But that wasn't the worst of it. Whoever murdered Meredith Kercher didn't know how to use a knife.
The first two wounds weren't deep enough to do fatal damage, the knife catching on bone. On the third try, the killer found a soft spot in the left side of her throat and plunged the blade full to its hilt. The attacker then pulled the weapon from left to right several times in a sawing motion, then up and back, leaving a gash more than three inches long and three inches deep. It was clear, from the purposeful savagery of this final blow, that the intent was to kill. But since the blade missed the carotid artery, Kercher's agony lasted as long as 10 minutes. An experienced killer would have known better.
After the stabbing, the killer's behavior was peculiar, displaying an attitude rarely evident in a crime scene: remorse. Three white towels were used in a frantic effort to staunch the bleeding. When that failed, the killer removed the comforter from Kercher's bed and, in a perverse gesture of compassion, laid it over the corpse. Investigators would wonder whether the person had even seen a dead body before. Finally, the killer ran out through the front door, leaving a trail of bloody shoe prints.
When an attractive young woman from a privileged British family is murdered in Italy, you've got a popular crime story. When the person suspected of killing her is an attractive young woman from a privileged American family, you have tabloid gold. When the prosecutor hypothesizes that the victim was slaughtered during a satanic ritual orgy, you've got the crime story of a decade. When a sitting U.S. senator declares that the case "raises serious questions about the Italian justice system" and asks if "anti-Americanism" is to blame, and when 11 Italian lawmakers in Silvio Berlusconi's coalition request a probe of the prosecutor's office — well, at that point, you have an international crisis.
One might expect that the lead role in this blockbuster would be assigned to the victim, a placid, pretty girl from London named Meredith Kercher. The daughter of a tabloid writer and his Indian-born wife, Kercher was a serious student who didn't take herself too seriously; she had been drawn to the Italian city of Perugia, in part, for its reputation as the City of Chocolate. She quickly made a group of British girlfriends, joining them for dinner parties, movie nights and dancing at the local discos. Kercher was beautiful, bubbly, devoted to her family, a model daughter.
And yet, less than a day after her murder, Meredith Kercher was all but forgotten. The show was stolen by an accidental ingénue named Amanda Knox, who, until she was convicted of murder and sentenced to spend the next 26 years in prison, was unaware of a number of significant facts about herself. Knox did not understand, for instance, that she was beautiful. It was new to her, her beauty — as a high school student at Seattle Prep she was heavier, had acne and was more devoted to rock climbing and backpacking than to dating. She didn't have her first boyfriend until she was 19. "She's a little dork who doesn't wear matched socks," says her best friend, Madison Paxton. "I'd never use 'sexy' to describe her." Her beauty is no longer a mystery to her, however, now that she's received hundreds of letters from male admirers all over the world.
Knox also didn't realize that she would be judged by her behavior, her looks and her nationality. Nor did she suspect that her faith in human nature was a dangerous fantasy. She would learn other terrible lessons along the way too — the kinds of things most of us don't like to think about. In July, while she waits for her appeal case to be settled, Knox will turn 24. It will be her fourth consecutive birthday in jail. She's learned her lessons. Now she just wants to go home.
This is what we know for certain: Shortly after 10:30 a.m. on November 2nd, 2007, Amanda Knox left the apartment of her boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito. They had met only one week earlier, when Knox and Kercher had attended a Schubert recital at the university where Knox was studying. Knox had noticed Sollecito, a gawky, pale 23-year-old with delicate, rimless glasses and zero history with women. He struck her as "an Italian Harry Potter." After Kercher departed at intermission, Sollecito tentatively approached the American girl.
"She seemed to be searching for something in my eyes," Sollecito would tell his father. "I noticed that her opinions on the music were odd... She didn't concentrate on the emotions it provoked but only on the rhythm — slow, fast, slow."
Knox told him that she was working that evening at Le Chic. The bar, popular with students, was owned by a Congo-born Perugian named Patrick Lumumba, who had hired Knox on as a waitress. Sollecito showed up later that night and stayed until closing. Amanda spent that night at his apartment, and the next seven nights as well.
On the evening of November 1st, she was supposed to come over after her shift ended, but Lumumba had texted shortly before Knox was to begin work, telling her not to bother coming in — it was a holiday and nobody was drinking. She returned to Sollecito's house and, after dinner and a joint, the couple had turned off their cellphones for the evening.
They always stayed at Sollecito's because, unlike most of Perugia's 40,000 students, he didn't have roommates. His father, a wealthy urologist, had set him up with the apartment — along with the black Audi A3 that he parked outside. The only problem with the apartment was the plumbing. Whenever he used the sink, as he did that night when he made dinner for Knox, the pipes leaked and water pooled on the floor. Sollecito was so flummoxed by the puddles that he called his father for advice on how to get rid of them.
This is how, at 10:30 a.m. on November 2nd, Knox found herself returning to the cottage at 7 Via della Pergola that she shared with Kercher and two Italian girls. She planned to take a shower in her own bathroom, change clothes and grab a mop.
When she arrived, she began to notice several things that struck her as "abnormal." The front door to the cottage had been left ajar. Knox called out, but no one responded. This was unsurprising, as she knew that her Italian roommates would be away for the holiday weekend. Kercher's door was shut, so Knox assumed she was asleep.
It was only after her shower that Knox noticed the blood. In a flustered e-mail sent to friends and family two days later, she described what had happened:
There were drops of blood in the sink. At first I thought the blood might have come from my ears, which I had pierced extensively not too long ago, but then immediately I knew it wasn't mine... when I touched the blood in the sink, it was caked on already... I thought it was strange, because my roommates and I... wouldn't leave blood in the bathroom, but I assumed that perhaps Meredith was having menstrual issues and hadn't cleaned up yet. Ew, but nothing to worry about.
When Knox used a hair dryer in the second bathroom, she saw the feces in the toilet. Knowing none of her roommates would have forgotten to flush, she started to suspect an intruder. She grabbed the mop and left the house in a panic.
After telephoning her roommates — and reaching one, Filomena Romanelli — she returned with Sollecito to check for signs of a burglary. Knox's room appeared untouched. In Romanelli's room, however, the window had been shattered. They tried Kercher's door. It was locked. Knox knocked gently at first, then loudly — no response. Finally Sollecito threw himself against the door, but he wasn't strong enough to break it down.
Sollecito called the carabinieri — the Italian military police — and the couple went outside to wait. Two officers soon arrived. They weren't carabinieri, however — they were postal police, a sleepy, junior-varsity unit of the state police responsible for investigating crimes like Internet fraud and stolen phones. Two cellphones had been discovered in a rosebush half a mile away, one of which was registered to Filomena Romanelli at 7 Via della Pergola. Knox and Sollecito explained to the bewildered officers that there had been a burglary, and invited them into the house.
A butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil, and a twister forms over West Texas. A man sneezes, and the stock market crashes. An American girl in Perugia allows the postal police to enter her house, and two years later, she is convicted of murder and sentenced to 26 years in jail.
Had the lovers waited for the carabinieri, a series of catastrophic blunders would likely have been avoided. For starters, the carabinieri would have prevented anyone from tramping through the crime scene. The two postal-police officers, however, allowed themselves to be led through the house in search of clues by a band of child sleuths out of Scooby-Doo. For there were now six of them in all — shortly after the officers showed up, two cars had arrived with Romanelli, her boyfriend and a third couple, friends of Romanelli's.
The police refused to break into Kercher's bedroom, claiming respect for the girl's privacy. But on Romanelli's insistence they relented, standing by while one of the boyfriends, seizing the moment, kicked down the door.
"Blood!" someone shrieked. "Blood!"
"A foot! A foot!"
The children ran from the house screaming.
Henry James described Perugia as the City of the Infinite View, and indeed the view is infinite — if you can find it. Crammed onto the upper third of a steep mountain, the city is contorted, bent: all elbows and knuckles. Unless you are strolling along the broad plateau of Via Corso Vannucci, which runs for five blocks along the crest of the hill, you are always walking up or down. You are also in shadow, even on the brightest days. This is because everything is awkwardly jammed together, the buildings lying on top of one another like piles of discarded toys in a cluttered attic.
The side streets — and all the streets, other than the Corso, are side streets — are uneven and narrow, laid out a millennium ago for people approximately half our size. As you ascend or descend, you pass through dank tunnels and duck beneath arches and bridges, while catching glimpses underfoot of intersecting walkways at lower levels. The casual pedestrian feels that he is navigating one of M.C. Escher's more deranged drawings. It is common to come to a fork in a road where one way goes up and the other goes down, and for streets to taper into nothing, or to terminate in a blind alley the size of a hall closet.
But then you stumble around a corner and find yourself on the city's outer ring, where you encounter a stunning panorama of undulating valley, distant mountains, files of cypress trees, sky. The cottage at 7 Via della Pergola stands at such a spot, perched over a steep ravine. It is a location that college students find romantic, and Perugians consider dangerously exposed.
James wrote that the famous view gives Perugians, who sit on Umbria's highest throne, a sense of "authority and centrality and experience." This still rings true. An imperious tone could be detected in the proclamations made by Perugian authorities throughout the Kercher investigation. But the city's other aspect, its warped convolutions and clandestine passageways, was also reflected in the views of the investigators. From the case's earliest stages, they were quick to propose twisted theories of demonic influence and ritualistic sex games. This unusual combination — of supreme certitude and baroque paranoia — has made the story of the Knox trial as intricate, and as darkly thrilling, as the plot of a gothic novel.
The trial, held in a subterranean chamber of Perugia's courthouse, would play to a packed gallery for its entire 11-month run. The British and Italian tabloids insisted that "Foxy Knoxy" (a nickname given to an eight-year-old Knox in her soccer league) was a "crazed sex killer." Headlines read ORGY OF DEATH; AMANDA WAS A DRUGGED-UP TART. Knox's supporters, most of them American, fought back.
Their list of grievances was long: incompetent police work, leading to the mishandling of evidence. The lack of any physical trace of Knox in Kercher's bedroom. Italy's carnivalesque judicial process, where there is never order in the court, the lawyers and defendants constantly interrupting the proceedings with groans and catcalls and wild gesticulations, while the press in the gallery yammers away like the kids in the back of the classroom. The prosecution's failure to establish motive or intent ("We live in an age of violence with no motive," said one prosecutor). And the fact that prosecutors did not immediately drop the case against Knox and Sollecito after the bloody fingerprints and footprints came back matching a 20-year-old petty thief named Rudy Guede.
These were valid criticisms, but Knox's supporters missed one crucial point. The prosecution, despite their ineptitude, would never have been able to convict Knox and Sollecito all by themselves. They needed help. And they would get it — from Amanda Knox.
Knox had several disadvantages from the start: She was American and, despite majoring in Italian at the University of Washington, could barely speak the language. Her poor comprehension may have contributed to her second problem: her inability to realize that she was, from the first day of the investigation, suspected of murder. Most damaging, however, was her obstinate faith in the kindness of strangers.
Knox grew up in the middle-class suburban neighborhood of Arbor Heights, in West Seattle, several blocks from the Puget Sound. Her parents like to describe her as "book-smart." This is true — she made the honor roll at Seattle Prep, a private Jesuit high school, and at UW — but it's also their way of suggesting that her intelligence was limited to books. As her stepfather, Chris Mellas, tells me, "She's the smartest person you'd ever know" but "dumb as a rock" when it comes to "street sense." In conversations with her friends and family, a portrait emerges of a person with a childlike innocence. She was, as her mother, Edda, puts it, "oblivious to the dark side of the world."
When strange men approached her in city parks, she would chat with them. "What's going on in your life?" she'd ask. "Let's talk." Her friend Madison Paxton recalls an incident when they passed a woman sobbing near the UW campus:
"All of a sudden, Amanda wasn't next to me. I turned around and she has this shocked look on her face. She says, 'I cannot believe that you just walked by her.' Amanda grabbed my hand and pulled me back. This woman couldn't even speak, she was crying so much. But Amanda took her by the hand into a cafe, ordered her a coffee and started talking to her, trying to get her to calm down."
By junior year, Knox announced that she felt too "closed off" from the world and wanted to spend a year abroad to "expand her horizons" and live "without a safety net." ("That," says her stepfather today, "seriously bit her in the ass. So to speak.") Her parents, recognizing her determination — she had taken extra jobs to pay for the expense — agreed to support her decision.
"You don't want to take a dream away," her father tells me today. Curt Knox, who was a vice president of finance at Macy's for 25 years, makes sharp eye contact and speaks precisely. It often seems that he is undergoing great exertions to restrain a wild, inchoate rage. "When she said she wanted to study abroad, and we sat down and talked to her, my first question was, 'What happens if you get sick?' There was a good response for that — her mother has a cousin that lives in Germany, just two hours away. A lot of questions went through my mind. None of them was, 'What happens if your roommate gets murdered?'"
In one of Knox's Facebook posts, she wrote, "I don't get embarrassed and therefore have very few social inhibitions." Upon arriving in Perugia, her lack of inhibitions worked in her favor. When she saw a young woman posting a housing flier, Knox struck up a conversation. She wrote about the encounter to her friends at home:
We go immediately to her place, literally two minutes from my university. It's a cute house... in the middle of Perugia.
I'm in love... The house has a kitchen, two bathrooms and four bedrooms... Not to mention my roommate owns two guitars and wants to play with me... Not to mention she wants me to teach her yoga... Not to mention the view is amazing.
Her Italian roommates were friendly, if somewhat aloof — they were seven years older, with jobs and serious boyfriends. But Knox became closer to Kercher, who claimed the fourth bedroom. They went out together to bookstores and bars and, in mid-October, to Perugia's chocolate festival. Still, they might not have been friends under other circumstances. Kercher found her extroverted roommate a bit too loopy (she complained to her sister that Knox sang "loudly all the time") and untidy (Knox, concerned about water conservation, "never seemed to flush the toilet"). As classes began, the roommates saw each other less. Kercher spent more time with her British friends, and Knox worked at Le Chic. But for the five weeks they knew each other, they appeared to get on. In a conversation with her parents in mid-October, Knox described Kercher as fun, beautiful and smart.
On November 2nd, Knox's callowness caught up to her. As soon as Kercher's corpse was discovered, the two Italian roommates called their lawyers. Kercher's British friends were even more cautious: Most of them fled the country, returning to the U.K. Edda asked Knox to fly home, or visit her cousin in Germany, but Knox refused. She wanted to see Kercher's family when they arrived in Perugia. She also wanted to help investigators find the killer. Today her mother's greatest regret is that she listened to her daughter. "Had I known that the British girls were out of there, had I known that the first thing her roommates did was lawyer up — had I known all of that? Absolutely, I would've made her come home," says Edda. "I would have had my cousin on the first plane out of Germany to yank her out of there."
"It's so Amanda that it hurts me," says Paxton, who has recently moved to Perugia to help with the case. "People talk about her being a manipulative mastermind. If she is, she's a fucking idiotic one. If you're a mastermind and you commit this murder, you leave the country. She walked into the police station. She just basically fucking skipped into the police station."
It was at the police station that Knox met the man who would become her chief antagonist for the next four years: Giuliano Mignini, the prosecutor who would oversee the murder investigation and eventually Amanda Knox's trial. A native Perugian, he wears smartly tailored jackets that cling snugly to his inflamed, bullish frame. A pair of spectacles rests low on the wide bridge of nose, beneath his broad forehead and powerful, gleaming eyes. Mignini is seen by Knox's supporters as a blustering maniac whose bullying reduced Knox to tears on the stand. But in person, he more closely resembles the benevolent caretaker of a rustic pensione: casual, kind, eager to amuse, an intent listener. He presents himself as the model of moderation. When I ask him today whether he thinks Knox is evil, he says that nobody is all good or all bad. He wishes she were innocent; he did not enjoy putting a young girl in prison. But it was his duty.
In private conversation, Mignini always seems to want to know, very sincerely, your opinion. And then, when you are done, he will patiently explain to you how things, in fact, are. As it turns out, in his view, things are often touched by Satan. He detected Satan's influence as early as 2001, when he became a central figure in the Monster of Florence serial-killer case. Mignini proposed that the suicide of a Perugian doctor was actually a murder committed by a satanic cult, practicing since the Middle Ages, that demanded human organs for their Black Masses. He later accused a hostile journalist of satanism and was convicted of abusing his office. In the early stages of the Kercher investigation, Mignini suggested that the victim had been slaughtered during a satanic ritual, but in his closing argument, he only went so far as to refer to Knox as a sex-and-drug-crazed "she-devil."
Mignini's official title is "public minister," a hybrid of detective and district attorney. This makes Mignini less a prosecution lawyer than a Grand Inquisitor. He leads the investigation, giving directions to the police under his care, and serves as lead prosecutor during the trial. This arrangement means that the police often find themselves under professional obligation to look for evidence that supports the prosecutor's hypotheses. This is especially true in high-profile cases, when there is enormous pressure to explain quickly what exactly happened.
When I ask Mignini whether he regrets any decisions he made during the Kercher case, he will name only one. It was the very first decision that he made. When he arrived at the crime scene he asked the chief forensics expert, Patrizia Stefanoni, whether she had taken Kercher's body temperature, a reliable indicator of time of death. Stefanoni, Mignini says, was worried that doing so might contaminate the body and advised that they wait until other testing had been done. The temperature was not taken until November 3rd, at which point the death was set between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m. The failure to make a more exact estimation proved critical. If Kercher died before 9:30 p.m., Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito would have had an alibi: They were seen at Sollecito's apartment at 8:45, and Sollecito's computer showed activity as late as 9:10.
Though Mignini won't say it straight out, there is another thing he seems to regret. When I ask him whether he wishes that the carabinieri, and not the state police, had handled the investigation, he sighs warily and glances past me. There, on his bureau, stands a small collection of carabinieri action figures: two three-inch plastic figurines in uniform, and a matchbox-size patrol car. It might have made a difference, he says. The carabinieri, he acknowledges, have more resources and a different style, due to the fact that they are a division of the military. Yes, he says finally, he prefers the carabinieri.
From the beginning of the case, he was fascinated by the behavior of Amanda Knox. She was extremely unconvincing in the role of the wrongfully accused. That a 20-year-old woman suspected of her roommate's murder should not behave the way her accusers expect is hardly surprising, just as it is hardly surprising that a small, provincial police force should botch one of the most intensely observed criminal investigations in their nation's history. Three and a half years after her arrest, Knox has still not entirely mastered it. But her behavior in those first days doomed her.
Especially disturbing to investigators was a video that appeared on YouTube soon after the body was discovered. Filmed by paparazzi who quickly materialized at the "house of horrors," the video showed Sollecito consoling a pallid, dazed Knox outside the cottage. Sollecito rubs her arms and gives her three chaste kisses.
Others were bothered by the couple's displays of affections once they were taken to the police station for questioning.
"Knox and Sollecito would make faces, kiss each other, while there was the body of a friend in those conditions," said homicide chief Monica Napoleoni.
"I couldn't help thinking how cool and calm Amanda was," said Giacomo Silenzi, a neighbor who had been having a fling with Kercher. "Her eyes didn't seem to show any sadness, and I remember wondering if she could have been involved."
Officers would later complain that Knox, after sitting for hours in the stiff waiting-room chairs, had started to do cartwheels and even splits. Convinced that she was psychotic, the guards begged her to stop, explaining that such behavior was "inappropriate." And a detective complained when he saw Knox sitting on her boyfriend's lap. "Inappropriate," he said.
When I ask Knox — through Paxton, who visits her twice a week in prison — whether she regrets her behavior in those first days after the murder, she says she absolutely does not; she was reacting the only way she knew how. She also disputes the accounts of her behavior. She sat on Sollecito's lap, for instance, only because she had been pacing, and he had pulled her to him in an attempt to comfort her. And while she may have seemed "cool and calm," when she went at night to Sollecito's house she would break down in tears.
More eccentric allegations would be aired during the trial, some of which seemed to reveal more about the police than about Knox. One officer was certain Knox had lied about taking a shower that morning because "she smelled like sex." And an older male detective claimed that, upon returning with detectives to the murder scene, Knox had spontaneously broken into a seductive, hip-rolling dance, popularized in old Italian sex comedies, called La Mossa. Knox, the detective claimed, had shimmied her hips like Monica Vitti, shouting "Hoopla!"
Over the weekend, Knox was repeatedly called back for additional interviews — first to the station, then to the crime scene. "Do you see any knives missing?" asked the detectives. "What kind of sex did Meredith like?" Though unaware that she was a suspect, Knox had been put under surveillance by the Perugian police. She and Sollecito were followed around the city as they ate and shopped for underwear (Knox wasn't allowed to retrieve her clothes from the crime scene). When at the station, the lovers were led into a room bugged with hidden microphones, where their conversations were monitored. Their cellphones were tapped as well. And the police confiscated a school notebook in which Knox had started taking notes while waiting to be interviewed. A passage was later leaked to the press:
The strange thing is that all I want to do now is write a song about this. It would be the first song that I've written and it would be about someone who died in a horrible way for no reason. How morbid is that? I'm starving. And I'd really like to say that I could kill for a pizza but it just doesn't seem right... I don't know what to do or think.
The investigators' theory was beginning to take shape: Knox was smart enough to avoid saying anything inculpatory, but stupid enough to draw attention to herself. They believed that Sollecito, the spoiled computer geek, was weaker and manipulated by her. They turned their focus onto him, hoping that he would break.
By Monday, November 5th — three days after Kercher's body had been discovered — Knox was complaining to friends of exhaustion. That night, after 10 o'clock, the police called Sollecito, asking him to return to the station for yet another interview. Knox, as usual, accompanied him, jotting notes in her journal while she sat in the waiting room. "I'm very tired," she wrote. "I don't want to stay."
During Sollecito's interview, investigators accused him of covering up for Knox. He asked for a lawyer, and to speak with his father, but his requests were denied. "Confused and nervous," as one of the officers described him, Sollecito finally stated that Knox could have left his apartment for several hours on the night of Kercher's murder while he was asleep.
That was all the investigators needed to hear. Two female officers, who had been chatting informally with Knox, invited her to an interrogation chamber.
"Let's go back over what you did that night," they asked her. "Start with the last time that you saw Meredith."
But they went slower this time.
"What did you do between 7 and 8 p.m.?" they asked. "What about between 8 and 9?"
"I don't know the exact times," said Knox. "But I know the general series of events. I checked my e-mail, I read a book, we watched a film, we ate dinner...."
More officers kept entering the room. An interpreter showed up. The tone sharpened.
"But Raffaele says that you left his house that night."
"What? That's not true. I was at his apartment all night."
The interrogators became angry.
"Are you sure? Raffaele said you left his house."
"If that's a lie, we can throw you in jail for 30 years."
"I'm not lying."
"Who are you trying to protect? Who were you with? Who was it? Who was it?"
This bit went on for hours.
There was now chaos in the room. The Italians were shouting at her, arguing with one another, calling out suggestions.
"Maybe she really can't remember."
"Maybe she's a stupid liar."
"You're either an incredibly stupid liar," said Knox's translator, who was sitting right beside her, "or you're someone who can't remember what you know and what you did." The translator, changing tactics, explained that she had once been in a gruesome car accident in which she broke her leg. The event was so traumatic that she suffered amnesia.
"Amanda," said the translator, "this is what happened to you. You need to try to retrieve those memories. We'll help you."
Knox, ever-credulous, started to ask herself what she might have forgotten.
"C'mon," said the interrogators. "You were going to meet Patrick that night." "Remember. Remember. Remember."
"We know it was him."
Knox shook her head.
Boom — someone slapped her on the back of the head.
Knox closed her eyes. A scene began to play out in her mind. She imagined Patrick Lumumba's face. At 5:45 a.m., after breaking down in tears and screaming Lumumba's name ("He's bad, he's bad"), Knox signed a confession. Written in Italian, it declared that Knox had accompanied Lumumba to the house on the night of November 1st. She had been standing in the next room while Lumumba stabbed Kercher to death. When Knox signed the confession, the interrogators all started hugging one another.
The most remarkable thing about Knox's account of the interrogation is that, even as she signed her confession, she didn't realize that she was a suspect. "I know that sounds utterly moronic," says Paxton, "because it is utterly moronic. But she actually, genuinely, was that naive."
On November 6th, the police announced that the killers had been found, and arrested the young couple. Both Knox and Sollecito, whose shoe print the police initially believed matched one found at the scene, have been in jail ever since. A strange twist occurred, however, two weeks after the confession, when the forensics lab reported the results of its examination. The DNA evidence and fingerprints on the crime scene did not match Knox, Sollecito or Lumumba, but instead a fourth person.
Rudy Guede didn't have a criminal record, but he had been accused of several local burglaries. Only five days before the murder, he had been arrested in Milan after breaking into a nursery school. The Milan police had released Guede without charge — a murky scenario that has given rise to rumors that Guede was a police snitch and being protected.
Guede, who had been friends with the boys who lived downstairs from Knox and Kercher and had met the girls in passing, fled the country after the murder. When the bloody fingerprints in the cottage were identified as his, Guede became the subject of an international manhunt. He was apprehended in Germany the next day and admitted to being at the murder scene, but he claimed Kercher was killed by a mysterious intruder. Guede told the police that Knox and Sollecito were not involved. The young lovers believed that Guede's arrest and statement would destroy the case against them, but the prosecutors simply slotted Guede in the place of Lumumba, who had a solid alibi — he was seen bartending at Le Chic all night.
Mignini developed a new theory: Knox had made a date with Guede to party back at the house on Via della Pergola, and Sollecito tagged along. The three revelers encountered Kercher, and the girls began fighting; the boys, both trying to impress Knox, held Kercher at knife point. Guede molested her. There then follows what Mignini acknowledges to be un missing scene, which ends with Kercher's murder.
Knox and Sollecito were not formally charged until a year after their arrests. The prosecution's case leaned heavily on two pieces of evidence. Kercher's bra clasp — which was not retrieved until 47 days after the murder, by which point it had been moved across the room and lay in a pile of debris — had tested positive for trace amounts of Sollecito's DNA. (Sollecito's lawyers allege contamination.) And a knife, selected at random by a detective from Sollecito's kitchen drawer, tested positive, albeit at extremely low levels, for Kercher's DNA.
Lumumba sued Knox for damages. "She's empty — dead inside," Lumumba would later say. "Everything that comes out of her mouth is a lie." Today, from prison, Knox says that there is nothing she regrets more than implicating Lumumba. She is still ashamed that she wasn't stronger during the interrogation, but at the time it never occurred to her that the police might manipulate and lie to her.
The confession, in violation of Italian police policy, was not recorded — an odd lapse given the intense efforts made previously to document everything Knox said or did. Yet in the court of Italian popular opinion — the highest court in the land, since jurors are not sequestered — the confession remains the single most damning piece of evidence. When I asked Perugians why they thought Knox had been involved, they never mentioned physical evidence or a motive. She admitted to it, they said, shaking their heads.
She signed a confession.
Amanda Knox's appeal trial is now in its eighth month, and Knox's family is warily optimistic. So, it seems, is Knox. In a recent letter to Paxton, Knox drafted a list of things she wants to do if she is released: work for the Innocence Project, serve as a translator and be "a mom."
There was also a second list: what she would do with her life if her appeal failed. This list was more vague. Though Knox received a sentence of 26 years, she calculates that she will be released by the time she's 40, if you take into account time off for good behavior. This seems a reasonable prediction for an inmate whom prison guards have nicknamed "Bambi." Knox seems determined to use prison as a comparative-literature graduate program. She continues to study Italian (which she now speaks fluently, with occasional sallies into jailhouse vernacular), reading textbooks from cover to cover three times each. She has also become proficient in German and French, and is studying Japanese, Chinese and Russian. She is devouring the Western canon, and lists in her journals each book she completes. She has become something of a specialist in Existentialism (Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil, Sartre's No Exit and Nausea), Magical Realism (Calvino, Borges, Eco), Absurdism and Despair (Vonnegut, Beckett, Woody Allen, Kafka).
I experienced absurdism and despair firsthand on the morning of Saturday, May 21st, when the Knox/Sollecito appeal resumed in Perugia after a hiatus of eight weeks. It seemed the point of this court session was to determine how long a hiatus should be taken until the next court session. These long breaks have been a hallmark of the Knox/Sollecito trials. Due to Italy's severe passion for holidays — religious holidays, vacation holidays, lunch holidays — the first trial never met more than three times a week. But during the appeal, the pace has cooled off considerably. Now they only meet on Saturday mornings. This is because the Sollecito family has hired the prominent lawyer Giulia Bongiorno, who is the president of the justice committee in the lower house of Parliament. Italy permits its politicians to pursue outside employment, but Bongiorno can only attend the trial on weekends, when Parliament is not in session. A driver in an armor-plated truck, provided by the Italian government, zips her from Rome to Perugia for each court date.
It is immediately clear that Bongiorno is the best lawyer in the room. It's not even close. ("Nobody here's good at their job," says Frank Sfarzo, a local blogger who has followed the trial more obsessively than anyone. "If they were, they wouldn't be in Perugia.") While the provincial lawyers on either side primp and propound, Bongiorno leaps up from the counsel table to deliver concise, forceful laments. She is the only lawyer in the room who seems appalled by what she is witnessing. After the session, she provides the reporters with cogent digests of the day's trial. Then the door of the armor-plated truck opens, and she is whisked back to Rome.
The Italian system, despite its many celebrated inefficiencies and inanities, is not all bad. The Italian appeal process, for instance, is more lenient than the American model. In Italy, the appeals judge is allowed to retry the entire case. To the enormous relief of the Knox family, Judge Claudio Hellmann began the appeal with an assertion of reasonable doubt. "The only thing we know for certain in this complex case," he declared, "is that Meredith was murdered."
Hellmann ordered new analyses of the DNA tests by independent experts — a request that was refused, for no particular reason, during the original trial. There have been indications that the readings on the knife and the bra clasp will be ruled too weak to satisfy international forensics guidelines. If this is what the independent experts conclude, the Knox team anticipates a full acquittal.
Italian observers are skeptical. The Italian judicial system is carefully designed to ensure that no one is penalized or shamed egregiously. As in Italian politics, everyone gets a little something. The initial criminal trial is closer to an inquisition, and favors the prosecution. Sentences tend to be harsher than merited. But that is because the trial is merely a prologue to the mandatory appeal, which often results in a reduced sentence.
The lack of physical evidence is not the only flaw in the prosecution's scenario. There is also no motive. But the alternative scenario — that Rudy Guede acted alone — is not entirely convincing either. Guede was a petty crook who carried a knife, but he had never committed a violent crime. He was a nuisance around town, hitting on student girls, but an amiable one. He had lots of friends, including the four boys who lived downstairs at Via della Pergola. Why would he sexually assault and murder Meredith Kercher?
There are many theories, but the most persuasive scenario goes as follows:
Guede stakes out the cottage after dark. He breaks into the girls' apartment and makes himself comfortable. He swigs orange juice from a carton he finds in the refrigerator — he had a spicy kebab for dinner — and then uses the bathroom. While he's on the can, Kercher enters the apartment, locking the door behind her. Guede is trapped. He can't exit through the window without alerting Kercher, and he can't use the front door, because you need a key to open the lock from the inside. (Kercher's keys would be stolen, along with cash, credit cards and phones.) Guede rises from the toilet without flushing, so as not to make a noise. He walks to Kercher's bedroom. Perhaps he tries to explain himself — "Sorry, the door was open, I let myself in, I'm a friend of Giacomo's downstairs" — or perhaps she starts screaming before he can speak. He grabs her by the mouth (there were bruises on Kercher's face) and threatens her with the knife. He assaults her and, realizing that Kercher can identify him, he panics and kills her. The missing scene.
During his appeal process, Guede, who had been convicted in a separate trial of murdering Kercher and sentenced to 30 years, changed his story multiple times. In a final reversal, he claimed that he was at the murder scene with Knox and Sollecito, and the judge reduced his sentence to 16 years. This hurt Knox and Sollecito's chances on appeal. If Judge Hellmann decides to acquit, he will not only defy the judge of the first trial, but also the judges who concluded that Guede, Knox and Sollecito acted together. The system is designed to thwart such embarrassments. The pressure on the judge is especially high in a case that has brought international disdain to the entire Italian judicial system. This is why many Italians expect Hellmann to follow the precedent set by Guede's case, and reduce Knox's and Sollecito's sentences each by eight years. Italian honor would be preserved, and with time off for good behavior, Knox would be released in time to be a mom.
There were heated arguments that Saturday at the Perugian court, but not about forensic evidence. As the judge read out dates — all Saturdays, to appease Bongiorno — lawyers on either side objected. "That's a holiday weekend," said one. "I have a wedding that day." Knox, in black slacks and a silk blouse the color of eggshell, sat erect at her desk, occasionally bending over to scribble furiously, like an attentive student in lecture hall. On her entrance, she had appeared uncertain, fragile, scared. The reporters muttered that she had lost weight; the blouse hung loosely over her frame. When she sat down she had forced herself to take a deep breath.
Sollecito, who sat 10 feet away, no longer resembles Harry Potter. Men's prisons in Italy are not so forgiving. He has shaved his head and has added muscle on his shoulders, arms, back. He smiles bitterly at his lawyers and has a cold gaze. He has begun to look like a convict.
The jurors, who wear tricolor sashes, sat impassively beside the judge. They appeared tired, impatient. One distractedly toyed with his iPhone in plain sight, checking messages and typing into the keypad.
But then there is a sudden commotion, and a shock, almost visceral, goes through the room. Knox has stood up. The press rushes forward to the bar. With her back stiff and her hands clasped before her, she begins to speak in tentative, tremulous Italian. At several points she pauses, struggling to compose herself. "For more than three and a half years, I have been in prison as an innocent person," Knox says. "This has been extremely frustrating for me. It has been draining. I don't want to remain there, unjustly, for my entire life... I recall the beginning of this whole thing, when I was free... I think of how young I was then, how I didn't understand anything..."
Here was a striking contrast. On one side, the airy pomposity of the country lawyers, adding delay upon bureaucratic delay, ensuring that the prisoners will stay in their concrete cells all summer (Italian courts don't meet in August, and often don't return until mid-September). And on the other side, an expression of raw human suffering. Everyone in court — even the tabloid reporters — seemed shaken.
Everyone except the jurors. They looked completely unmoved. It was as if they couldn't understand a single word that Amanda Knox was saying.
This story is from Rolling Stone issue 1134/1135, available on newsstands and through Rolling Stone All Access on June 24, 2011.