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The Neverending Nightmare of Amanda Knox

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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.

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