During my second stint in Italy (2008-2011) the trial of Amanda Knox was all over the papers. In 2007 she, a 20 year old American college student, along with her Italian boyfriend, were accused of brutally murdering 21 year old British ex-pat Meredith Kercher. They were both acquitted by a higher court in 2011.
One focus of the book is Ms Knox trying to come to grips with her own failures: under police interrogation she implicated not only herself in the crime, but two innocent men as well. Introspective people often find themselves going back over their failures, sometimes obsessively. Knox looks back at her twenty year old self as someone spontaneous, but awkward and fundamentally insecure, too trusting, wanting badly to be liked, like most of us a twenty. Amanda Knox had four years in prison to obsess over how she got herself convicted of murder: basically, she made a bad impression on the police, they decided she was the suspect, and they made the evidence fit that theory.
The second focus is the systematic exploitation of the murder by the press, and the systematic failure of the Italian criminal justice system to pursue justice.
The Italian press did not cover itself in glory covering the trial. I remember Knox being all over the front pages of papers and magazines, sometimes referred to as Foxy Knoxy. Serious papers like Corriere Della Sera referred to victim and accused by their first names, Amanda, Meredith, Gabriele, the way American tabloids refer to “Brad and Angelina”. The media focus was entirely on Knox, not her boyfriend, because Amanda Knox is photogenic. They published sensational stories about Knox’s sexual habits (which, looking at the facts, were nothing unusual for a college girl abroad) leaked to the papers by the prosecution. The prosecution’s case depended on painting Knox as highly manipulative, vindictive, spoiled, sadistic, and sex-obsessed, and the media ate it up.
A theme not mentioned in the book, but which I suspect was at work, was anti-American sentiment. Anti-American feeling was high at the time, even in Italy, which is generally a pro-American country. The Iraq war was just winding down, George Bush still in office, and here comes this strange American girl of foreign manners. It is easy to paint Americans as over-sexed and prone to violence if you know us primarily from Hollywood movies. The fact that Knox did not wail and beat her breast like a good Italian upon hearing of Kercher’s death, but instead bottled up like a good German-American, was what made the police suspicious of her in the first place. (I’ve often wondered how my Italian friends would react at one of my family’s Irish-American funerals. God knows how I felt uncomfortable at Italian funerals.)
And it seems, from Knox’s account, that the prosecution’s main interest was rebuilding its credibility having just lost a previous high-profile case. The prosecution was constantly leaking to the press anything that would make Knox look bad. The prosecution never released all the DNA evidence to the defense during the first trial, and attempted to block independent review of the DNA evidence at every turn. (The eventual independent review concluded the DNA evidence was contaminated and useless in court, which was a main factor in the acquittal upon appeal.)
The police, for their part, had a vested interest in not admitting the possibility they made a mistake, nor could they consider the possibility that they had forced a false confession out of Knox. In fact, one in four convictions that have been overturned in the United States thanks to DNA evidence were convictions based on confessions. A confession can be forced out of person easier than we tend to think. Makes you wonder about our vaunted 95% conviction rate in this country. Only communist countries do better at 100%.
In the end, the prosecution had no murder weapon, no witnesses, no motive: only a confused, quickly recanted confession and contaminated DNA evidence. Everything else was a lurid, constantly shifting narrative that had little likely basis in reality.
Years ago a friend of mine said over drinks that “the modern world is designed to pulverize the human person.” As great as the line is, I’m still not quite sure what he meant by it at the time, but maybe media sensationalism is a good example: Knox feels the need in her book to go back to her high school days and ask forgiveness for dropping friends, explain how she got a silly nickname, and give accounts for every sexual encounter she had in Italy. She has the need to admit publicly that yes, in fact, she acts a little weird sometimes. She has to do this because all this material had been gossiped about in the worst possible light in the press. The first twenty-four years of her life are without a shred of privacy. She has been effectively “pulverized” for the sake of selling papers.
Another example perhaps was the silly idea she had in her head upon arriving in Italy was that casual sexual encounters were an important part of growing in maturity and empowerment. It only took a couple of unsatisfying one night stands to disabuse her of the notion, but the fact that a young woman felt social pressure from peers to engage in that sort of behavior, felt insecure about herself because she hadn’t experienced it, is a sign of a sick culture. Before the press could shamelessly exploit Amanda Knox’s sexuality, there was already a mentality in place that that sort of exploitation is normal, even “empowering.”
One last thought: I never actually paid attention to the case while I lived in Italy, just like I have ignored cases like Jodie-what’s-her-face since then. Why should I care about one murder more than another just because the accused killer is a somewhat good-looking white chick? Why should I participate in the cycles of exploitation?
I only took an interest during the summer of 2011 as Knox’s appeals process was running through the courts. While reading the paper I stumbled across an interview with a priest named Don Saulo whom I momentarily confused with a priest I knew in Tivioli named Don Paolo. Don Saulo was in fact Knox’s prison chaplain. He said that as chaplain could not comment on the girl’s guilt or innocence, but did say that she was a very nice kid who was out of place in prison, and that he hoped she could be released. It was the first time I thought that maybe “The Devil of Perugia” was being railroaded.
As it turns out, Don Saulo plays a big role in Knox’s memoir as one of the few people who took her for who she was, never passed judgment, and was just there for her, even though she was unbaptized and called herself an atheist.
Maybe that is how we combat the “pulverization of the human person”.
The video below is Knox defending herself at the court of appeals.
UPDATE: A reader pointed out that I had misspelled Ms. Kercher’s name. It is now corrected. Apologies.