The Knox watchers: Meet the people who are obsessed with Amanda Knox's fate
Three years after her arrest for murder, interest in Amanda Knox is undiminished.
Saturday 06 November 2010
You could call it the industry of human misery. Close to the heart of a magnificent medieval city in Italy, a pretty young girl is brutally murdered. Another pretty young girl, her good-looking boyfriend in tow, is accused of the crime. Her unlined 20-year-old face, bemused, or suddenly alive with a brilliant smile, mesmerises the cameras. The dark suspicions of the prosecution are leaked to the media: it was the night after Halloween, there were illegal drugs, suspicions of an orgy and a satanic rite; a virginal victim who refused to play along, petty resentments and jealousies that boiled over – then the slashing of a knife, screams of terror and pain, blood everywhere, a slow and hideous death; then through the small hours the clean-up and the infernally cunning cover-up...
It is a compelling story, and in the three years since Meredith Kercher's death, Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito have attained a terrible sort of fame. And when the couple come up for appeal in Perugia in two weeks time, the whole saga will be rehearsed again.
Everybody has a vague idea of what was supposed to have happened on that winter's night in Perugia; most people, their eyes gliding over the headlines and the now-familiar faces, probably assume the story is as it has been told and that Amanda Knox has got exactly what she deserves.
We all know Amanda Knox. Or we think we do. Within days of Meredith's murder, police and prosecutors made it clear that the American student and her southern-Italian boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito were in the frame. "Caso chiuso," said the police, "case closed". In an all-night interrogation session, Amanda had finally buckled. She did not admit guilt, but conceded that she had been in the cottage she shared with Meredith Kercher when her flatmate was killed. She had heard the screams, she had put her fingers in her ears, and she knew the identity of the killer.
For three years, Amanda Knox has been trying to undo and live down that admission. At the first attempt, in the trial for murder that concluded in January this year, she and Raffaele failed miserably. The "orgy" scenario had long been scotched for lack of evidence, a convincing motive was missing, and the African barman Amanda had named as the killer had a watertight alibi. But, nonetheless, the jury decided that the prosecution's case was strong enough for the couple to be convicted of murder and for Amanda to be sent to jail for 26 years, and Raffaele for 25.
From the point of view of Amanda and her family, her fate is a vivid demonstration of the dangers inherent in a legal system where the first ideas of police and prosecutors can be splashed across TV and newspapers with none of the controls considered normal in the UK. And these conceptions can take such a grip on public opinion that they are all-but impossible to shake loose, however ill-founded they may in time begin to seem.
Because in the weeks that followed the murder and the police's "caso chiuso", the forensic understanding of Meredith's murder was transformed. The DNA and fingerprint evidence at the scene was tied, not to Amanda and Raffaele, but to a troubled young man from the Ivory Coast called Rudy Guede, who had committed several break-ins in previous weeks and who fled Italy on the night of the crime. He was brought back from Germany, where he was on the run, and accused of the crime.
But for whatever reason, the prosecution continued to insist on the guilt of Amanda and Raffaele. The African barman Amanda had named, who had a watertight alibi, was merely removed from the prosecution's equation, and Guede slotted in to his place.
The murder scenario began to take on dimensions of the absurd. Amanda and Raffaele had been lovers for a mere six days. Rudy was all-but unknown to Amanda, totally unknown to Raffaele, and he had no mobile phone. The idea that the three had arranged to be present together at Meredith and Amanda's house made no sense. Then there was the forensic void: how can you participate in a chaotic, bloody murder without leaving a single trace at the crime scene? Guede's fingerprints were all over Meredith and her room. Of Amanda, by contrast, there was no forensic trace of any sort; Raffaele was betrayed by a single speck of DNA which has been hotly contested by the defence ever since it was brought in evidence.
The murder of Meredith Kercher became a gripping, addictive crime story, and in the gaping chasm between the claims of the prosecution and the defence, a whole industry has sprung up – more than half a dozen books, documentaries, and two major films are in the making. In the pages that follow, toilers in this factory of human misery – writers, campaigners and one of Amanda's closest friends and strongest supporters – explain the reason for their fascination and commitment.
Candace Dempsey, the journalist
Seattle-based journalist and travel writer, Candace Dempsey, happened to be in Rome on a prior assignment when Meredith Kercher was murdered, and was stunned by the reaction to the news that Amanda Knox was one of the suspects.
"I was in Rome and I saw in the paper that this woman, Meredith Kercher, had been murdered after coming to Italy. I am from Seattle and Perugia is our sister city, and I saw that the main suspect, Amanda Knox, was from Seattle, and I thought, what a strange, sad, tragic, terrible story.
"So I just wrote one blog about it and I thought I would never write about Amanda Knox again. But then I got such a tremendous reaction from all over the world and everyone was writing to me about how awful Amanda Knox was, that what a pity Italy didn't have the electric chair because she was a liar and she should be lynched right now.
"And I thought, wait a minute, this girl has only been in jail for four or five days, how can you possibly say that? How do you know that she did it? And isn't it right that we have a trial first before we decide that she's guilty?
"It made me really curious. And I had three questions to which I wanted the answers: who killed Meredith Kercher? How did Amanda Knox become the prime suspect? And finally, could she be innocent?"
Three years of immersion in the case, including many weeks in Perugia attending court hearings, resulted in Dempsey's book Murder in Italy, published in the US by Penguin and Berkley.
"One of the things that intrigued me was that practically nothing I read in the papers turned out to be true," she says. "Nothing about her was as portrayed. And that makes a journalist very curious.
"For example, it didn't seem possible that a couple who had only been together for six days could be involved in an activity involving a third person. Then they told us there were telephone calls from Amanda to Rudy Guede before and after the murder – but it turned out that Rudy didn't have a mobile phone, and the police knew that because they had arrested him some time before and taken away the mobile phone.
"Every day there would be more things to check out and I just kept following that trail and I decided to write a book about it because I was obsessed with the case and it was just a fascinating thing.
"I keep reading about how I belong to a support group called Friends of Amanda, but I don't even know the members.
"There's a big difference between being a journalist and an activist, and I'm a journalist. I'm not out campaigning, I'm not trying to get Amanda free. My job is to follow the story and I'm asking myself what happened. And I don't know if we will ever know for sure what happened, and that's why it's such a spellbinding story and I can't let go of it."
Madison Paxton, the friend
Amanda Knox's stepfather, Chris Mellas, says of Madison Paxton, a student in Seattle: "She and Amanda are the mirror image of each other. Perhaps Madison is a little more responsible because she grew up in a very large family. She keeps all the 'Amanda Friends' together."
On Saturday morning, they gather at the house of Edda Mellas, Amanda's mother, for Amanda's weekly 10-minute phone call from jail.
Madison says: "When we heard Amanda had been arrested, our first reaction was to laugh, because it was so incredibly absurd. She's the most gentle, naïve, innocent person you could imagine. We just couldn't believe it. The least likely person to perform any act of violence that I'd ever met, arrested for murder. It's still absurd."
Madison has twice visited Amanda in jail, and she and another of the nine friends who have made the trek to the jail outside Perugia also testified on her behalf during the trial.
She says: "Amanda stays strong because she is at peace with herself and knows she is innocent. She knows the truth, which is what keeps her going, and she knows there are so many people who love her and who will never stop fighting for her.
"I admire the fact that she is determined to keep living a worthwhile existence. She studies every day, does translations for other prisoners, reads constantly, writes letters non-stop, and just generally tries to focus on growing as a person. She is determined to have ownership over her own life, regardless of whether or not she is 'free'."
With Amanda's "naïvety and innocence", was Madison ever worried that her friend would get into trouble when she travelled to Europe to study for a year? "I was never worried that Amanda would do stupid things, but I was worried that she would trust the wrong people. She has a very optimistic view of the world: trusting the police so much that she would talk to them without a lawyer, that's very Amanda. But honestly, I never suspected something like this. Worst-case scenario, I thought she might be seduced by a jerk and get her heart broken.
"Many people have suggested that Amanda's naïvety and willingness to trust the police led to her arrest, but I personally don't buy that – there's never been any proven physical evidence against Amanda, so she never should have been arrested.
"As for me, I am very worried about Amanda and Raffaele's appeal being held in the same city with some of the same players from earlier trials. If nothing else, this will get us closer to the final appeal at the Supreme Court, though I hope we don't need another appeal after this one.
"One of the many difficult aspects of this catastrophe has been the waiting. We take comfort in our conviction that Amanda and Raffaele will be found innocent at some point in the appeals process, but it is heartbreaking to know that their freedom will come only after a number of years in jail for something they had nothing to do with."
Graham Johnson, the crime writer
Uniquely among the many books published on the case, Darkness Descending has the advantage of a leading Italian detective as one of the three co-authors.
"Luciano Garofano retired from the Carabinieri last year as head of their forensic department," says British crime writer Graham Johnson, who collaborated on the book with documentary-maker Paul Russell (also British) and Garofano. "If the Carabinieri had got the emergency call before the police," says Johnson, "Garofano would have been in charge of the investigation.
"Garofano didn't come to firm conclusions about who was the murderer. He said, there's no smoking gun, and because it's a matter of uncertainty, he was reluctant to give a conclusive judgement on it. But he did come to different judgements from the prosecution and other people attached to the case. "For instance, he felt that the police relied too heavily on traces of DNA on the alleged murder weapon [a kitchen knife, found not at the crime scene, but in the flat rented by Raffaele Sollecito where Amanda and Raffaele claim that they spent the night of 1 November]. He felt that the sample, claimed by the prosecution to be Amanda's, was too small to produce an effective and reliable DNA model."
For Johnson, the appeal of the story to readers lies in the way it crystallises a strong contemporary fear, locating it in a glamorous setting. "As far as the newspapers are concerned, the story aims to strike fear into a middle-market audience," he suggests. "That's why papers like the Daily Mail follow it. There are several different factors: the location, an upmarket, exotic European playground, popular with middle-class readers. Yet at the same time it's also about gap-year kids and the misadventures that might befall them once they fly the nest. Those are the two kinds of modern narratives which make this story saleable."
Did he come to a clear view on the case during his research? "It's a matter of uncertainty, therefore it's wise not to draw a judgement," he says. "But I did think the murder was less likely to do with rape and a sex crime and more likely to do with a robbery gone wrong.
"I think some of the clues, like the missing €200 which Meredith Kercher had taken out of the bank to pay the rent, were rather overlooked, and the motives which Amanda and Raffaele Sollecito had for getting at Meredith Kercher based around that were also overlooked.
"I also felt that the case was sexualised and sensationalised and that the sex-game-gone-wrong motive seemed to be disproportionately used by the prosecution to try to tell the story. It seemed to me that this feud between Amanda Knox and Meredith Kercher was one of those arguments that springs up at polytechnic or university about food or paying the rent – they start out as something trivial like that but they may have gone on to something else. This whole thing could have been a robbery gone wrong, in which case the key would be to find out what happened to the money. For me that needed more investigation."
Lisa Lazuli, the campaigner
Lisa Lazuli is a writer and astrologer in Leamington Spa who has become one of the most energetic campaigners for Knox and Sollecito in the UK, despite never having met either.
"I've always been interested in current affairs," she says, "and I have in the past followed trials and taken an interest in crime stories. Watching the news stories about the Meredith Kercher murder, the whole idea that there was a satanic death ritual orgy didn't seem real to me, it seemed fictional. It didn't sound like something that would be happening in Perugia.
"When I found out more details about this case it seemed to me totally unbelievable that in Meredith's room such a big struggle apparently took place involving four people, yet two of those people, Amanda and Raffaele, managed to leave not a scrap of DNA, no hair, no fingerprints. None of the blood from Meredith was found on any of their clothing, and all their clothing is accounted for.
"Common sense tells me that if there are four people in a room and there is a big struggle and one person gets stabbed in the neck, there's going to be an enormous amount of blood and an enormous transfer of DNA, and it shouldn't be very difficult to tie those people to the scene. And the fact that there is absolutely nothing to tie Amanda and Raffaele to that room at the time of the murder seemed to me to indicate that they are innocent.
"Added to that there are no credible witnesses, and no credible DNA and really no evidence at all. It seemed to me that the whole case was built on conjecture. And another thing: when people murder people there is always a history of deviant behaviour – but Amanda and Raffaele have totally normal backgrounds.
"On 4 December 2009, I stayed up with my mum waiting for the verdict and it came in rather late, and when they said 'guilty' I just felt absolutely dreadful for Amanda and Raffaele. I couldn't sleep that night, I kept thinking about them and their families and how much of their young lives had been taken away. It seemed a terrible injustice.
"I immediately started writing to Amanda – I thought the least I could do was offer her some support and keep her entertained. I went on Facebook and joined 'Free Amanda' and through that I met a lot of other people who were involved.
"A campaigner called Steve Moore, who set up a site called injusticeinperugia.com, got in touch with me and wanted to know why people in the UK had such a negative impression of Amanda. I told them that things are changing now; since the trial there's been a lot more positive reporting. And after that they asked if I would do some press for Amanda in the UK, if I would approach reporters with new information and write some press releases, so that's what I've been busy with.
"It gives me a lot of satisfaction to know that I'm helping to put right some of that very negative reporting from the early days."
Barbie Nadeau, the author
Barbie Nadeau is a Rome-based Newsweek reporter from Dakota whose "notebook dump" about the case, as she calls it, became only the second e-book to be published by the Daily Beast, the internet newspaper edited by Tina Brown.
"The Daily Beast is only three years old," Barbie says, "and about a year after Tina Brown launched it, she decided to do fast publishing of books that would first be e-books and afterwards printed copies. We had discussed whether or not a book about the Knox case would fit in with that, but to be honest we didn't make a decision until the night of the trial verdict last December."
The result was Angel Face: The True Story of Student Killer Amanda Knox, and the title alone made Nadeau public enemy number one for many Amanda Knox supporters.
"The title, of course, is a little bit provocative," she admits. "I get a lot of hostile e-mails from Amanda Knox's supporters, telling me that Americans covering this case should toe the party line."
What they mainly object to, she says, is that "I didn't stand up for Amanda. They say, you should know better, you've lived in Italy too long, you're obviously anti-American. It's nothing to do with the evidence; just because I'm American I should stick up for the Americans."
Yet she denies that she is in the anti-Amanda camp. "There's a misconception of my view," she insists. "I have never once written that Amanda Knox is guilty. I don't know. I have covered this objectively and not taken sides. I think just because I don't write that Amanda Knox has been railroaded by corrupt Italian judiciary, people think I must think she is guilty.
"But I am trying to maintain my objectivity as a journalist. I don't stand up for the prosecutor, I don't stand up for the Knox family, I stay very much in the middle.
"But because in the United States I am not standing up for Amanda Knox, people assume that I think she's absolutely guilty. It's not my job as a journalist to be a member of the jury.
"I have always understood why Amanda Knox was convicted, because I heard exactly what the jury heard. Her defence did not do a good enough job refuting the evidence. They did a sloppy job all the way through, and that's what the jury noticed – Knox's and Sollecito's lawyers failed to agree on the dynamics of the crime.
"For example, Sollecito's lawyer said Meredith was killed by one person from behind, Amanda's expert said no, she was killed by one person from in front. So the jury was left to believe what they considered the more reliable source: the prosecution. All the way through, the defendants' lawyers contradicted each other.
"The prosecution's case wasn't all that strong: we all saw that. But the defence's case was weaker. If in the appeal they concentrate on the key weaknesses in the prosecution case, that might really work for them."
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