Murder in Italy: Can justice be done?

The trial of three people accused of murdering British student Meredith Kercher finally opens tomorrow. But after a year of intense speculation, can justice be done asks Peter Popham
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The dark season accords well with Perugia, a moody city of huge medieval arches, underground labyrinths and steep and crooked cobbled lanes. Hallowe'en is in sight, and with it the first anniversary of the atrocious murder of the young English student Meredith Kercher.

Tomorrow in the old law courts in Piazza Matteotti in the city centre, preliminary hearings in the trial of the three people accused of the murder of Meredith finally get under way. The defence lawyers for Meredith's American flatmate Amanda Knox and her Italian former boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito will try to persuade the judge that they have no case to answer. The third, Rudy Guede, a drifter from the Ivory Coast, will press for a fast-track trial in exchange for an admission of partial guilt.

Perugia has been in the shadow of this crime for nearly a year now. The pretty villa where Meredith died, near the city's great Etruscan arch and with views on to rolling hills, is locked and bolted; doors and windows strung with red and white police tape ever since the forensic people finished their work. On the other side of the acropolis, the city's ancient centre, Le Chic, the bar where both Meredith and Amanda worked and which was run by Patrick Lumumba, the original third suspect in the case, later eliminated from the inquiry, is barred and shuttered too; dwindling business has forced him to close, he says.

But they are only the most obvious victims. "Yes, the effect is still being felt," says Luciano Gianfilippi, a local journalist. "The universities are the heart of Perugia's economy, and a crime like this makes parents think twice about sending their children here. The media attention, the depiction of Perugia as a sort of Sodom and Gomorrah, has damaged its image."

Others shrug off the ugly new reputation. "I think it's the most gorgeous place," said one female student from London, looking for a flat in advance of the new academic year. "My main complaint is that the flats are small and expensive. But my parents and I are sure it's a safe city, Meredith was just very unlucky."

But to begin at the beginning. Meredith's body was discovered by police on 2 November. They had come to the villa Meredith shared with seven others at number 7, Via della Pergola looking for the owner of two mobile phones that had been handed in. Both belonged to Meredith.

When police broke down her door they found a scene of horror. Blood everywhere. The room in chaos. And under a duvet Meredith's lifeless body, covered in bruises and with three fatal gashes to the throat.

The citizens of Perugia groaned at the news: the students give the city a vitality unique for ancient Italian cities, they keep bars and pizzerias and nightclubs in business, provide undeclared income to thousands of landlords. But they also give it a rampaging drugs problem, a reputation that was building even before Meredith's murder. "In Perugia the bars are open till five in the morning," said one local. "Kids come to buy drugs from all over Italy. The police are doing their best to contain it but it's desperate situation."

And now this. In the past year, there has been a significant defection to other cities like Siena that offer similar university courses. Eventually the city is hoping to cauterise the problem by building new residential halls well away from the temptations of the centre.

As the investigation into the murder of Meredith Kercher got under way, the first assumption in town was that it was sex and drug-related. Meredith's My Space site was plundered for party photos that made her look like a wild young thing. The murder took place on the night after Hallowe'en when she, like most other students, had been out on the town.

Yet as more details filtered out, it became clear that the stereotype did not fit. Meredith was a sober and hard-working student, devoted to her studies, friends said. She been in the town less than two months. She had a steady Italian boyfriend who was away with his family over the holiday. On the night of her death she had supper at the home of girlfriends, watching a video of the soppy romantic film The Notebook. She neither drank nor took any drugs, leaving around 9pm and walking home.

A post mortem proved that she died a couple of hours later, around 11pm, with one hour's margin of error either way. And the discarded mobile phones, money and credit cards missing from her wallet and the evidence of a break-in seemed to indicate that she had been the victim of a particularly brutal house robbery.

But that scenario crumbled in the investigators' fingers. The window, it transpired, had been smashed from the inside by someone who had clumsily tried to simulate a break-in. But who, and why?

The dramatic breakthrough came on 6 November when after interrogation, Meredith's flatmate Amanda Knox, who previously said she spent the night at her boyfriend's, confessed that she was in the kitchen of the shared house when Meredith was killed, had heard the screams but merely covered her ears. The killer, she said, was Patrick Lumumba, the Congolese manager of a popular nightclub in the town centre called Le Chic where both she and Meredith had held down part-time jobs. The case, it seemed, was open and shut.

It proved to be anything but. Amanda rapidly changed her story one more time, insisting again that she had passed the night with her boyfriend, Raffaele. The 24-year-old IT student gave fluctuating accounts of whether they had passed the night separately or together. The only consistent fact was that the couple had smoked a lot of hash that day.

Forensic evidence and confessions aside, the problem is that none of the three alleged culprits looked remotely like a killer. None had a criminal record. The worst that could be held against them were a few foolish entries on their websites: Amanda aiming a machine gun; while Raffaele, admitted to a passion for knives. Mr Lumumba was well known in the town as a drummer and club manager and was a settled family man with a small child.

As the investigation lurched forward, and forensic scientists worked to build what evidence they could find at the crime scene into a solid case, one result was to eliminate him from the inquiry: customers in Le Chic testified that he had been working behind the bar throughout. He is now suing Amanda for defamation.

But fingerprints and other evidence from the house brought another African into focus: Hermann "Rudy" Guede. Originally from the Ivory Coast he had been brought to Italy as a child by his father. He had lived in Perugia for years failing to hold down a job, becoming known as a drug dealer. Suddenly the case began to look a little clearer. Guede had left his faeces in the flat's lavatory and his fingerprints on Meredith's body. An international warrant was put out for his arrest and he was picked up on a train in Germany.

At last the case had one clear suspect: Guede admitted to having been in the flat with Meredith on the night of the murder, and flirting with her, though he denied that they had had sex. He says he then went to the toilet and while there heard screaming, even though he was listening to music on a personal music player at high volume. When he came out of the toilet he saw Meredith lying on the ground and confronted a man he did not know who threatened him with a knife. Guede defended himself, he says, and ran away.

There are some people, American supporters of Amanda Knox in particular, who maintain that Guede is lying and that the Meredith case is a standard rape-cum-murder by the one person who has consistently admitted being on the premises at the time. For these people the elaborate scenarios of Meredith being killed at the culmination of an orgy of sex and drugs – perhaps because she refused to participate – are eyewash. Guede was the lone killer, they say, and Knox and Sollecito victims of the prosecutors' over-active imaginations.

Unfortunately for the two students it's not that simple. The strength of Guede's case – he has asked for a fast-track trial, in which it is expected that he will offer evidence against Knox and Sollecito in exchange for a plea of limited guilt – is that ever since he was picked up he has stuck rigidly to the same story: he was there, he did not kill, he fled.

Knox and Sollecito, meanwhile, have changed their stories repeatedly, and much of the case against them is based on what might have happened after the murder: how they might have faked the break-in and burglary; how they might have moved the body; how they might have cleaned Meredith's room with bleach to remove fingerprints. And new forensic evidence leaked last week claims to have picked up Amanda's bloody footprints – washed away but detectable using a product called Luminol – leading away from Meredith's room.

What exactly happened in Meredith Kercher's room and why remains a matter of intense speculation, and accounts for the grisly fascination of the crime. Knox and Sollecito were by their own admission smashed on hashish, which helps to account for the vagaries of the stories they have told. But could their stoned state also have led them into crazy acts of which neither would have been capable while sober?