Christina Patterson: We prefer a crazy story to the truth

None of us knows how we would behave if we were 20, and terrified, and in a foreign country, and in shock

Christina Patterson
Wednesday 05 October 2011 00:00 BST

In the end, it took two minutes. In the end, after four years in a prison cell shared with a killer, four years of being called a witch, and whore, and she-devil, four years of dreaming of a freedom she never thought she'd lose, and of wondering if she'd ever get to see the place she called home again, it took two minutes for an Italian court to overturn the verdict that had turned a young American woman into one of the most famous murderers in the world.

It was almost unbearable to watch. It was almost surreal, too, to see the TV crews, and satellite vans, squeezed between honey-coloured buildings in streets that were built for horses long before Perugino taught Raphael how to paint his angels and his crucifixion. It was terrible, of course, to see the mother, and sister, and brother, of a young woman who had been left to bleed to death after having her throat slashed like a pig, walking, in front of the world's cameras, into a courtroom, as if walking in front of cameras was a normal thing to do when the smiling girl you loved would never come back.

But it was terrible, too, to see the white face of the young woman in the black hooded jacket, who had waited, waited, waited for the words that were coming, and who looked as if she couldn't carry the burden of that wait for one moment more. "I need to be with people I love," she had written in the diary she kept in prison, "so I wait. And the waiting is such pain that I almost can't stand it – but I do." She stood it, for four years, because she had no choice but to stand it, just as the family of the woman she had been convicted of killing had no choice but to stand the pain of a daughter slaughtered and raped.

When the judge spoke, in terms that some people at first found so confusing that at least one newspaper briefly ran a story on its website saying that the young woman had lost her appeal, we couldn't see her face. Moments later, she was crying. Moments after that, she was being half led, half carried out of the courtroom, her slender frame still shaking with sobs.

It's hard to imagine the path that took her from dreamy student life in the southern sun to a prison cell where she was told she'd spend 26 years for a crime she didn't commit. It's hard to imagine the path for her then boyfriend of less than two weeks, too, a young man who the world has largely ignored. American students on exchange programmes to Umbrian hill towns don't expect to be caught up in miscarriages of justice, and nor do Italians with rich parents. Like middle-class Westerners everywhere, they expect the police, and justice, to be on their side.

But the police, and justice, weren't on their side. The man in charge of the investigation into the death of Meredith Kercher, Giuliano Mignini, says he has used psychics to help him solve previous cases, and is currently appealing against a conviction of abuse of office for illegally wire-tapping the conversations of journalists. It was he who decided to question Amanda Knox through the night without a lawyer, and he who elicited the "confession" that she had been in the house with a Congolese barman called Patrick Lumumba, a confession she later said was made under duress. It was he who told the world that the young American, and the young Italian, had been involved in a strange Satanic ritual, and then a sex game that had gone wrong, and then a botched break-in, and then a jealous row.

It was he who insisted, even when a young man whose bloody handprints were found on Meredith's pillow, and who had fled to Germany, had been caught, and confessed to being in the house, which he couldn't really deny since his DNA was found all over Meredith's room, that Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito were the key movers in the murder. And who carried on insisting this, even when the only story he was left with, after all the others had been demolished, was that it was "a senseless killing, without a motive". And it was he who was happy to build a case on "evidence" collected so clumsily that videos of it taking place drew howls of horror in court. There were, according to a report, more than 50 errors in the original case. One piece of "evidence" wasn't "found" for 47 days. It was found, in fact, the day after a TV programme highlighting flaws in the case.

You can see why people might think it was pretty strange of a young girl whose flatmate had been murdered to do cartwheels while waiting to be questioned by the police. You can see why they might think it was pretty awful for a young girl to incriminate a man she sometimes worked for, a man whose customers later proved he was at work when the murder took place. It was pretty strange, and it was pretty awful, though none of us knows how we'd behave if we were 20, and terrified, and in a foreign country, and in shock because our flatmate had been found dead, and because the police were suggesting we'd killed her.

You can see why a prosecutor might think that the young woman and her boyfriend might be involved in the case, and why he might want to find evidence that supported his view. You can see why he might, in the glare of the world's media, feel under pressure to solve the case as quickly as he could. But it's quite hard to see why he would stick to that case, even when the evidence for it seemed to be extremely flimsy, and why he never seemed to consider the possibility that that lack of evidence might mean he was wrong. Unless, that is, it was more important for him to be seen to be right than to solve the crime.

You can just about see why a prosecutor who was very concerned with his professional reputation, and, like many Italians, with "la bella figura", which you could translate as "making a good impression", would be determined to stick with a story that seemed to get crazier every day, and crazier even as the evidence seemed to get thinner, and you can just about see why quite a few people in Perugia would stick with it, too. Perhaps it was out of loyalty to Mignini, or anxiety about the loss of "la bella figura" for Perugia, that baying crowds outside the courtroom greeted the verdict with cries of "Vergogna!", or "Shame".

Or perhaps it was just because once there's a story, even if it's a crazy story, and even if it's not all that clear where it came from, and even if the evidence for it is very, very slender, that story seems to harden into something that feels like truth. And so it's important that that story doesn't change, because if something that feels like a kind of truth can change, then anything can change, and we all need some things in the world that don't.

Perhaps that's why the Kerchers, too, seemed reluctant to believe that Mignini might be wrong. On Monday, they talked about the "PR machine" and "hype" that surrounded Amanda Knox's appeal, as if she was a young woman trying to market a pop album, and not one trying to escape a life in jail. They were right to remind the world of the girl at the heart of this terrible story, the girl they said had been "hugely forgotten". But terrible stories don't have just one victim. "In this case," said Amanda Knox's lawyer on Monday night, "there is no winner". Just a dead girl, and a heartbroken family. And two young people who are only just beginning an escape from hell.

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