Peter Popham: Will Knox find justice in Perugia?

By the time the trial comes around, the public already know what they think about a case

Tuesday 24 November 2009 01:00

Judgement day is fast approaching for Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito, the student lovers accused of the murder of Meredith Kercher, the English exchange student. But whatever the jury's verdict, the case will only reinforce the view of the outside world that Italy's justice system is not only diabolically slow but frighteningly prone to error.

Two years and two weeks ago, the young American from Seattle and her boyfriend from Bari in Puglia were arrested on suspicion of involvement in the murder of Meredith, who had been brutally stabbed and hacked to death in her room in the town, in the flat she shared with Amanda and a couple of Italian girls.

Neither of the two had a criminal record, and beside their admission that they smoked cannabis, their record of anti-social behaviour was equally thin. Nonetheless their pleas for bail were ignored: they were locked up in Perugia's jail, and held on remand for practically a year before finally being charged. Their trial got under way in January of this year, and has been dawdling forward, with around two hearings per week (apart from summer break), ever since.

But while justice crawls, the prosecutors move like lightning. Within a week of the murder, chief prosecutor Giuliano Mignini announced that he had wrapped the case up: the guilty trio were Knox and Sollecito and an African bar manager in the town for whom Amanda had worked part-time. On the basis of their "strange" behaviour in the hours after the murder – holding hands and kissing – and a confession to being present in the flat, which Knox later retracted, Mignini decided that the two of them plus the African had conducted an orgy in the flat, and Meredith had been murdered when she declined to participate.

One of the great virtues of the British judicial system is that, whatever ideas a detective or prosecutor may have about a case, he is not allowed to voice them until the case comes to court. And a very good thing too.

They manage these things differently in Italy, where prosecutors regularly leak their theories to the newspapers, often in extraordinary detail. Reporters compete for the juiciest tit-bits. As a result, by the time the trial comes around, the public already know what they think about a case, and why. This makes miscarriages of justice horribly likely. Take the Perugia murder: Mr Mignini made up his mind about it, and got his theories splashed across the media, in early November 2007. But weeks later forensic evidence led the police to another suspect who had little or no connection to Knox, Sollecito and their African friend. Rudy Guede, unlike the original three, was tied to the crime scene by fingerprints, hand prints and DNA evidence. In a separate trial he has already been convicted of the murder.

When Guede exploded on the scene, the investigators should have torn up their work and started again. But by this time the "guilt" of Knox and Sollecito was so well established in the media and in the public's mind that there was no going back. The jury sitting on the case absorbed all those early reports. As a result, justice may be done in Perugia next week, but I wouldn't bank on it.

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