06.07.09

A Mother's Grief in Perugia

The family of murder victim Meredith Kercher testified in front of the Italian court, reports Barbie Latza Nadeau, as their daughter’s accused killer, Amanda Knox, slumped in her chair.

Meredith Kercher chose the house in which she would be brutally murdered because it offered a panorama of Perugia. “She chose the house because of the view,” her mother, Arline Kercher, told the jury that will decide whether or not American Amanda Knox and Italian Raffaele Sollecito killed her daughter. “She chose Perugia because it was small and because of the chocolate festival.”

“It’s not just the death,” said Meredith’s mother. “But the brutality. The violence. And the great sorrow it has caused.”

On Saturday morning, Kercher’s mother took the stand along with Meredith’s sister Stephanie and her father John, who described how he heard about his daughter’s death. “Meredith’s mother phoned me to say that she had seen on the news that a British student had been found murdered in Perugia,” he told the court. “I tried ringing Meredith on her mobile, and I must have tried 12 times and didn’t get any answer.”

So John Kercher, who works as a journalist, started calling various editors to find out if they could get the name of the victim. “About two hours later, they phoned me and told me that they had the name of the British student,” he said. “The name was Meredith. That was how I found out.”

For the last 19 months, Kercher’s family has heard all the gruesome details of their daughter’s murder. They have been told that before she was suffocated by an assailant’s hand, she was sexually assaulted, strangled, and stabbed three times, likely with two different knives. They issued a statement before their testimony: "We are here not with hate but to have justice and to understand what exactly happened to Meredith, who was a wonderful person and who was in Perugia simply to study."

The Kerchers’ testimony brings the victim of this crime back to the forefront of a story that has been largely dominated by Knox’s celebrity status. Meredith’s mother smiled when she spoke of her daughter, but was visibly shaken when she described the circumstances of her daughter’s murder. “It’s not just the death,” said her mother. “But the brutality. The violence. And the great sorrow it has caused.”

During the testimony, Knox slumped in her chair with her head down, occasionally looking at the family members as they spoke. Her former boyfriend D.J. Johnsrud and her aunt Christine Hagge, both of Seattle, watched in silence. Her co-defendant, former boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, showed no emotion during the Kerchers’ time on the stand.

Kercher’s mother testified that her daughter had no particular problems with Knox. “But she was surprised that the American girl had a boyfriend the first week,” she said. Meredith’s father recalled his daughter complaining about Knox’s personal hygiene. “She also spoke to me once about two weeks before she died that she was upset that Amanda never seemed to flush the toilet,” he said. Defense attorneys declined to question the Kerchers.

In Italy, criminal and civil trials are often held in tandem, but lawyers representing the civil plaintiffs do not always follow the prosecution’s line of thinking. The Kerchers were testifying as civil plaintiffs in the trial, but in this case they were also ratifying the criminal proceedings against Knox and Sollecito. “We agree with the prosecution’s theory,” said Francesco Maresca, attorney for the Kercher family. “Our expert backs up the evidence that has been presented.” On Friday the Kercher attorneys called a geneticist who cited further evidence to support previous testimony that DNA belonging to Knox and Sollecito ties the two to Kercher’s murder.

On Friday, medical expert Gianaristide Norelli also testified on the Kerchers’ behalf that Meredith’s body was badly battered. Before her neck was sliced, she was strangled, likely as a “threat.” He also testified that the knife wounds to Kercher’s neck were not consistent with someone who was trying to kill her, but they were more in line with frantic violence and even self-defense on the part of the victim. In theory, Kercher could have been cut while she struggled to fight off an attack.

Next Friday, Knox will take the stand. She will be questioned by the prosecution and civil lawyers, including those representing Patrick Lumumba, who spent two weeks in prison after Knox originally accused him of Kercher’s murder. She is expected to speak in both English and Italian, but she does not have to take an oath to tell the truth. She can call a halt to the questioning at any time and can refuse to answer questions.

A week later, Knox’s mother, Edda Mellas, is expected to take the stand in testimony that will be in sharp contrast to Arline Kercher’s. “It was unbelievable, unreal, and in many ways, it still is,” said Kercher’s mother. “It is such a shock to send your child to school and she doesn’t come back.”

Barbie Nadeau has reported from Italy for Newsweek magazine since 1997. She also writes for CNN Traveller, Budget Travel Magazine and Frommer's.