The Knox Trial Cliffhanger
Since January 16, the same crowd has been gathering every Friday and Saturday in the Corte di Assise in Perugia, Italy, for the murder trial of Meredith Kercher. The frescoed courtroom, the lawyers’ voices and, by now, even the clothes that Amanda Knox and Rafaelle Sollecito own are all too familiar. When court broke up on Saturday for a two-month recess, it was a little bit like a university crowd going home for the summer. “See you in September,” was the overriding sentiment as lawyers shook hands with each other. “Have a great summer.”
But for Knox and Sollecito, this will undoubtedly be an endless summer. When court reconvenes on September 14, they will have spent 22 months in prison. The weekly outings to court, during which they get constant attention, have become a normal part of their lives. During the next two months, things will be very different. Family members can still visit twice a week, as usual, but there will be little to no media exposure. While this may be hard on Knox and Sollecito, it will surely be a relief to Knox’s family, whose every move has been scrutinized.
In this Catholic country where men aren’t allowed to show their bare knees inside a church, Knox’s sisters posed in what Italians consider beachwear in front of a solemn crime scene.
Last weekend, for example, they were featured in the glossy women’s magazine Gente with a photo spread showing shots of Knox’s mother and sisters around Perugia, including one of her sisters in short-shorts posing in front of the crime scene. But in this Catholic country—where men aren’t even allowed to show their bare knees inside a church—posing in what Italians consider beachwear in front of a solemn crime scene was considered offensive by many. The Kercher family lawyer described the photo as “macabre”—two young women, full of life, next to the scene where their own daughter died in a brutal sex murder.
This weekend was supposed to conclude the defense’s case, but instead the lawyers for Knox and Sollecito decided to push four witnesses back to September. That’s because a technical witness took up eight hours on Friday trying to bolster Sollecito’s alibi by reviewing the entire history of Italy’s cellular phone networks. One of the key pieces of circumstantial evidence are phone records indicating that Knox and Sollecito turned their phones off at the same time the night before the murder and turned them on the same time the morning after. Friday’s witness wanted to establish that cell coverage in Sollecito’s apartment was spotty, so that his phone might have been turned on but not accessible to the network.
The defense has greatly reduced its list of witnesses. Some character witnesses for Knox have left town or did not respond to subpoenas. One of Sollecito’s key forensic witnesses walked off the case altogether. And the defense has yet to contest some key evidence presented by the prosecutors, such as the mixture of Kercher’s blood and Knox’s DNA in five locations at the house where the murder took place.
Closing their case before the summer break would have meant that the judge and jury could use the time off to ponder both the prosecution and defense cases before hearing closing arguments in September. Now the defense will conclude their case on the 14th and 15th of September and closing arguments are expected to begin the 18th.
The last witness before the break was Sollecito’s forensic consultant, Adriano Tagliabracci, who gave a detailed presentation of why he thought the entire crime scene was contaminated. Kercher’s bra had been cut from her body some time after her murder, during which time the clasp was sliced from the bra itself. The tiny metal clasp of the bra contains Sollecito’s DNA, according to the prosecution. It was documented on camera during the initial sweep of the crime scene, but Tagliabracci testified that because the clasp wasn’t actually collected until 47 days after the murder, it was subject to all sorts of contamination—particularly because it was picked up more than one meter from its original location, meaning that it had likely been kicked or moved in some manner. And he said that DNA contamination is extremely common. “The amount of DNA is not dependent on the duration of the contact with the object,” he said. “You don’t need 20 minutes of contact to leave DNA, you can transfer DNA by just brushing.”
The list of remaining witnesses includes two forensic scientists who will likely address the mixed-blood issue. But no one on the list that has been released so far looks qualified to confront the troubling lack of a solid alibi. Early in the investigation, Sollecito said he did not remember if Knox had spent the night at his apartment, as she claimed. No one has been produced to testify that she was in fact there. And Sollecito also told police he had been downloading cartoons the night of the murder, but subsequently, phone and Internet records proved otherwise.
Saturday’s hearing ended with a dramatic exchange about whether the prosecution had given the defense key documents regarding the DNA on Kercher’s bra. The charge was seen as a blatant attempt by the prosecution to throw the defense’s witness, and it worked. The exchange ended with Sollecito’s lawyers accusing the prosecution with illegality—a move many thought was primarily to set the stage for an appeal if one or both are convicted.
As the court regulars break for the summer, Kercher’s death remains very much an unsolved mystery. Although Ivory Coast native Rudy Guede has already been convicted of Kercher’s assault and murder, that judge made it clear that he believed Guede did not act alone, and now Knox and Sollecito are on trial for what prosecutors believe were their roles. But as this case winds down, it is ever more apparent that no one may ever give clarity to the circumstances of her brutal death.
Barbie Latza Nadeau has reported from Italy for Newsweek since 1997. She also writes for CNN Traveller, Budget Travel, and Frommer's.