No Mistrial for Knox

Denied their request for a mistrial due to mishandled evidence, Amanda Knox’s lawyers promise “bombshells” in the murder trial—but prep her for a guilty verdict.

09.14.09 12:51 PM ET

The murder trial of Amanda Knox reconvened after a two-month break with a dramatic twist. The defense requested that the indictments against Knox and her co-defendant, Raffaele Sollecito, be thrown out—essentially asking for a mistrial. The two are back in court in Perugia, Italy, to face charges of sexually assaulting and murdering Meredith Kercher in November 2007. Just as court adjourned in July, it was revealed that the prosecution had held back key evidence from the defense and civil attorneys. On Monday, clutching the Italian constitution, Sollecito’s lead defense attorney, Giulia Bongiorno, told the judge: “My client has been denied his right to adequate representation.”

But the request proved futile. After more than an hour of deliberation, the judge ruled that the trial should go on as scheduled, dealing a crushing blow to the defendants. Even though the defense’s gambit was a legal long shot, the lawyers hoped that, at very least, it might have triggered a mistrial, which would have given them a new opportunity to apply for the house arrest of Knox and Sollecito, who have now been in prison for nearly two years.

Sources say Knox’s lawyers have prepared her for a guilty verdict in the current trial, but hope that she can win on appeal.

Sollecito and Knox looked relieved to be back in court and comfortable back in the spotlight after their long summer away. Knox wore jeans and a red Beatles hoodie and Sollecito was in a purple dress shirt. Knox's father Curt, along with three of Knox's friends, were in court with her.

Although the defense’s request was denied, they risked nothing by making the request. In fact, the judge’s denial could set the stage for an appeal if the two are convicted. In Italy, an appeal is an automatic part of criminal trials. Rudy Guede, who was convicted for his part in Kercher’s murder, is appealing his guilty verdict, and the race is on now to finish the Knox trial before his appeal begins November 18. Because his appeal is pending, Guede chose not to testify in this trial, but anything he says at his own appeal hearing can be considered as evidence in the Knox-Sollecito case—and Guede has indicated several times that he was in the house when Kercher died but that he did not kill her. He has said through his lawyer that Knox and Sollecito were also there that night.

Both prosecution and defense attorneys in the case of Knox and Sollecito say they will appeal if the verdict does not go their way. Procedural mistakes and denials like the one today will be the grist for these appeals. Sources close to the case say Knox’s lawyers have prepared her for a guilty verdict in the current trial but have tried to bolster her hopes that she can win on appeal.

The key evidence that the prosecution withheld pertains to test results on a knife found in Sollecito’s apartment with Knox’s DNA on the handle. Forensic scientist Patrizia Stefanoni, who testified as a prosecution witness last spring, wrote “too low” in English on initial results, assumed to mean that the samples of Kercher’s DNA on the alleged murder weapon—along with Knox’s DNA—did not meet the normal standards. Writing “too low” in English suggests that she was copying a reading directly from the machine, while she was continuing to test the sample. The implication, according to the defense, is that Stefanoni then had to amplify the tiny sample found on the blade beyond the protocol to find a match to Kercher’s DNA. Why she did that, and who may have ordered her to do so, are troubling questions. The knife evidence has been heavily contested because the sample on the blade was so small it could not be double-tested and because Stefanoni completed the one and only test without defense experts in the laboratory.

The day was not a complete loss for the defense. Their forensic expert, Adriano Taglibracci, testified that the standard protocol in DNA examination requires double testing to prove a match and that Stefanoni made what Taglibracci called intentional errors to mislead the jury. “This sample was so small that there was not enough to double-test it,” he told the court. “There are contradictions between what was recorded in the lab report and the court testimony signed by the same person.”

This implication of contamination and evidence tampering is the defense’s best hope for preventing a guilty verdict. Their lineup this week includes more forensic scientists, who have promised to deliver a “bombshell.”

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