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Zero Hour for Amanda Knox

As the Italian murder trial draws to a close, défense attorneys for American Amanda Knox and her boyfriend are challenging forensic evidence marred by sloppy police work.

09.19.09 1:48 PM ET

As the Italian murder trial draws to a close, defense attorneys for American Amanda Knox and her boyfriend are challenging forensic evidence marred by sloppy police work.

In the waning days of the Amanda Knox murder trail in Perugia, Italy, the courtroom conversation has come down to this: shoes, knives, and the contents of Meredith Kercher’s stomach. At one point during testimony on Friday, prosecutor Manuela Comodi took off her own shoe to clarify a point about how footprints are made. On Saturday, a knife—with what the prosecution says is Knox’s DNA on the handle and Kercher’s genetic material on the blade—was introduced in court.

Vinci argued that Sollecito, who has a hammertoe on his right foot, could not have made the bloody print from a bare foot on the bathmat.

But the weekend testimony did little to clarify the dynamics of Kercher’s mysterious murder. In fact, more troubling contradictions were introduced. The defense is wrapping up its case in a trial that began in January. This weekend was dedicated to witnesses for Raffaele Sollecito, Knox’s ex-boyfriend, who is a co-defendant in the murder trial. The two are charged with sexually assaulting and murdering Kercher in November 2007, staging a crime scene and theft. Knox is also charged with defamation for falsely naming a fourth man, Patrick Lumumba, as the murderer. They face life in prison if convicted.

On Friday, forensic specialist Francesco Vinci gave a detailed PowerPoint presentation about the blood evidence, including a bare footprint found on a bathmat in the bathroom shared by Kercher and Knox. The prosecution attributed this footprint to Sollecito, but Vinci argued that Sollecito, who has a hammertoe on his right foot, could not have made the print. Through a series of slides of Sollecito’s nude foot, the specialist showed anomalies and discrepancies between the prosecution’s findings and his own.

Not surprisingly, Vinci attributed the footprint to Rudy Guede, the Ivory Coast native who was convicted for his role in Kercher’s murder last October. Vinci also showed how a bloody shoe print in Meredith’s bedroom made by an athletic trainer should be attributed to Guede and not to Sollecito. But he failed to explain how Guede could have left both a shoeprint and a bare footprint. After court, when asked if it was feasible that Guede could have had one shoe and sock off and one shoe on, Vinci said, “In a situation like that, you could easily lose a shoe.” Francesco Maresca, attorney for the Kercher family, said that Vinci’s theory was “not credible.”

Saturday’s witnesses were the independent experts who had testified in the preliminary hearings last year. They were called by Sollecito’s defense team to reiterate several points—including the time of death and the compatibility of the murder weapon with Kercher’s wounds. The first witness, Giancarlo Umani Ronchi, testified that there were traces of alcohol in Kercher’s blood. A second witness, Mariano Cingolani, also testified to the presence of alcohol in her system. Alcohol changes not only the potential dynamic of the crime, but it could affect calculations about the time of death, because alcohol slows the digestive process. The time of death is crucial for the alibis of both Knox and Sollecito. They say they were at Sollecito’s house smoking pot, watching a movie and having sex when the murder took place, even though several prosecution witnesses testified to seeing them in the area much later.

The alcohol levels in Kercher’s blood were tested in both Perugia and Macerata—and came out differently, even though the two samples were supposedly taken from Kercher’s corspe at the same time. “The amount of alcohol in the system determines how much it affects digestion,” said Cingolani. “But because the amounts differ, it was either a lab error or an unexplainable anomaly.”

This possible lab error is just the latest problem in a case that is riddled with both police and scientific mistakes. Still, the forensic and circumstantial evidence against Knox and Sollecito has passed many levels of Italy’s judicial system. In addition to the knife that the prosecution says has Knox’s DNA on the handle and Kercher’s blood on the blade, Knox’s DNA was said to be found mixed with Kercher’s blood in five spots in the house, and a footprint outside Kercher’s bedroom attributed to Knox was found using using Luminol, a substance that can identify blood that has been cleaned up. Sollecito’s DNA was found on the clasp of the bra Kercher was wearing at the time of her murder. And both Sollecito and Knox have offered uncorroborated alibis.

The knife said to have Knox’s DNA on the handle is also heavily contested because the scientific police did not have enough material to double-test the sample attributed to Kercher on the blade. Donning rubber gloves and a surgical mask, Cingolani examined the knife in front of the court. He testified that he did not see any anomalies on the knife with the exception of a slight kink in the blade. Earlier witnesses for the prosecution testified that police had chosen that knife from Sollecito’s house because of the presence of tiny scratches on the blade. “There are no scratches on the knife,” said Cingolani. “I don’t see anything consistent with scratches.”

Inconsistencies are a basic element of any criminal case, as both sides strive to convince the jury of their version of events. But the key discrepancies in Kercher’s murder trial have centered not on alibis and hypotheses, which are subjective, but on basic forensic evidence which, if tested properly, should be clear. Other evidentiary problems include the lack of video or audio tapes of Knox’s original interrogation and the scientific police forgetting to pick up a bra clasp for nearly six weeks. That clasp is said to have Sollecito’s DNA on the metal hook and is the only material evidence police have tying Sollecito to the crime.

While these obvious errors might well establish reasonable doubt in an American courtroom, it is unlikely they will have the same effect here in Italy, where defendants often seem to be presumed guilty until proven innocent. The defense has only a few witnesses left before closing their case. Then the judge may recall any number of witnesses to clarify points, or he could call for an independent expert to analyze all the forensic evidence. An independent expert could take 20 to 60 days to complete an analysis, and then closing arguments would begin. The verdict could come as soon as November or as late as next March.

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