Cards and letters are already arriving in the prison post for Seattle student Amanda Knox, who turns 23 on Friday, July 9. It will be her third birthday in Capanne prison outside Perugia, Italy, where she is serving 26 years for the November 2007 sexual assault and murder of her British roommate Meredith Kercher.
Knox’s mother Edda Mellas is planning to visit her daughter to celebrate, but not before she makes her own court appearance earlier in the week. Mellas, Knox and Knox’s biological father Curt face defamation charges lodged by twelve Perugia police officers for accusations that the cops abused the Seattle student. If Amanda is convicted of defamation, an additional six years could be tacked onto her sentence. Her parents face heavy fines and up to three years in prison if they are convicted.
The twelve officers are now represented by none other than Francesco Maresca, the lawyer who represented Kercher’s family during Knox’s murder trial.
Knox’s mother is expected to appear on July 6 for a preliminary hearing when a judge will decide if there is enough evidence to go forward with a full trial. Her father, who is not required to attend, is not expected to be in Perugia for the initial court date. Amanda’s parents’ charges stem from comments they made to the London Times. in June 2008. In an interview with correspondent John Follain, Curt Knox said, “Amanda was abused physically and verbally. She told us she was hit in the back of the head by a police officer with an open hand, at least twice. The police told her, ‘If you ask for a lawyer, things will get worse for you’ and ‘If you don’t give us some explanation for what happened, you’re going to go to jail for a very long time.’”
The comments echo Amanda’s own claims that police hit her “twice, on the back of the head” during an interrogation held in the late evening hours of November 5, 2007. Knox was not called in for questioning that night, but she decided to accompany her then-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito because she didn’t want to be alone. During his interrogation, which began around 10:40pm, Sollecito failed to corroborate Knox’s alibi for the night of Kercher’s murder. Since she was already at the police station, the cops decided to question her too, just after midnight. An official police translator was called in at around 1 a.m., and eventually lead prosecutor Giuliano Mignini arrived. Because she was not scheduled to be interrogated that night, Mignini maintains that they did not have the room set up to tape the interrogation. A few hours into the questioning, Knox says, the cops started to pressure her and eventually they hit her. But because no video or audio tapes exist, the truth, which has been an elusive commodity in this epic case from the start, may never be known.
• Barbie Latza Nadeau: Women Who Love MurderersAmanda’s defamation charges are based specifically on court testimony she gave in June 2009 when she told the jury that she was physically and emotionally coerced into accusing Congolese bar owner Patrick Lumumba of Kercher’s murder. She claimed that a police officer cuffed her in the back of the head to get her to talk. When asked to by the judge while she was on the stand, she could not identify the police officer even though all twelve officers who were present during her interrogation were in the courtroom. Those twelve officers, including the translator who interpreted the interrogation for her, are now represented by none other than Francesco Maresca, the lawyer who represented Kercher’s family during Knox’s murder trial.
Amanda Knox's parents speak with Larry King in October 2009.
Defamation is a common charge in Italy, which processes just short of 1,000 cases a year—the third highest number of such cases in Europe after Moldova and Spain. Such charges are usually lodged alongside other claims like violation of privacy and libel. And they don't always stick. Last February, three Google executives were absolved of defamation, though convicted of privacy violation, for allowing a video of the abuse of a child with Down Syndrome to be posted online. Knox’s prosecutor Giuliano Mignini has filed several defamation claims resulting from media reports of the Knox trial, including a charge against the West Seattle Herald newspaper for calling him “mentally unstable” and another against fiction writer Joe Cottonwood for calling him “a preening, intellectually dishonest bully who cares more about making newspaper headlines than in serving justice.” Attorney Valter Biscotti filed a defamation claim against American super-lawyer Joe Tacopina for comments he made on ABC News against Biscotti’s client, Ivory Coast native Rudy Guede, calling him the lone assassin. None of those charges are expected to ever make it to court.
Knox and her parents won’t be so lucky. Knox especially faces a far tougher challenge fighting her defamation charges, which are more complex than those resulting from press stories like the charges against her parents. Knox accused the police of physical abuse, but her lawyers never backed up the serious accusations with an official abuse complaint. Their unwillingness to do so left the police no choice but to “protect their good name,” according to Maresca. He says the purpose of the suit is to “bring closure to the topic of police brutality."
But because there is no video or audio of the fateful interrogation, the judge will have to weigh Knox and her parents’ word against that of twelve presumably reputable police officers. Perugia is a relatively small town and the justice system is tight-knit. The fact that the accusations against the police come after nearly three years of non-stop international criticism of the entire Perugia judiciary by Knox supporters will likely not be helpful.
Knox herself was in court twice last month to work out the details of her defamation case. On June 17, she was denied a request for a new judge for her preliminary defamation hearing. That case will resume in October and will be heard by Judge Claudia Matteini, the same judge who signed her original incarceration orders in November 2007.
Knox is also appealing her sexual assault and murder conviction; that hearing has been tentatively scheduled to begin November 24, pending appointment of the appeal judge. Because the judges in Perugia have in one way or another already been affiliated with the Kercher murder, an appeal judge will likely be brought in from another jurisdiction. If she fails to win her freedom during the first appeal process, she gets a second chance in Italy’s Cassation court sometime down the road. Her birthday wish will undoubtedly be that this is the last one she celebrates behind bars.
Barbie Latza Nadeau, author of the Beast Book Angel Face, about Amanda Knox, has reported from Italy for Newsweek Magazine since 1997. She also writes for CNN Traveller, Budget Travel Magazine and Frommer's.