Amanda Knox's Second Chance
The hotels are filling up fast and the TV trucks are already staking their claims beside the colorful holiday merry-go-round on the Piazza Matteotti in front of the medieval courthouse in Perugia, Italy. There is a notable buzz on the second floor of the courthouse as clerks busily prepare accreditation badges for the 140 journalists from all over the world who have applied for access to cover the appellate trial of Amanda Knox. The circus is back in town.
Knox, the 23-year-old convicted killer from Seattle, will get her second shot at freedom when her appeal trial begins next Wednesday. Lawyers for Knox and her erstwhile boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito have filed lengthy separate appeal briefs, but their cases will be heard simultaneously in front of local Perugian judge Claudio Pratillo Hellmann. A new jury will be sworn in and take their places in the same frescoed courtroom in which Knox and Sollecito were convicted of murder last December.
In fact, for those of us who have been on the Knox beat since Meredith Kercher was stabbed to death in November 2007, the appeal will feel very much like déjà vu—at least on the surface. Co-prosecutors Giuliano Mignini and Manuela Comodi, who led the early investigations and won the original convictions against Knox and Sollecito last December, will be there to consult with the new prosecutors, as is often the case in the Italian appellate court. Knox and Sollecito will very likely sit at the same tables where they spent much of 2010. They are not expected to sit in the courtroom’s barred cells, even though other convicted murderers on appeal often have to. And the lawyers for all parties involved have not changed, save one notable exception: Sollecito’s superstar attorney Giulia Bongiorno is noticeably pregnant. (Rumors are flying that the father is an American lawyer in Rome.)
If the judge allows an independent review of all forensic evidence and approves a hearty list of new witnesses, it sends a clear signal that he is willing to rehear this case from top to bottom.
But the similarities will be purely superficial in Knox’s appellate trial. The new judge has a tougher job than his predecessor, and he will have to use more stringent guidelines as he makes his decisions on this level of the case. In the original trial, Judge Giancarlo Massei demonstrated in his 427-page reasoning that he and his jury took certain liberties and made a number of assumptions, especially when it came to issues like motive, where they used hypothetical scenarios to back up their theory—and their convictions. “One can hypothesize that the bad decision came after the consumption of stupefying substances,” they wrote in the reasoning report as to why Knox, Sollecito, and their co-conspirator Rudy Guede killed Kercher. But in the appeal, there will be no room for such conjecture.
According to Knox’s appeal dossier, obtained by The Daily Beast, her lawyers are calling foul, citing Italian and international criminal-justice standards to which the Perugia court is obligated to adhere when valuing evidence, both forensic and circumstantial. They are asking for a complete and full review of all forensic evidence presented against their client. They use strong words in their accusations that the convicting court was not only biased because of the media attention surrounding the case, but also that “mere hypotheses” were used to reach the guilty verdicts. “The court has grossly violated these principles and has therefore committed serious noncompliance and misapplication of assessment criteria,” the Knox brief reads. “This alters the very nature of the ‘fair’ and ‘just’ process.”
Knox’s lawyers also wage a strong argument concerning the absence of motive. They quote a provocative passage from the judge’s reasoning that reads almost like a crime novel. The original judge wrote, “One can hypothesize that the choice to turn to evil began with drugs that Amanda admitted to taking that night.” Knox’s lawyers take issue with making assumptions about something so important as motive for murder. Knox’s appeal brief states, “The motive, the fundamental aspect of the factual existence of the serious criminal acts, is largely absent in the assessment of evidence and more erroneously absent in the written ruling.”
Credit goes to Knox’s lawyers for focusing on the most preposterous parts of this very complicated case. They do a particularly convincing job with the convicting judge’s inclusion of a mystery second knife. In his reasoning, the judge wrote that the jury assumed that a second knife that was never found was surely used to inflict the wounds on Kercher’s neck that were not compatible with the actual knife that was entered into evidence—the one that had Knox’s DNA on the handle and what the prosecution argued was Kercher’s DNA on a tiny groove on the blade. The jury went so far as to assume that the second knife was surely Sollecito’s, for he was an avid knife collector with many blades in his collection that could have made those wounds. Problem is, no one ever mentioned that in court. In fact, the existence of a second knife, Team Knox asserts, was never entered into evidence and as such, should not have appeared in the judge’s reasoning for his conviction.
“The existence of a second knife never came up in the trial,” Knox’s lawyers write. “To justify the injuries on the body of the poor victim that may not have been inflicted by the available knife entered into evidence can not be done by arbitrary additions like introducing a fantasy knife.”
The Knox team does gloss over much of the rest of the evidence used to convict their client, grouping most of it into broad categories like “contaminated evidence” and “substandard forensic work.” But they have obviously done their homework, perhaps bolstered by an American contingent that includes veteran criminal lawyer Theodore Simon. Unlike in the original trial, the appeal brief comes across as altogether savvy. In the original trial, Knox’s lawyers often joked with the press over after-trial drinks about how absurd certain elements of the prosecution’s case were, but they rarely made their points where it counted: in the courtroom. This time they’ve put it all on paper.
That said, it is up to the new judge to determine on just what he will base his appeal decision. And we may get a sneak peek of the outcome when he makes his first rulings, either next Wednesday when the appellate trial opens, or more likely on December 11, when it resumes. If he allows an independent review of all forensic evidence and approves a hearty list of new witnesses, it sends a clear signal that he is willing to rehear this case from top to bottom. And it’s worth noting that this is a judge who has overturned convictions before—in one instance he reopened a closed case to do so.
But if he doesn’t entertain the defense teams’ requests, it does not bode well for Knox. Either way, a decision is not expected until the spring of 2011.
In the meantime, the Seattle native’s lawyers say she is anxious to get back to court. She has reportedly been getting to know a new cellmate, Moldovian native Angela Biriukova, herself a celebrity criminal in Italy. Dubbed the Black Widow by the Italian press, Biriukova was tried for murdering her wealthy older husband by stabbing him 16 times. Her DNA was found on a cigarette butt near the corpse, but nowhere else at the murder scene. Unlike Knox, however, Biriukova was acquitted during her first trial. Knox might take comfort in what happened next: The prosecutors appealed and Biriukova’s acquittal was reversed—after being set free, she was convicted during the appellate process. Should Knox’s appellate trial yield the same dramatic reversal, it will be a stunning conclusion to a trial whose narrative has often sharply turned on twists of fate.
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.