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Could a Homeless Man Free Amanda Knox?

In the latest twist in the Seattle native’s murder appeal, a key witness contradicted earlier testimony that had helped to convict her. Barbie Latza Nadeau recounts the weekend’s courtroom drama.

03.28.11 1:06 PM ET

It was pure theater in the Perugia courtroom on Saturday as Seattle native Amanda Knox and her erstwhile Italian boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito heard a decisive witness in their appeal against convictions for the 2007 murder of Meredith Kercher. As the drama played out on the stand, Knox’s tense supporters jeered and pointed, trying to intimidate journalists seated in the public viewing area through guttural growls and stern warnings to “write the truth.”

Knox was also visibly nervous, almost painfully so, arriving in court with her head down and her hair tied back in a girlish ponytail. Sollecito, in what could be described as an equally girlish pink sweater, appeared more relaxed than usual, pausing to smile as Knox entered the courtroom.

Saturday’s main attraction was Antonio “Toto” Curatolo, a 53-year-old homeless man and self-described lifelong drug addict and “anarchist”. Curatolo was a key witness for the prosecution in the original trial, testifying that he saw Knox and Sollecito together near the scene of the crime the night of November 1, 2007, when Kercher was murdered. Back then, his testimony was considered dubious, and appellate judge Claudio Pratillo Hellman called him back this past weekend to clear up a few questions. Instead, he created even more confusion. Yes, he said he saw Knox and Sollecito “talking excitedly” not far from the parkbench along the basketball court where he was living at the time. “As sure as I am sitting here,” he said, he was just as sure that the very next day, the police and “men in white uniforms”—the forensic experts who he called “extraterrestrials”—were at the house where Kercher was killed.

“There is no such thing as a perfect witness,” said prosecutor Manuela Comodi, “except for one who has actually seen the crime.”

Then, without much prompting at all, Curatolo contradicted himself, describing how the night he saw Knox and Sollecito, there were also people in Halloween costumes and shuttle buses taking revelers to the local discothèques. “The two young people were talking intensely to each other," he told the court. "In the piazza that night young people in masks were coming and going and buses were leaving for the nightclubs."

Of course, that can’t possibly be true. If Curatolo saw Knox and Sollecito against the backdrop of disco buses and Halloween costumes, it wasn’t the night before the murder. Instead, it had to have been two nights before, on Halloween, even though neither Knox nor Sollecito were anywhere near the basketball court that night. Knox was working at La Chic pub and Sollecito was elsewhere in town. They met up much later and say they spent Halloween night at Sollecito’s house, but no one has ever offered the court testimony that they met at the basketball court that night. So did Curatolo see them at all? He maintains that he did, but by the reaction and smirks on the faces of the judges and jury, his testimony won’t be considered reliable in the final analysis of this case.

Still, in what is now the standard post-hearing spinfest, both sides used Curatolo’s testimony to their advantage. The defense aptly pointed out that Curatolo also told the judge that he had been a lifelong drug addict, and had used heroin regularly in 2007, when he claims to have seen Knox and Sollecito. He was also likely high in 2009 when he gave his original court testimony, which might explain why he was much more lucid then than now—when he is sober, after serving time for drug peddling. For good measure, Curatolo also told the judge that “heroin is not a hallucinogenic drug." The prosecution, meanwhile, admits that Curatolo was not ultimately helpful, but they also point out the fact that the murder convictions did not hinge on Curatolo’s testimony, according to the 400-plus page judge’s reasoning. Prosecutor Manuela Comodi also said that Curatolo likely merged the details of Halloween and November 1 together, and that the only night he could have seen them together was November 1. “What’s for sure is that she couldn’t have been there on Halloween night,” Comodi told reporters after the hearing. “There is no such thing as a perfect witness, except for one who has actually seen the crime.”

Saturday’s hearing came on the heels of two headline-making spikes in this case. On Thursday of last week, Knox appeared in a civil court in Perugia to lodge a formal complaint against Lifetime for a made-for-TV movie about her life leading up to the murder trial. Knox is asking Lifetime, Google and YouTube to remove the movie, clips and trailer from the Internet. “I am distressed by this invasion into my life and the way my life is,” Knox told the civil judge. “I consider this the culmination of repeated violations by the media of my person, my personality and my story. These are all things that don’t correspond to the truth.” No representatives from Lifetime attended the hearing, and the civil trial was adjourned until July 4.

Knox’s next hearing is May 21, which will be the most important in the appellate process. Two independent forensic experts will give evidence about the results of their review of crucial pieces of evidence—the knife that has Knox’s DNA on the handle and what prosecutors say is Kercher’s on the blade and the clasp from Kercher’s bra that was cut from her body after she was murdered, which forensic experts say has Sollecito’s DNA on the metal hook. Last week, in what can only be described as a curious “leak,” the Italian press broke the story that the experts found no DNA on the knife blade, even though their report won’t be final until May 9. For those familiar with the case, this is hardly news. Forensic expert Patrizia Stefanoni testified in the original criminal trial that all the DNA material on the blade had been completely consumed in her initial test. In fact, she has always said there was nothing left on the knife, and that’s why she didn’t have enough material to double-test the specimen, which, by almost any set of forensic standards, should have never qualified as evidence in the original trial. Nevertheless, if the independent experts had actually found material on the blade, it would have been nothing short of miraculous.

According to the leaks, the experts also reportedly found the bra clasp to be corroded and therefore impossible to retest. If true, this means that the experts will have to simply examine procedures used by Stefanoni and her team and rely on the original results as a baseline. The knife, which has always been a dubious piece of evidence will likely remain so. But the bra clasp may prove troublesome for Sollecito since experts say the DNA is inarguably his. The defense has always argued that because the clasp was collected six weeks after the murder, the DNA came from contamination, not from Sollecito himself. But, according to Stefanoni and countless forensic experts, “DNA doesn’t fly,” and as such, contamination is going to be harder to sell to the appellate jury.

The stories based on the leaks last week implied that the inability to retest these two crucial pieces of evidence is good news for the defense, but even Knox’s own lawyers were furious that the story broke, fearing that the spin will backfire and that the experts will feel pressured by the publicity as they reach their conclusions. Their final report is still very much a work in progress, and no one knows exactly which way they will rule. After the hearing on May 21, forensic experts for all parties, including the Kercher’s, will have the opportunity to testify to refute or back up the experts’ findings.

Even if the DNA ruling proves favorable to Knox and Sollecito, there are still a number of troubling pieces of evidence used to convict them that are not, so far, being reexamined by this appellate court. A staged break-in, mixed DNA and blood evidence, and signs of a clean-up are not on the appellate agenda, and neither is Knox’s questionable alibi and her changing stories in the early days of the investigation—all elements that weighed as much as the knife and bra clasp in the convicting judge’s reasoning. How this court squares those elements will be known only in their final ruling, which could come before the summer break in July, or more likely in September when Italian courts are back in session.

Barbie Latza Nadeau, author of the Beast Book Angel Face, about Amanda Knox, has reported from Italy for Newsweek Magazine since 1997 and for The Daily Beast since 2009. She is a frequent contributor to CNN Traveller, Departures, Discovery and Grazia. She appears regularly on CNN, BBC and NPR.