World News

06.19.13

Italian Court Explains Why It Overturned Amanda Knox’s Acquittal

An Italian high court has reinforced an old narrative that paints Amanda Knox as guilty. Barbie Latza Nadeau on its explanation for why it overthrew Knox’s 2011 acquittal.

Justice is never easy, but in the complicated case of the murder of British student Meredith Kercher, it is also elusive. In November 2007, when Kercher’s bruised and bloodied body was found in her locked bedroom in Perugia, Italy, few could have guessed that the case would become one of the most divisive, high-profile media spectacles in recent memory. But it did, spawning books, blogs, and movies—and there is little sign of the case going away anytime soon.

The case is far from black and white.  Rudy Guede, a native of the Ivory Coast, was convicted for his role in Kercher’s murder in October 2008 in a fast-track trial that lasted just one month. Even though he was tried alone, he was convicted as one of a group of assailants, and was never considered by any court to have acted as a lone wolf. His conviction was upheld by Italy’s highest court, but his sentence was reduced from 29 to 16 years. He is eligible for work release and furloughs in late 2013.

In December 2009, a year after Guede was convicted, Kercher’s roommate at the time she was murdered, Amanda Knox, and Knox’s Italian ex-lover, Raffaele Sollecito, were convicted as Guede’s partners in the crime. They were acquitted of the murder on appeal in 2011, only to have their acquittals overthrown by Italy’s highest court in March 2013, essentially leaving them convicted of Kercher’s murder once again.  Knox was additionally convicted of slandering Patrick Lumumba, her former nightclub boss, by accusing him of Kercher’s murder. 

On Tuesday, the five-judge high-court panel issued their 74-page reasoning for overthrowing the acquittal, which shows they believe Knox and Sollecito should clearly be back in jail. “The reasoning behind the acquittal contains shortcomings, contradictions and inconsistencies,” they wrote. “Too many questions remain unanswered.”

The high-court judges believe, according to the evidence presented in the appeal, that the defense teams for Knox and Sollecito did not prove that their clients were not part of the murder, and they certainly did not prove that Guede acted alone. They stopped short of blaming the appellate judges of malpractice, but there are strong implications that the high court believes the appellate court showed bias in their rulings. Italy’s high court unabashedly sided with the Perugia prosecutors who won the 2009 conviction, even reviving the long-dead theory of an erotic sex game gone wrong that was an integral part of the original trial—but that had been dismissed by the appellate judges.

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In an April interview with Diane Sawyer, Amanda Knox maintained that she was innocent and had nothing to do with Meredith Kercher's murder.

The basic details of the case are head-spinning, even to those well schooled in the particulars. Tuesday’s high-court ruling backs up the original version of events, which could make it challenging for the Knox-Scollecito team to win and secure a new acquittal in the second appeal, likely to begin in early 2014. Whatever the decision the new appellate court makes, the same high court in Rome will have to approve it before the case is officially closed. All criminal cases in Italy are subject to three levels of review, and Knox and Sollecito’s case is not an anomaly. More than half of all criminal cases in Italy are amended in some way on appeal, and a third of those are again altered on the high-court level.

Knox and Sollecito won their freedom after an independent review of key pieces of evidence, but, according to Italy’s highest court, those weren’t the only things that linked them to the crime. The high court was particularly hard on the team of independent forensic examiners, who they say erred during the appellate process.  The high court called into question not only their methods in attempting to prove that evidence was contaminated, but their seeming alliance with the defense teams against the state’s prosecutor and Kercher’s own lawyers. Rumors around Perugia, where the appeal took place, have long suggested that the team was working for the defense, possibly even for monetary gain. Those allegations may soon become part of a separate judicial inquiry to be filed by the family of Meredith Kercher, bolstered by the high-court ruling. “The theory ‘anything is possible’ in genetic testing is not valid,” wrote the judges. “Contamination must be proven with certainty not supposition.”

The high court also found fault with the appellate court’s interpretation of the dynamic of the crime, especially with regard to how many attackers were involved. Kercher’s body was found nude from the waist down with her shirt pulled up above her breasts.  Her bra had been cut from her corpse after she was dead—not before—based on the blood splatters found on the bra and the stencil left on her naked skin. She had been dragged from where she was murdered, evident by the blood-spatter patterns on the armoire in her room and the trail her long hair left in the pool of her blood on the tile floor.  She had been sexually penetrated, most likely with a finger, but not raped, according to forensic evidence gathered from Kercher’s body at the scene of the crime and backed up by autopsy reports that showed that she had signs of sexual arousal but no vaginal tears. The evidence led the original investigators to float the theory of an erotic sex game that had gone terribly wrong. How else could have she died from what seemed like consensual sex? The theory was dismissed by the appellate court, but Italy’s high court backtracked and ruled that evidence indeed points to the sex-game theory, or at least a version of events in which an innocent encounter turned deadly. Giulia Bongiorno, Sollecito’s lead lawyer, does not agree.  She told reporters that the investigators had better start searching for more suspects.  “If there was an erotic game, then there needs to be a search for the other people involved, who are certainly not Raffaele Sollecito and Amanda Knox.”

The high court adamantly dismissed the defense theory that Guede acted alone. In their reasoning, they pointed to the fact that Kercher suffered more than 40 knife wounds and lesions to her body, including handprint bruises from what appeared to be different-sized hands and tiny knife pricks on her palms, as if she were protecting herself from a taunting knife. This evidence originally led investigators to work on the theory that more than one person assaulted her. The knife wounds to her neck were consistent with wounds from different knives, plunged from different angles. During the two separate trials, with ample evidence presented, no experts ever agreed conclusively under cross-examination on whether she was stabbed from the front or behind. Kercher ultimately died from affixation after choking on her own blood, adding a particular malice to her demise since someone could have likely saved her. The appellate court dismissed the theory of multiple assassins based on the suspects in front of them, concluding that Knox and Sollecito showed no predisposition for murder so, despite any evidence, they surely could not have committed the crime. But Italy’s high court disagrees. Their ruling clearly states that evidence implies that “more than one person was involved in Kercher’s murder.” They wrote that the appellate court “greatly underestimated” the probability of Knox and Sollecito’s involvement.

Kercher’s body was covered with a duvet long enough after the murder to allow time for the blood spatters on her body to dry, leading investigators to assume a woman was involved since covering the body is generally associated with a female’s remorse, according to numerous international studies of the criminal mind. Her bedroom was locked from the inside, the door then pulled closed, yet no fingerprints were found on the outside door handle, leaving investigators to surmise someone had cleaned up the crime scene. Italy’s high court ruled that the dynamics of the crime scene did not jibe with Guede’s modus operandi, sticking by the original theory that the crime scene was cleaned up. After all, Guede, who left his feces in the toilet in a back bathroom in the apartment, would have surely flushed if he had taken the time to clean the house of his prints. He would have been covered in blood, yet no bloody fingerprints were ever found outside the murder room. And if he didn’t clean up, then who did? Scarce blood was found outside the room in which Kercher was killed. One spot was attributed to Knox, found on the sink the two girls shared, mixed with Kercher’s DNA (Knox blames infected ear piercings). Another was a partial bloody footprint on a bathroom rug that could have belonged to either Guede or Sollecito.

The basic details of the case are head-spinning, even to those well schooled in the particulars.

The high court did acknowledge that the Perugia police erred in collecting evidence, adding further complication to the investigation, but they say those mistakes did not cancel out the totality of the evidence, especially since the same evidence and crime scene were used to securely convict Guede.  The clasp from Kercher’s bra that had been cut from her body was collected six weeks after the murder occurred, even though it had been identified on surveillance video taken by police within the first few hours.  The tiny metal clasp had traces of DNA attributed to Sollecito.  The appellate court ruled that such sloppy police work led to contamination, but the high court said that the contamination had to be proven specifically, not generally.

Kercher’s body had not been stored properly after being removed from the crime scene, potentially compromising its integrity and allowing it to begin to decompose before the autopsy could be complete. The appellate court ruled that because of that, the time of death could not be established, which was crucial to establishing alibis for Knox and Sollecito. But the high court disagreed, pointing to the fact that neighbors heard screams consistent with a woman being stabbed, and that evidence should be used to help determine when Kercher was killed.

The high court also had little sympathy for Knox, who, after being identified as a subject, was allegedly hit by police during an untaped interrogation during which she confessed to being in the house the night Kercher was murdered and accused her former nightclub boss of the murder. She did not have a lawyer present when she accused Lumumba of the murder. But the high court didn’t seem to care, writing that Knox’s accusations were in fact to throw the investigators off track, not as a result of trauma from the tough interrogation. “Despite her young age, Knox was a mature girl, born and raised in a country where one is not allowed to wrongly accuse another person to free oneself from a difficult situation," wrote the judges, implying that pressure is no excuse for perjury.

Defense lawyers for Knox and Sollecito now have the summer to study every detail in the judge’s ruling to file their new appeal. The appellate retrial will be held in Florence, with new prosecutors and new judges. New evidence and a new appellate strategy can be introduced by the defense to try to win a second acquittal. In the meantime, Knox has been touting her bestselling memoir in the United States, and Sollecito has moved to Switzerland to continue his studies in robotic surgery, although he may be going back to Italy. Neither has to be present in Italy for the new trial. The high court will once again have to review the new appeal verdict, and they have power to send it back again if they are not satisfied with the outcome.

The Kerchers welcomed the judge’s ruling as “a step towards finding out what really happened to Meredith,” according to their lawyer. But what the truth really is, and whether there ever can be resolution in this complicated case, is entirely another matter.