Remember Meredith Kercher? She was the pretty 21-year-old British student who was savagely murdered in her student apartment in Perugia, Italy, in November 2007, spawning one of the most sensational murder trials in the history of modern media frenzies. It’s more likely people will remember Seattle student Amanda Knox, Kercher’s former roommate turned author and tabloid darling who, along with her erstwhile Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, were first convicted and then acquitted of Kercher’s murder, only to have those acquittals thrown out by Italy’s high court in March of this year. They, along with Ivory Coast native Rudy Guede, who was convicted for his role in Kercher’s murder in a separate fast-track trial, currently stand responsible for Kercher’s horrific end in the eyes of the Italian court. All three are essentially currently convicted of Kercher’s murder.
Guede’s murder conviction is final, having passed all three levels of the Italian judicial system (first level, second level, and high court). He is eligible for parole in 2016. But on Monday, Knox and Sollecito will have the chance to again appeal their first-level murder convictions in a new second—or appellate—trial. Italian law differs from American law in that this second appellate trial is not considered double jeopardy. They are not being tried twice for the same crime. They are still being tried for the same crime. This step is merely a continuation of the original Italian judicial process. For better or worse, it is simply how the justice system works in Italy.
Knox and Sollecito are appealing their original 2009 conviction. Their 2011 acquittal has been overturned, but that doesn’t mean that the new appeal will mirror the first one. There are new prosecutors and new judges in this case. It will be up to the new appellate judges to rule on what new evidence can be argued in court or what forensic re-examinations can be ordered. Knox won’t attend, she says, but she could give testimony via video link.
Sollecito’s father told an Italian newspaper this week that his son would be attending the trial to defend himself. Sollecito made numerous spontaneous declarations in the first two trials, but he did not testify on the stand. It is not yet clear if he will testify in the new appeal.
The new appeal will be held in Florence rather than Perugia, and because the new judge has already fixed several court dates throughout the fall, it is widely assumed that he is open to the reexamination of forensic evidence and may be amenable to hearing new witnesses. It is unclear when an appellate verdict might come, since dates can easily be added well into next year.
The Italian high court, which must sign off on all convictions or acquittals before they are considered final, threw out the 2011 acquittals in March, alleging that the appellate court that freed Knox and Sollecito did so with haste and carelessness. “Too many questions remain unanswered,” the high judges wrote.
According to the high court, the defense team did not adequately prove that Knox and Sollecito were not involved in the murder. The court did agree that some of the forensic evidence that was reexamined in the 2011 appeal proved faulty due to sloppiness in the way it was collected and tested. But they questioned why not all the forensic and circumstantial evidence used to convict the duo in 2009—including mixed blood and DNA drops found in the bathroom the girls shared, Knox’s original so-called “false confession,” and Guede’s own testimony that both Knox and Sollecito were in the house with him that fatal night—were dismissed without argument. They also scorned the appellate court’s definition of contamination: “The theory that anything is possible in genetic testing is not valid. Contamination must be proven with certainty not supposition.”
The high court judges also backed the version of the murder put forth in the prosecutor’s original case: that Knox, Sollecito, Guede, and Kercher were somehow involved in a sexual episode that went terribly wrong. The high court is clearly not convinced that Guede acted alone, and in their lengthy reasoning wrote that the defense teams did not prove that more than one person did not kill Kercher. Throughout both original trials, experts differed on the murder dynamic. No one could ever prove definitively whether Kercher was stabbed from the front or the back, and whether the bruises of various sizes on her body were made by the hands of more than one person.
Kercher was found nude from the waist down, her shirt pulled up above her breasts and her bra cut from her body after she had been stabbed twice in the neck—the blood splatters from the attack left a stencil on her chest. She had been killed in front of her armoire but then pulled close to her bed, her hair leaving a macabre trail through her own blood. She had 47 documented bruises and tiny cuts on her body. She had been sexually penetrated, but not clearly raped based on the absence of vaginal tears. Her body had been partially covered with her duvet. An outline of a knife presumably used in the attack (no murder weapon was ever found) left a mark on her bed sheets. No one knows if the duvet was pulled from her bed while the knife was still in someone’s hands or exactly how the knife mark was left on the stripped bed or when the duvet was pulled off. It had no smeared blood on it except where it had sopped up the blood from her wounds, so investigators presumed she was covered long after the blood spots on her body had dried.
Some of the questions that the high court says must be answered for a fair acquittal include clarification on the forensic evidence. The original investigators say there were 19 unidentifiable fingerprints in Kercher’s room, either because they were partial prints or smudged in blood. Guede’s identifiable fingerprints and DNA are in several spots in the murder room. Sollecito’s DNA was identified on the clasp of Kercher’s bra that had been cut from her body, though his lawyers successfully disputed the validity of the evidence on appeal, because the clasp remained in the sealed murder room for nearly six weeks before being collected. Knox’s DNA was found on a knife in Sollecito’s house that investigators had originally linked to the murder with Kercher’s DNA on a groove in the blade, but Knox’s lawyers successfully argued in the appeal that the Kercher sample was too scant to double test and the copy number on the trace was too low to be positively linked to Kercher. Mixed blood and DNA belonging to Knox and Kercher were found in five spots in the bathroom the girls shared, but defense lawyers convinced the appellate judge that mixed traces were within the norm when two people shared a living space. And because blood cannot be precisely dated, they could not be tied directly to the murder.
The high court judges also asked the new appellate court to square the crime dynamic, meaning the defense lawyers must either prove without a doubt that Guede acted alone, or, short of that, prove that someone else—not Knox and Sollecito—assisted in the homicide. In their ruling, they say the appellate court “greatly underestimated” the probability that Knox and Sollecito were there. They say ample evidence implies that “more than one person was involved in Kercher’s murder.” No matter what happens in the new appeal, the high court could send the case back for a third look if they are not satisfied that justice is served.
Knox and Sollecito are not required to attend court hearings in this appeal, and Knox cannot be extradited until and unless the high court definitively rules on a conviction after the outcome of this appeal. Even then, it is unclear whether the Italians would attempt to extradite her, or if the United States would grant such a request. Because this is a civil case, there is no legal reason to deny extradition if it is requested, but Knox’s lawyers would surely fight to keep her in the United States if she is ultimately convicted, perhaps trying to reach an agreement with Italy that she could serve any eventual sentence for the murder in an American jail.
In the first two trials, Knox was the silent star of the media show. She was photographed and videotaped as she entered and exited the courtroom ad nauseam. Her court testimony and declarations were carefully transcribed and dissected. This time Knox will not be in Florence. She says it is too risky to return. But you can bet she will be a far more present entity in the coverage of this appellate trial than any of her previous cases because she can defend herself in the court of public opinion. Her savvy Seattle public relations handlers have made her available for phone and online interviews in Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United States. She gave her first Italian interview to Gianluigi Nuzzi on the crime show Quarto Grado last week, and she has been chatting up all those who supported her innocence during the first trial, giving a friendly on-air Skype interview to La Repubblica’s Meo Ponte, who was one of her staunchest supporters.
She told the very popular ITV morning show Daybreak in London that she was afraid to return to Italy. “I was already convicted wrongfully and this is everything to fear, this, as an innocent person, is the ultimate nightmare, this does not make sense.” Though she stumbled slightly when asked if she would take a lie detector test. “A lie detector test, I would be fine with that," she said when asked.
Her handlers are trying to get her as much air time as possible in Italy after the first day of the appeal, offering up pre-taped sound bytes to investigative news programs like Porta Porta and Matrix, both of which have dedicated ample air time to the case in the past. Whether the blitz will make any difference—good or bad—to the Florence court remains to be seen.
There is every possibility that Knox and Sollecito will again be acquitted of Kercher’s murder. The case is complicated and messy with plenty of reasonable doubt, compromised by sloppy police work, and subject to the type of international attention that sometimes blurs logic. The Italian judicial system has essentially been put through the ringer in this case, and has come out stained. Allegations of corruption, including a conviction for abuse of office for the original prosecutor—which was overturned on appeal—have not helped.
But in many ways, Knox and Sollecito have also been their own worst enemies in the case. Knox’s interviews have not all been favorably received, especially in Italy, where she is still often viewed as insincere and calculating. It surely doesn’t help that most Italian interviews include tight shots of her eyes as she denies the charges. Sollecito launched an online campaign for donations to his defense fund to pay for the appeal, which was followed sensationally by the news that he was moving to the Caribbean after an extended vacation there that was captured by paparazzi, causing many to wonder where their donations had gone.
The Kercher family, as always, stays stoically in the shadows, waiting in what must surely be a hellish limbo for a final answer about what really happened to their daughter six years ago.