Amanda Knox Appeal: Forensics Attacked, Conviction Could Be Overturned

The trial is pivoting in Amanda Knox’s favor—and could free everyone connected with the crime.

Tension is high this week in Perugia, Italy, as Amanda Knox’s lengthy appellate trial grinds ever closer to what will certainly be a controversial conclusion. Knox is appealing her conviction and 26-year prison sentence for the murder of her British roommate, Meredith Kercher, back in November 2007. Her erstwhile boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, who was sentenced to 25 years for his part in the murder, is appealing his conviction in tandem with Knox.

There are only a handful of hearings left before this appellate court must make the crucial decision of whether to uphold or overturn the guilty verdicts—or to find a compromise somewhere in between. A full 50 percent of all criminal cases in Italy are altered in some way on appeal, so there is a very good chance that something will change for the pair. The most likely scenario, according to most court watchers and legal pundits, including those involved in this case, is that this court will overturn the convictions. If not, they will almost certainly shorten the sentences. Rudy Guede was sentenced to 30 years for his role in Kercher’s murder during a fast-track trial in October 2008. His sentence was cut to 16 years on appeal in December 2009. Knox was convicted of murder, sexual assault, altering a crime scene, carrying a concealed murder weapon and false accusation. The original court justified her conviction in a highly circumstantial 427-page reasoning which is the legal basis of this appellate process.

But much has changed since that reasoning document was penned. On Knox’s side is the fact that an independent forensic review requested but denied in the original trial was allowed for the appeal. Those experts’ findings are proving to be a game changer, both in the Perugia courtroom and in the court of public opinion. The experts not only called into question the sanctity of two key pieces of evidence, they also suggested that the entire crime scene was compromised by sloppy police work, meaning no matter what happened the night Kercher was killed, the conviction is far from airtight. But that condemnation of the cops also calls into question the sanctity of the evidence used against Guede, since he was convicted based on forensic evidence collected by the same cops from the same crime scene. Are his forensic findings dodgy, too? His lawyers are watching this trial closely and told The Daily Beast that they will petition the court to reopen their client’s case if Knox and Sollecito are freed based on bad police work.

On Monday the appellate trial reconvened after the summer break with a final cross-examination of the independent experts. Last June, the experts ruled that Sollecito’s DNA found on the clasp of the bra that was cut from Kercher’s body after her murder could be the result of contamination. They also ruled that Kercher’s DNA on the blade of a knife that undisputedly has Knox’s DNA on the handle was simply too minute to be considered credible because it wasn’t double-tested. The prosecution tried to poke holes in the experts’ testimony with little success. Then Patrizia Stefanoni, the forensic scientist who led the controversial crime-scene investigation and collection of evidence for the state, took the stand to defend her work. The testimony, which continued Tuesday morning, was tedious and academic, testing the patience of everyone in the courtroom, including Knox herself, who seemed to nod off before the lunch break. Jury members seemed attentive despite the highly technical explanations and both judges asked for precision on elements that were particularly complex. At one point, Judge Claudio Pratillo Hellmann told Stefanoni to “try to synthesize your responses” to keep everyone’s attention.

Tuesday’s hearing was delayed by nearly an hour when jury members found themselves stranded by a countrywide general strike that brought public transportation to a standstill. Forensic consultants for the Kercher family, Knox, and Sollecito then engaged in fiery debates during cross-examination. Sollecito’s expert, Adriano Tagliabracci, and prosecutor Manuela Comodi exchanged barbs and insults, but Tagliabracci clearly pressed the basic issue that reasonable doubt on any of the specimens collected for analysis is unacceptable, and the fact that the bra clasp with Sollecito’s DNA sat uncollected for nearly six weeks means it cannot be held reliable. “How can we be certain that is a reliable exhibit?”

The Kerchers’ expert, Francesca Torricelli, asked why a tiny amount of DNA still present on the knife wasn’t tested by the independent experts “just to be sure,” prompting the prosecution to hint after court that they just might ask for yet another forensic review. The experts said that they didn’t test the DNA because it wasn’t blood. If a new independent review is granted, this trial could grind on for weeks or even months longer. If the results of that review contradict the first review, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen next.

The bickering among the experts and requests for yet more reviews adds further confusion in a case that has never been clear about anything except for the fact that Kercher died a very tragic death. Last weekend, Kercher’s sister Stephanie made a noble attempt to remind everyone just what this case is about. In a letter sent to the court, she asked that they consider all the evidence that was presented in the original trial, not just the contested forensics. “Anyone reading this or following this case, please remember our beautiful Meredith. Remember too all the other evidence that has been presented in this case so far, 10,000 pages of evidence,” she wrote. “We ask that the Court of Appeal assess every single peace [sic] of evidence, both scientific and circumstantial as well as any witnesses who have taken the stand independently of any other information or media. Please do not let Meredith die in vain, her courage and strength fight on and we will seek justice so she can rest in peace. She did not give up her fight on November 1st, and we will not give up now.”

The trial reconvenes Wednesday morning. There are no hearings next week due to the judge’s scheduled vacation. A verdict is expected by the end of the month, or, if an independent review of the last review is granted, around the anniversary of Kercher’s murder, Nov. 1.

This case continues to draw a frenzied following by the media and in the blogosphere, with most followers firmly on the side of Knox’s innocence or guilt. If she goes home, one can’t help but wonder if the attention will last. If she stays in jail, there is no doubt that it will.