Sex and Murder in Italy

Journalists are choosing sides and obsessive bloggers are hurling threats at one another as the murder charges against American coed Amanda Knox finally reach court—and Italy's "trial of the century" is likely to last all year.

Obsessive bloggers are hurling threats at one another as the murder charges against American coed Amanda Knox finally reach court—and Italy's "trial of the century" is likely to last all year.

It’s 8:30 on Friday night and Amanda Knox’s lawyers have taken a corner table at the dimly lit Enoteca del Vino near the Duomo in Perugia. It’s no coincidence that this is the de facto press club, where the foreign and Italian press corps swap gossip with bloggers and tabloid writers covering Italy’s “trial of the century.” The crowd is divided into two camps, the innocentisti—who believe Knox is innocent of the murder of her roommate, Meredith Kercher—and the colpevolisti—who do not. Knox’s lawyers chat with both sides between bites of pasta and steak.

Steve Huff of Village Voice Media blogged about the case early on, but gave it up due to the utter madness of people leaving comments.

Knox, 21, who was a fresh-faced, middle-class student on a study-abroad program from the University of Washington, Seattle at the time of the killing, is standing trial along with her one-time boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, 24. They are charged with sexually assaulting Kercher, slashing her throat, and staging a crime scene at the villa just a few streets down the hill from the enoteca. Ivory Coast native Rudy Guede was convicted last October for his part in the November 2007 murder and is already serving a 30-year sentence; he will testify for the prosecution sometime this spring.

The trial proceeds in a frescoed courtroom with the unlikely backdrop of a massive wooden crucifix hanging above the jury. Outside, satellite trucks crowd Perugia’s pretty piazzas and paparazzi hide around corners stalking lawyers, prosecutors and the big prize: Knox’s parents. Their daughter is such a household name across Italy that she was voted a top newsmaker of 2008. Her leaked prison diaries, in which she describes various lovers and wonders whether any of them might have infected her with HIV, has become a steamy bestseller.

In one entry, she describes the night of the crime: “That night I smoked a lot of marijuana and I fell asleep at my boyfriend’s house. I don’t remember anything. But I think it’s possible that Raffaele went to Meredith’s house, raped her and then killed. And when he got home, while I was sleeping, he put my fingerprints on the knife. But I don’t understand why Raffaele would do that.” (This is one of several different accounts she has given of her whereabouts, earlier claiming that she was in the villa and heard Meredith’s screams.)

The case is heard only on Fridays and Saturdays: The prosecutor, lawyers, judge, and jury filter into the room, then Knox is led in by guards and smiles at the court officials. Sollecito comes in shortly after, but most people remain fixated on Knox, who does not look at all like the girl in TV footage taken the day after the crime, cuddling with Sollecito. She is older, thinner, and much prettier, and she has an aura about her. She looks comfortable in the courtroom, almost as if she is playing a role rather than facing charges of cutting Meredith’s throat while Sollecito held back her arms and Guede sexually assaulted her.

Although early witnesses have made much of Amanda and Raffaele’s “strange behavior” after the murder, laughing and kissing at the police station, the strongest evidence against them is forensic: a drop of Knox’s blood on a bathroom faucet, traces of Knox’s DNA—and perhaps Kercher’s—on a knife found in Sollecito’s apartment; Sollecito’s DNA on the clasp of Kercher’s bra.

The trial is expected to continue for a year, and on days when nothing is happening in the courtroom the media find ways to make their own news. Reporters from the local paper, Giornale dell’Umbria, have turned up witnesses who were added to the prosecution’s list, including one who claims to have seen Knox on the morning after the crime in the cleaning section of a small grocery store. A local filmmaker doing a documentary on women in prisons convinced Knox to recite Shakespeare’s “to be or not to be” on camera, causing a huge dust-up that resulted in the banning of the film.

Sollecito, who comes from a wealthy and connected family in Puglia, in the south of Italy, has been recruited to write a regular column from prison for his hometown paper in Bari. In it he recently claimed that he was a 23-year-old virgin when he met Knox. Interest in Sollecito has not been as ardent as that lavished on the pretty American coed, but it is growing. His lead defense lawyer, Giulia Bongiorno, is well-known member of parliament who made her name defending former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti on organized-crime charges.

An aggressive PR machine out of Seattle that runs under the moniker “Friends of Amanda” speaks out quickly and authoritatively in Knox’s defense, effectively discouraging US media from digging deeper into this mysterious crime. Family spokesman David Marriott arranges regular TV appearances for Knox’s parents and confirmed in an email that ABC's 20/20 “paid for [Amanda’s mother] Edda to travel to Perugia and back. As a result, the family feels obligated to speak with ABC first.”

Seattle judge Michael Heavey even wrote a letter on official court letterhead urging Italy’s ministry of justice to move the trial out of Perugia, then clarified in a second letter that his views were personal, not those of the state of Washington. None of this sits well in Perugia. Local prosecutor Giuliano Mignini has even filed a defamation suit against the tiny West Seattle Herald after the paper ran quotes from a Friends of Amanda fund-raiser calling him “mentally unstable.”

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Meanwhile, the case has taken on a bizarre life of its own in the blogosphere, where a number of partisan websites, in both English and Italian, wage fierce battle. Among the most notable are the New York-based True Justice for Meredith Kercher and the Perugia Murder File, which both believe that Knox is guilty and defend the court proceedings in Perugia, translating critical court documents and creating impressive Powerpoint presentations to help readers decipher the evidence. Among the anonymous moderators on the latter site are translators, archeologists and medical professionals.

The blogs in defense of Knox include Italian Woman at the Table, which is run by a Seattle-based reporter writing a book on the case, and Frank Sfarzo's Perugia Shock. Comment sections in the blogs are rife with threats and accusations—not against Knox and Sollecito, mind you, but against other bloggers. Some have taken to exposing the actual names and addresses of people posting under screen names or threatening physical harm to those with opposing views of the case.

Steve Huff, the editor of Village Voice Media's True Crime Report, blogged about the case early on but gave it up due to what he calls the utter madness of people leaving comments. “I don't know how any of this will affect the actual outcome,” he says. “But it has certainly sealed the public perception of Amanda in particular. Even if she's found innocent, she may spend the rest of her life at the center of a battle between those defending her character and the people who are convinced she's an 'angel-faced' murderer.”

The blogs are taken very seriously in Perugia, where prosecutors have assigned someone to follow the postings. There are also three books already in Italian bookstores, among them “Amanda and the Others” by a Corriere della Sera correspondent that Knox has now sued for €500,000 and a book by the director of the Corriere dell’Umbria that comes with its own DVD featuring a 3D recreation of the crime scene.

Knox won’t testify until later in the spring but, as is allowed in the Italian court system, she did make her first “spontaneous declaration” last Friday. Speaking fluent Italian (perfected in prison) she explained that a small pink “Rampant Rabbit” vibrator, described by witnesses who were friends of Meredith, had been given to her as a joke.

She will have a harder time explaining away the DNA traces, although the innocentisti maintain that much of the forensic evidence was compromised by inept investigators. The trial has now taken up the issue of how police handled the crime scene as the case drags on, week after week, month after month, with no diminution of public interest.

Barbie Nadeau has reported from Italy for Newsweek Magazine since 1997. She also writes for CNN Traveller, Budget Travel Magazine and Frommer's. Additional reporting by Andrea Vogt.