The Knox trial - fact and hypothesis

Mon, 12/07/2009 - 04:29

The Twitter feeds made interesting reading at around midnight, Italian time, on Friday – Saturday night.

The verdict in the Knox trial was expected at any minute, and when it came, reactions were swift, varied and strong, with many tweeters in the United States seeming to be in despair. Of course, it is a tragic case, whatever you believe about Amanda Knox’s part in it: one young woman was dead and now the life of another was ruined. But the verdict could hardly have come as a surprise and the case had received extensive media coverage all over the world so why was its outcome such a shock now?

Then I realised what had been happening, as a tweet came in informing everyone that Italy does not have the death penalty. Some of the American tweeters, whose media had been telling them for days that Italy has “an antiquated justice system”, had feared the ultimate penalty for one of their own.
So let us look at the Italian justice system - for it is certainly different from the American and British models and it is certainly complicated - then we'll have a closer look at the final judgement.

The Italian justice system - an introduction

It is based on Roman law and the Napoleonic Code. The Penal Code as we know it came into existence in 1930 although it has undergone several reforms to bring it into line with the requirements of the Republican Constitution. The most important of these reforms took place in 1988 and under these evidence can only be admitted during a trial in front of a judge. Judges and Prosecutors, under the Constitution, are independent of government and are subject only to the authority of the law. Many websites are currently stating that in Italy a defendant is “guilty until proven innocent” but article 27 of the Constitution reads, “The defendant is not considered guilty until final judgement is passed”.

When someone is arrested in Italy, the police must immediately inform a Public Prosecutor (PM, Pubblico Ministero) who has 48 hours to require a judge to schedule a Preliminary Hearing within a further 48 hours. This is to confirm the arrest. The Judge can order pre-trial incarceration in the case of serious crimes. A Special Prosecutor is then appointed to gather evidence – in effect, employing the police - and only when he or she feels that there is sufficient evidence to obtain a conviction does the case proceed to full trial. In theory, police findings are secret until the trial.

Trials are heard by a jury of two professional judges, one of whom is the Presiding Judge – these cannot be the Preliminary Trial judge (GIP, Giudice per le Indagini Preliminari) or investigating Prosecutor - and six laymen or women aged from 30 to 65. The latter are arbitrarily chosen. Juries are not sequestered until the deliberating stage and can pronounce guilt, in a murder case, upon a majority vote. The Presiding Judge decides the sentence. A convicted person has an automatic right of appeal in Italy and, where the law is thought to be at fault, the case can be taken to the Cassazione, Italy’s Supreme Court for a second appeal.

Meredith Kercher's murder - the facts

Now let us look at what we know – for there is a great deal that we do not and may never know – about the Knox case: Amanda Knox, then 20, from Seattle in the USA and Meredith Kercher, 21, from Coulsdon, South London, UK, were students sharing a house in Perugia, Italy, with two other students in 2007. Meredith Kercher was sexually assaulted and brutally murdered on the night of 1-2 November 2007. On the morning of November 2nd police investigating the discovery in a garden of two mobile phones belonging to Meredith Kercher found her body in a pool of blood in the shared house. On November 6th Amanda Knox, her boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito from Bari, Puglia and a local bar-owner, Patrick Diya Lumumba from the Democratic Republic of Congo, for whom Knox had worked, were arrested. Lumumba had been implicated by Knox.

When police searched Sollecito’s apartment, they found a knife with traces of Meredith Kercher’s DNA on the tip and of Knox’s on the handle. A clasp from Meredith’s bra contained traces of DNA from Knox, Sollecito and an Ivorian-Italian man called Rudy Hermann Guede. A pillow in the shared house also contained traces of Guede’s DNA and he was arrested in Germany on November 20th 2007 following an international manhunt. Lumumba was then set free as no traces of his DNA were found and he provided a watertight alibi. Guede was extradited to Italy and underwent a fast-track trial behind closed doors in September 2008 – this is allowed under Italian law when the evidence is documentary – and was convicted of the murder. He admitted having been in the house but not to the murder. In the Knox – Sollecito trial the Defence stated that the DNA samples were too small to prove anything and that the knife was too big to be consistent with Meredith’s wounds..

Knox, meanwhile, changed her story several times: first she said she was at Sollecito’s apartment at the time of the murder, then that she “might” have been at the shared house and later that she had been in the bathroom there and heard Meredith scream when Lumumba entered the bedroom. The fact that Knox had behaved “strangely” in front of the police when the body was found – cartwheeling and laughing, for instance – and the discovery that she had written and published online a murder fantasy under her Myspace identity of “Foxy Knoxy” – did not help her. She also admitted to having smoked marijuana on the night of the murder.

New hypothesis

In court she said that police had beaten her and forced her to make a false confession. In this complex and upsetting case even the Prosecutor in the trial was unsure of what the motive for killing Meredith could have been. First he suggested that it was all a violent sexual game which went horribly wrong and then that the two young women hated each other because they were so different: Meredith seems to have been quiet, tidy and conventional whilst Knox was extrovert, untidy and unconventional.

The Prosecution wanted life sentences for both Knox and Sollecito, with 9 months’ daytime solitary confinement for Knox and two months’ solitary for Sollecito. The trial Judge stopped short of that, sentencing Knox to 26 years’ imprisonment and Sollecito to 25 years. Article 575 of the Criminal Code states that “Anyone who causes the death of a person is punished with a period of imprisonment of not less than 20 years.”

Many criticisms have been levelled at the trial procedure and among them are: the fact that police findings were leaked to the media all along; the jury were not sequestered until Friday and so they would have had access to potentially prejudicial media reports; witnesses have been allowed to report hearsay, to make assumptions about the emotions of others and to testify emotively.

Now Knox’s parents are under police investigation in Italy because, in an interview in the Sunday Times in June, her father accused the Italian police of abusing his daughter verbally and physically during questioning.

Cynics think that the Italians will bow to pressure from the USA and overturn the conviction at the first appeal and the whole trial at the second. US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said yesterday that she had neither looked into the case nor expressed concern to the Italian Government. She added that she “will listen to anyone who has concerns”.