Monday, October 3, 2011

Amanda Knox: What Went Wrong in Perugia?

As much as I am tempted to answer this question with one word, “everything,” that this may have been the "perfect storm" of wrongful prosecution, it may be instructive to examine this case more closely. I believe it sheds light upon not only what is wrong in Perugia, but what goes wrong in other places as well.

The death of Meredith Kercher was both horrible and tragic, and may well have been avoidable. If the Perugian authorities had dealt with Rudy Guede appropriately when he was repeatedly found committing burglary while carrying a weapon, I believe there is a very real possibility Meredith Kercher would still be alive, and Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito could have been spared four years of psychological, emotional and physical torture.

Raffaele Sollecito

It seems apparent that Raffaele Sollecito’s difficulties stem from the fact he had been dating Amanda Knox for some six days leading up to the evening when Ms. Kercher was brutally murdered in her room at the flat she shared with Amanda Knox and two Italian girls. Because he would give Amanda an alibi, the Perugian authorities couldn’t exclude him as a suspect. He was, as they say, collateral damage.

Amanda Knox

In Amanda Knox, disgraced prosecutor Giuliano Mignini found a perfect victim to distract attention from his impending conviction for abuse of office, illegal wiretap and, we are told, fabricating evidence in the infamous Monster of Florence case. With his career hanging in the balance, he needed a big win. In addition, there is the factor I alluded to above, which hasn’t received much press in this case. That is, the fact Rudy Guede was still at liberty after having been brought to the attention of the police on several occasions in the month immediately preceding the murder. We will speak more of this later.

Giuliano Mignini

Mignini, devout Catholic steeped in the history of the church, must have been well familiar with the Malleus Malificarum or “ the Hammer of the Witches,” the infamous treatise written in 1486 by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger. This is the book which launched the“witch trials” and “witch burnings” in Medieval Europe. It is said that Perugia was one of the places in the area that is now Italy, where these trials first began.

The techniques employed in this case are implied in the pages of the Malleus and from its spirit and history. First, one must pick on an outsider, someone with no strong friends in the community. Ms. Knox fit the bill to a “T.” An American, a student and a woman, she fit most of the preconceptions of the framers of the Malleus and of those in the Perugian community who were annoyed at the students sprawled all over the steps of their beloved cathedral, and with the smell of marijuana and alcoholic vomit wafting in the air. It would not be difficult to convince people already disposed to believe that women, especially “evil manipulating” American ones who will “sleep with anyone,” were also disposed to murder and sexual violence. Far too many people in all societies believe that anyone who does anything that can be identified as “evil or sinful” is all bad and has no redeeming qualities whatsoever. It is also too easy to convince people that someone who actually does something evil or sinful, is always and forever evil, incapable of improvement or correction. Such a person deserves the maximum penalty society will allow today. Since burning at the stake is no longer politically correct, the prosecutors in this case asked for a life sentence, which in Italy is 30 years, with an additional 6 months of daytime solitary confinement for good measure. In other words, they demanded the most extreme and brutal punishment available to them in cases of serial killers and people who rape and kill children, all for a 20-year old foreign student with no record or history of violence or anger-management issues.

Once the victim is identified, the next step is to enlist a small, “in” group to support these beliefs. One needs people who can manipulate the “evidence” as well as people who can “stir up” the populace. Mignini found just such people in the lazy police, who would much prefer to use their “intuition” than to actually investigate, rationally analyze, and reasonably interpret what they were seeing. And of course, forensic evidence, being the realm of science, is of far lesser quality than divine inspiration and insight. All that was necessary was to arrange for overtime and scheduling to have a dozen or so police present overnight to “interrogate” their victim, who had been questioned by the police for more than 50 of the preceding 90 hours since Ms. Kercher’s body was discovered. Taking an exhausted young woman, separating her from any help at all from her government or a lawyer, denying her food, water, sleep, and even bathroom breaks – the outcome was a given. Of course it was necessary to ensure no recording equipment was working during the interrogation, which is almost laughable given the logistics that must have gone into the arrangements. Even with all this, it was necessary to confront Amanda with a text message to her employer they “found” on her phone, that they must have known about given they had been wiretapping everyone associated with the case ever since the discovery of the murder. Knowing they had evidence of an ethnic African hair at the crime scene, all they had to do was manipulate Amanda into “imagining” what happened, then write up her fantasy into a nice proper legal Italian written statement she could not understand and have her sign it.

With this in hand, they could arrest their real suspect, Patrick Lumamba, and brutalize him to see what they could get. Unfortunately it turned out that, like most coerced statements, Amanda’s imaginings were completely wrong and Lumamba could prove it! Humiliation again. What is more, by this time they almost could not fail to recognize the modus operandi of a small-time burglar known to them and reported to them several times in the month prior to the murder – Rudy Guede. How would it look when it came out that Guede had been “on their radar” several times in the month before the murder and nothing had been done? How would it look when it became known that after allegedly trying to save Meredith’s life, he left without even an anonymous call to police or an ambulance and two hours later was seen dancing at a club? Still, they had no choice but to substitute Rudy for Patrick.

Then as often happens, things went from bad to worse. The forensic evidence was in and there was no evidence whatsoever that either Amanda Knox or Raffaele Sollecito had been present in the room when Meredith Kercher was murdered. Not only that, but the shoe print found under Meredith’s body, that their experts had attributed to Raffaele, was shown to not match Raffaele’s footwear. This revelation didn’t come from the police, the police experts or the prosecutors, but rather from Raffaele’s aunt who compared photographs and tread styles in the family kitchen. Later, after they discovered the shoe box for the correct style of shoe at Rudy’s apartment, even Rudy had to admit the footprint under Meredith’s body was his.

They could have admitted they had the wrong people in Raffaele and Amanda and let them go, but that would mean their much vaunted intuition was batting 1000 in the “wrong” column.

Well, the prosecution was not deterred by these setbacks. Not at all. Instead, they engineered two of the most unbelievable “Hail Mary!” plays in the annals of crime. First, they went to Raffaele’s apartment and took the first large knife they saw from his kitchen drawer and, lo and behold, the crime lab found traces of Amanda’s DNA on the handle and a very, very miniscule trace of what they said was Meredith’s DNA on the blade. They tested it for blood, it wasn’t blood. Undeterred, they put it through DNA testing that even if done well is not accepted virtually anywhere on the planet. Worse than that, the technician invented her own procedure as she went along. Not surprisingly the “ramped up” tests showed traces of Meredith in a lab where copious amounts of her blood had recently been tested. With all of this, it still didn’t explain how the knife itself was incompatible with several of the wounds and almost assuredly not the knife that inflicted the fatal thrust. It was also not compatible with the clear outline of a knife, outlined in Meredith’s blood on her bedding where it had been set down. It didn’t explain how it got from Raffaele’s to Amanda’s apartment and back with no evidence of the point damaging Amanda’s cloth purse – although the prosecutors valiantly tried to suggest Amanda carried the unsheathed knife in her purse for protection. Still with all of this, they kept insisting it was the murder weapon and implicated Amanda, even after two respected scientists, chosen by the court, declared the DNA evidence wholly unreliable.

The second miraculous “Hail Mary!” play occurred 47 days after the murder when the forensic police returned to the murder scene and found the torn bra clasp and material from the bra Meredith was wearing the night of the murder. Although it had been identified and photographed at the crime scene during the first day of the investigation and photographed moving about the room during the clumsy forensic search that followed, it was hailed as proof Raffaele was there. All this, notwithstanding that it contained DNA trace of at least two other males! Who were these men who had handled Meredith’s bra in the days before her murder and after it was last washed? They didn’t identify them, but the implication is clear without doing so. The other trace was there because of contamination.

One miraculous last-minute discovery is very rare. Two is unheard of.

And what of other evidence. The computers containing Amanda’s photos which the defence say would have refuted any suggestion Meredith and Amanda were at odds and which would have demonstrated Amanda and Raffaele were doing other things at the time of the murder were miraculously destroyed by the prosecution experts – not one computer, but three. In addition, with the time of Meredith’s last meal clearly established by her friends who shared the meal with her on the night of her murder, the prosecution would have us believe that food which in every normal, healthy human being would have begun to leave the stomach and enter the duodenum in no more than two hours was, in Meredith, still entirely in her stomach five hours later, at the time of death of eleven-thirty which they favoured. And it had to be so because Raffaele’s neighbour could place both Raffaele and Amanda at Raffaele’s apartment at the only times consistent with the cessation of digestion within the scientifically plausible time period.

In addition to the support the prosecution found among the local police, they also found support in the greedy tabloid gutterpress reporters who saw an opportunity not only to improve their fortunes, but to help one of “their own,” tabloid reporter and father of the dead girl, John Kercher. After perpetrating the outright fraud of having someone dress up as a physician and tell Amanda, in custody by now and sequestered from her family and a lawyer, that she was HIV positive in order to get her to list all of her sexual contacts in her life. The resulting list, which was wholly within the control of the police and prosecution, was leaked almost immediately to a gutterpress tabloid. From then on, everything Amanda did or said was cast in a negative light and leaked to the gutterpress, who “lapped it up” like the multi-headed Cerberus. The tabloids, full of scandalous allegations many of which even the prosecution didn’t have the courage to present in court, became the vehicle by which Amanda could be dehumanized and demonized in the weak minds of the tabloid readership. We cannot forget that this was the same prosecution who had no problem presenting a homeless heroin addict as an eyewitness, who didn’t know what day it was and who had been a material witness in other major criminal cases.

Of course, Amanda, being trusting and knowing she was innocent had no reason to suspect she was marked by the prosecution for vilification and demonization. She walked into the lion’s den believing they were there to help and protect her.

What, then, does all this mean for Italy?

Given that the entire case against Amanda and Raffaele was based upon fantasy and vague theories wholly unsupported by the physical evidence, they should have been excluded as suspects from the beginning. In no case should it have gone to trial on such thin grounds. But it did, and at the first trial, Raffaele and Amanda were convicted of murder and given sentences of 25 and 26 years, respectively.

It is not as if the first court had no means of finding the truth. The defence, not the prosecution, asked that much of the evidence be reviewed by outside experts. If the first court had done this, as the appeal court did, Amanda and Raffaele could have been spared a large part of the more than 1,400 days of custody and persecution.

So, why didn’t they order the review? Maybe they didn’t want to know. They didn’t want the new fangled science to mess up their elaborately intuited theory of the case.

Still, this is an excellent question. In this particular as in several others, Italy showed itself to lack meaningful safeguards for accused persons. Italy is thought of as a modern country with a modern legal system. It had adopted the high standard of “proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” yet several important attributes of a fully-functioning “justice” system were missing.

First, there was the ad hoc DNA procedures, using samples so small that they were found to be wholly unreliable by the expert scientists who finally looked at the first lab’s results. What is more, requests and even orders for disclosure of scientific detail from the lab were persistently either ignored or inadequately responded to. Second, when the police experts destroyed the hard drives on three computers, there was no reverse onus on the prosecution that would have obliged the court to accept the defence version of what was on the computers in the absence of very high quality extrinsic evidence. It is customary in most places to penalize a party whose shoddy work results in the loss or destruction of important evidence in a case. Third, the lack of the mandatory recording of the interrogation of Amanda Knox, which would have removed all doubt about what happened, should have resulted in the statement being excluded. Although the statement was ultimately excluded from the criminal trial by the Court of Cassation (Italy’s highest court,) it still appeared in court in the civil case by Lumamba, for which Amanda has now sustained a criminal conviction for calumny leaving one to wonder how excluded evidence could be used to convict. In addition, every thing that flowed from the excluded evidence should have been excluded from the trial. Instead, ultimately, Amanda’s conviction for having named Patrick Lumamba has been upheld at appeal when there is every likelihood she had no other practical alternative. It should be the police interrogators who suffer a criminal conviction for the ridiculous outcome of the interrogation. Even if they had thought for a moment about what they had in the statement, it would have been clear that if Amanda had been present and had been the diabolical criminal they believed, she would not have implicated someone she knew was at his bar, a public place, and who might have iron-clad alibi witnesses. This was, in the end, the reason why the prosecutors had to release Lumamba, but not after keeping his bar closed long enough, and following up with an audit, to result in the loss of his business. How can Amanda be held responsible for all this?

And, add to all of this the fact both prosecutors from the original lower court trial managed to insinuate themselves into the appeal which, we understand, is virtually unheard of in Italy. I wonder if they will try to get themselves “invited” as consultants into the final appeal of the acquittal to the Court of Cassation? As we understand it, the reason why new counsel are brought in is to expose the case to a new, rational view, free of old prejudices and biases.

Today, Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito stand acquitted of all charges, except Amanda whose conviction for the accusation of Patrick Lumamba was sustained and for which she received a three-year sentence. This residual conviction was no doubt motivated by a desire to avoid paying meaningful compensation for the financial ruin the four-year persecution has wrought on her family. Other than this, not much has changed. The prosecutors are still claiming Amanda and Raffaele are guilty, and are even portraying themselves as the victims, or at least Giuliano Mignini is. The guilters, having no doubt taken down their hate websites to sanitize them of grounds for what should be a massive lawsuit by Raffaele and Amanda, will continue to proclaim guilt to anyone who will allow their hate-filled ravings to remain posted on web sites, Facebook groups and article comments.

Amanda and Raffaele still have much healing and recovery to do before they can meaningfully revive their hopes and dreams. I personally hope that the many people who have taken an interest in this case will remain interested in justice and fairness, and will press not only Italy but their many home countries to take steps to materially improve their legal systems so that they may truly be called “justice” systems. If Italy does not take note of the failings in their land, it will be their loss. Many people now know how risky it is to go there. The risk from crime is probably not much worse than anywhere else, except perhaps from known criminals the police choose not to deal with. The far greater risk for most of us comes from those who we trust to protect us – those we go to for help like Amanda Knox did four long years ago.