Amanda Knox’s retrial puts Italian justice in the dock

The Guardian, Tuesday 26 March 2013

Rudy Guede killed Meredith Kercher. The continued pursuit of Knox and
Rafaelle Sollecito implies incompetence and misogyny

The sexual assault and murder of Meredith Kercher in Perugia in 2007 was a dreadful crime. The perpetrator, Rudy Guede, left copious amounts of forensic evidence at the scene and is currently serving a prison sentence. In normal circumstances, Guede’s conviction would have been the end of the matter, but these are not normal circumstances. The announcement that Amanda Knox and her Italian ex-boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, are to face a retrial means a fourth set of proceedings, no doubt with worldwide publicity. It also confirms the reluctance of the Italian authorities to let go of a misogynist fantasy which has turned the case into a prolonged media circus.

To anyone familiar with the modus operandi of sex attackers, the identification of Guede as the killer is unproblematic. He knew Knox and Kercher by sight, he had visited the young men who lived in the apartment below theirs and it is entirely credible that he knocked on the door or broke into the upper flat in the hope of having sex with one of the women. He left a partial palm print on a pillow in Kercher’s room, a footprint matched the trainers he was wearing and his DNA was found on the body and at various locations in the apartment. He opted for a fast-track court procedure in 2008 and was sentenced to 30 years in prison, reduced to 16 on appeal.

The central mystery of this case is not the identity of the murderer but the steely determination of the Italian authorities to drag in two other suspects, Knox and Sollecito. At their original trial in 2009, the prosecution was able to produce neither witnesses nor a credible motive. Knox’s “confession” was obtained when she was sleep-deprived, had no access to lawyers and was unable to speak fluent Italian; she retracted it as soon as she was allowed to sleep and get legal advice. The two students’ eventual conviction rested on minute traces of forensic evidence, and even that was comprehensively discredited during their successful appeal in 2011.

There’s no doubt that their release infuriated prosecutors in Perugia, who had convinced themselves that Knox was a villainous character who could easily have walked out of a medieval witch trial. It’s impossible to overstate the influence on Knox’s trials of Perugia’s dark history, which has earned it a reputation as an “epicentre” of medieval witch burnings. It’s left a residue of superstition and fear of female sexuality which emerged time after time in court, with one lawyer actually accusing Knox of being ‘diabolic’.

In a country where Catholicism still informs conservative attitudes towards female sexuality, and Silvio Berlusconi’s TV channels present young women as writhing sex objects, there is little space for independent modern women. Knox was transformed from a typical American student into a sex-crazed hedonist who arrived with from the US with a vibrator in her luggage. Within weeks, she supposedly conceived such a hatred of her British flatmate that she persuaded two men she barely knew to take part in a murderous attack.

Improbable as all this is, Knox’s supposed role as the instigator was reflected in the sentences in the case. After Guede’s sentence was reduced, she was left to serve the longest sentence for Kercher’s murder – 26 years in prison, compared to 25 for Sollecito. This was an extraordinary outcome, bearing in mind the lack of evidence against her, and one of its lasting effects has been to put Knox at the centre of the case. This must be unbearably painful for Kercher’s family, who have seen their daughter relegated to little more than a footnote.

The resurrection of the tabloid caricature ‘”Foxy Knoxy” cannot be far off, but it’s hard to see how justice is served by what looks like the prosecution’s idée fixe. Knox and Sollecito face the ordeal of another trial but the Italian criminal justice system is also in the dock, arraigned for incompetence and rank misogyny.

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