Never mind the Italian witch hunt -- Amanda Knox is innocent

Amanda Knox was convicted of murder in an Italian courtroom nearly a year ago. Her appeal will be heard this fall, and if the case is decided on fact rather than fiction, she will be set free.

Over the past few years, Perugia, Italy, has been the focus of an international scandal involving the demonization of an American exchange student convicted of murdering her housemate in a drug-fueled orgy. The sex-game scenario is one dreamed up by the prosecutor and embellished in the media, but unsupported by the evidence before the court.

Seattle native Amanda Knox and her Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, are spending their third year behind bars, their fate uncertain as the case grinds its way up the appellate ladder. The appeal will be heard this fall. If the case is decided on the facts, Ms. Knox and Mr. Sollecito will go free because there is no reliable evidence to implicate them in the crime. If the case is decided on some other account, such as protecting the political ambitions of local authorities, they may remain in an Italian prison for more than two decades.

Giuliano Mignini reigned as public minister of Perugia when Meredith Kercher, a British exchange student, was found murdered, her throat slashed, in the cottage she shared with Knox and two Italian women.

Mr. Mignini was indicted himself in 2006 on charges of abuse of power in a sensational serial killer case – charges of which he was ultimately convicted in January 2010. Focusing on bizarre theories of satanic rituals, his investigation in that case had hit a dead end. Mignini’s reputation had suffered.

Knox would become his chance at redemption, and Sollecito, collateral damage.

Knox's 'confession'

The young couple has maintained that they spent the night of the murder at Sollecito’s place. Under immense pressure to solve the case, the police came to suspect Knox, whose free-spirited behavior didn’t comport with Perugia’s conservative lifestyle. Following an all-night interrogation, during which she later claimed that she was physically and emotionally mistreated, an exhausted Knox stated that she had a dream-like vision in which she heard the screams of the victim. She named Patrick Lumumba, her boss at a bar where she’d worked, as the actual killer.

The police had come to suspect Mr. Lumumba because of an email Knox sent him the evening of the murder. Lumumba told Knox he didn’t need her to work that night. “See you later,” she emailed back. The police believed this meant something sinister was to occur.

Knox later retracted her statements but the police claimed they had her “confession.” They announced to the press with great fanfare that they had solved the case.

Prosecution's theory

Mignini theorized that all three killed Kercher because she refused to participate in a sex-game, a premeditated sacrificial rite. This narrative would take hold even though there was no real evidence to support it, as opposed to, say, a botched robbery. The Italian media went into a frenzy, labeling Knox a "she devil" and "sex predator." Knox, Sollecito, and Lumumba were arrested and held in connection with the murder.

Once the crime scene was analyzed, the arrests and press announcements seemed hasty. The DNA analysis pointed solely to a homeless drifter named Rudy Guede, who had a history of break-ins and alleged harassment of women. Mr. Guede had fled to Germany, but was soon caught and extradited back to Italy.

The evidence doesn't add up

Evidence of Guede appeared in several places in Kercher’s room and on her body, but no reliable evidence of anyone else. Knox thought she’d at last be released. But it was not to be. Mignini and the police had announced to the world the case was solved. They could not afford to lose face. Mignini agreed to release Lumumba, who had an alibi, and simply substituted Guede for him, but never presented any evidence that Knox or Sollecito had any meaningful connection to Guede.

Earlier this month, Steve Moore, a retired FBI agent with 25 years of investigative experience with violent crime, publicly stated that following his extensive investigation and analysis, he found an absence of evidence that would have to be there if Knox and Sollecito were involved in the crime.

At the conclusion of the trial, the judges found no evidence that Knox had a history of violent or aggressive behavior.

Yet, according to Moore, if the prosecutor’s theory of the crime were correct, such action on her part would be sociopathic in the extreme, behavior that could not have been so well hidden from those who knew her.

Mignini put forth no credible motive. Knox and Kercher appear to have gotten along well. He put forward evidence in an attempt to bolster his theory: a large knife lifted from Sollecito’s kitchen, and a bra clasp. These objects allegedly contained DNA that could implicate the accused, but the incompetent handling of the evidence, documented on video, rendered it suspect. The defense team was not allowed to conduct independent testing.

After examining evidence collection techniques in this case, independent forensic experts unconnected with the case have concluded that investigators’ actions departed from established practices. They consider the failure to disclose the electronic data files of the DNA evidence especially troubling in light of the low level DNA match and mixed blood samples at issue.

Injustices for Knox

The Italian Supreme Court in Rome ruled portions of Knox’s confession, obtained in violation of her rights, inadmissible. But the jury heard her full statements anyway because they were presented as part of a civil slander suit Lumumba brought against Knox, which was heard in conjunction with the murder trial.

Knox spent over a year in prison before standing trial for murder and a nearly a second year while being tried. During the trial, the court convened only two or three days a week at most. During the trial, the jury was not sequestered and jurors were allowed to immerse themselves in the negative press accounts of the case that ran rampant in Italy. Despite Knox’s vilification in the press, she and her family were hopeful that the paucity of evidence would result in acquittal. Wrong again.

Jurors bought the prosecution’s theory that in a sex game fueled by drugs, events had spiraled out of control. Knox got 26 years and Sollecito 25. Guede, in a separate fast-track trial, had already been convicted and sentenced to 30 years (reduced to 16, on appeal). Recognizing Knox’s non-violent history, the jury found no premeditation or malice – an illogical conclusion considering their acceptance of the prosecution’s violent sex game theory.

A new twist, and hope for an appeal

On appeal this fall, Knox’s defense team will be presenting new evidence that might free not only Knox and Sollecito, but Guede as well. In a recent twist, a jailed Italian mobster has claimed that his brother, whose whereabouts are unknown, killed Kercher. Lucianno Aviello told Knox’s attorneys during videotaped interviews that his brother came home one night wearing a bloodstained jacket and carrying a flick knife, saying that he had killed a girl during a botched robbery. He asked Aviello to hide the bloodstained knife and a set of keys. Aviello says that he can prove it because the evidence – knife and keys – are buried at his home.

Aviello contacted a judge in the Knox case several times, but the judge dismissed his claims. Mignini, serving as both prosecutor and chief investigator on the case, also knew of the lead during the trial, but didn’t pursue it.

It seems unlikely the State Department will intervene while the case is on appeal, in light of its policy of non-interference with the judicial process of a sovereign nation. Indeed, to do so might invite a backlash of anti-American resentment that could work to Knox’s disadvantage. Though the defense is confident that evidence put forth in an appeal will set Amanda free, there may come a time when the State Department must balance its policy against the devastation of the life of an innocent American citizen locked up 6,000 miles from home.

S. Michael Scadron served as a trial lawyer for the Department of Justice for 30 years before he retired in 2006. His cases focused on standards for scientific evidence.

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