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Dec 05 2009

Italian “Jury” Convicts American Student of Murder in a Tale of Sex and Drugs – All that was Missing Was Evidence!

Amanda Knox, a 20 year old Dean’s List Student from the University of Washington studying abroad for a year in Perugia Italy, has been convicted of murder and related charges in connection with the death of her roommate Meredith Kercher, a British exchange student from Leeds University.

The evidence against her? That during a 30 hour interrogation with the police (without a lawyer of course) she told two different versions of the night of the event. First she said she was home and heard her roommate with a man, named Patrick Lumumba and she had covered her ears when she heard screams, because she didn’t think it was an attack and didn’t know what was going on and then when Lumumba’s solid alibi checked out within 24 house of his arrest, the still detained Knox said she was out of the apartment with her boyfriend of two weeks, Raffaelle Sollecito. Shaky story, sure, but proof of murder – hardly.

With the advent of DNA evidence, we have found that people, especially young people, will say all kinds of things during police interrogation. Sometimes they even confess to murders they did not commit. So would it be so unusual for a young person to try and give a story that gives police something to hang their hat on rather than just say “I was getting high with my boyfriend in his apartment.”

The only physical evidence against her was that her DNA was on a kitchen knife. Now, the knife was in her apartment where she had been living for months and the blade did not match the cuts on the victims body. No bloody clothes, no cuts or bruises on her body despite the violent nature of the apparent struggle and the murder itself. So that was it – a shaky non-confession and DNA on a knife in her own apartment. How does this amount to a murder conviction? Well, for that we have to take a quick look at Italy’s criminal justice system. Trust me – it won’t be boring as it has its roots in The Inquisition.

In Italy, the judges do everything. They participate in the investigation; they preside over the trial; they even make up part of the jury. Some of the judges and court figures in this trial were featured in “The Monster of Florence” by Douglas Preston. Preston displayed pretty clearly the lack of fair trials for several alleged murderers in this same area of Italy. In fact, the magistrate that presided over much of this trial was indicted for abuse of power arising out of the case covered by Preston.

The burden of proof is far less than beyond a reasonable doubt, as well; it places a burden on the defendant to substantiate a defense. You also only need a majority of the jury not unanimity. The trial can be stretched interminably. For example, this trial began in January of this year but covered only 50 days of testimony. In between, the civil members of the jury are free to read all the lurid media accounts about “Foxy Knoxy” as she was labeled in the press and read unsubstantiated accounts of a wild, drug-fueled sex life the Italian tabloids attributed to her. The prosecution totally demonized her in their summation and her defense lawyer cried when she finished her summation. This whole system of having investigatory judges who question the witnesses before the trial during the phase known as “istruzione formale” stems from The Inquisition. The “judges” then inform the trial judges of their findings. There is little if any chance to confront theses judges under cross-examination and the defense has a very limited role in the “istruzione formale” so that a whole case can essentially be built on the “feeling” or “suspicion” of the judges without that much hard evidence.

But it gets even worse. The family of the victim filed a civil lawsuit against Amanda,as did Mr. Lumumba who was falsely accused by Amanda. Guess what – those trials went on simultaneously (with the same jury) as did the murder trial. That’s right. The jury also awarded significant sums of money to the victim’s family and Mr. Lumumba. What are these proceedings doing in the middle of a criminal trial? Yes, its expedient -get everything wrapped up all at once, but what about the defendant’s right not to have sympathy persuade the jury? Shouldn’t we be having them focus on whether there is evidence against the defendant and not on compensating the family or punishing the defendant for perhaps falsely accusing someone in the heat of the moment?

Believe me, I have tremendous issues with US system of justice but I also know that it usually gets it right and that it gives defendants more rights than just about any other system in the world. It is not the best system if you want to convict the guilty but you need to remember that the system is not geared for that; it is designed to protect the innocent under the notion as Benjamin Franklin said that it is better that 100 guilty men go free than to condemn one innocent man.

Is Amanda Knox innocent? I have no idea. Only she knows for certain. But I am certain that I would not want a person convicted of unlicensed dog with the evidence put forth in this trial.

When I read that her parents were moving to Italy to support her while they appeal, I thought about the global travesty of this incident and imagined myself and my wife in the shoes of the Knoxes or the Kerchers; one child murdered, the other child sentenced to 26 years in prison in Italy. Two families irretrievably destroyed, their lives taken way off track by a horrifying incident perhaps compounded by an unjust trial. I then remembered that my son, a Dean’s List student at Penn State University was planning on studying abroad this summer. I have to admit that since I began following this case months ago in the NY Times, I never made a connection to my son’s plans since now its an almost mandatory part of the college experience to study abroad. Even when he said he really wanted to do study in Italy, I was jealous but unfazed. But when I realized that, like Amanda Knox, he would be 20 years old at that time, I have to admit that it gave me pause. It’s hard enough to protect him when he’s four hours away in the heartland of his own country; what possible words of caution could I give him to avoid being anywhere near a situation like this case? So this afternoon, I emailed him a link to great Penn State summer abroad program – in Denmark.

5 comments

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  1. Mark Balnaves

    Greetings from Australia!

    I came across your comment while looking up information on the Italian judicial system. I am afraid I disagree with your 2009 summary of evidence. In particular, DNA evidence taken from the small bathroom (see Sentence of the Court of Assizes of Perugia (Presided over by Giancarlo Massei) in the murder of Meredith Kercher). Quote: “On the right side of the inside doorframe there was a tiny droplet of the victim’s blood. Also on top of the toilet-seat cover of the toilet there was blood from the victim. In the bidet there was a substance which appeared to be diluted blood, and which was shown to be a mixed trace specimen having the biological profiles of Amanda and Meredith. Also in the sink, there was a substance which appeared to be diluted blood, and which was shown to be a mixed trace specimen with the same result … On the box of cotton buds/Q-tips sitting on the sink/washbasin there were stains and these showed the presence of blood and a mixed trace from Amanda and Meredith. On the light switch in the same bathroom there was a mark which proved to be the victim’s blood. The sky-blue mat found in that bathroom was stained with blood which was shown to be from the victim.”

    The current appeal is hearing the independent experts’ report on the knife and bra clasp. However, the small bathroom evidence is compelling because Ms. Amanda Knox declared that the small bathroom was clean when she left for her boyfriend’s flat. The defence says that it is not a surprise that Ms. Knox and Ms. Kercher’s DNA would be found mixed in a bathroom they share. However, you do not need a statistical mind to work out that it is unlikely that the mixed DNA and its distribution occurred solely by cohabitation. Mr. Guede, the third defendant, wore shoes and went straight down the passageway and out the door. In terms of collection of evidence, therefore, the Italian system appears to be quite good.

    The biggest problem with the Italian system is the long delays in each tier. The mixed judges/lay judges model appears to have its merits, especially as scientific evidence becomes more complex.

    Mark

    1. Oscar Michelen

      Thanks for your comment. I still think that this is not enough evidence because I agree with the defense that since they both lived in the apartment and shared the bathroom the distribution could have occurred by cohabitation. I don’t understand your sentene when you say that it is unlikely. I also believ ther was no dispute that Meredith was killed there so it would explain why her blood was there. The long delays are frustrating but we have similar ones in the States.

  2. Mark Balnaves

    Hi, Sorry, my point about “unlikely” refers to how Ms. Knox set up the baseline – she said that the small bathroom was clean when she left the house. Ms. Kercher was killed in her room. DNA does not fly. The inference that the court drew is that someone washed themselves to clean off Ms. Kercher’s blood. There is a footprint (not shoeprint) in the small bathroom but not any of the same – or any – footprints leading into the small bathroom (suggesting a clean up). As Sherlock Holmes would say, “once you exclude the impossible” you are left with the truth. Ms. Kercher’s blood was in the small bathroom. There is no DNA other than that of Ms. Kercher and Ms. Knox in the small bathroom. The person who scrubbed themselves in the sink and the bidet in the small bathroom did leave their DNA. If the small bathroom had not been cleaned, as Ms. Knox said it was, then I would agree completely with the defence.

    I am not a serial blogger, I am afraid, and I will not pester. A final note. The Italian criminal justice system embeds rights for the defendant in much the same ways as it does in the Anglo-Saxon jurisdictions. However, as you know, the victim (relatives) is also allowed to be legally represented directly in court and the judges/jurors collaborate more directly in discussions on evidence. In Australia, the phrase “it is only circumstantial evidence” has become commonplace (as though circumstantial evidence alone is never sufficient to convict). Having judges who can participate more closely in jury deliberations in the case of complex scientific evidence and circumstantial evidence is perhaps a good thing. Perhaps a hybrid US/Italian/Australian system might help (we will throw in the beer).

  3. Oscar Michelen

    Thanks for your comments Mark, lets see how the appellate process turns out

  4. Oscar Michelen

    And now we have our answer

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