It was set to take years, and it did. Italy’s highest judicial body, the Court of Cassation, had the final word on whether the US national Amanda Knox and her Italian ex-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito were responsible for the murder of British student Meredith Kercher. Having been first convicted in 2009, Knox and Sollecito were acquitted in 2011 on appeal. The Italian Supreme Court proceeded to overturn the acquittals in 2013, leading to their re-conviction before a Florence appeals court in 2014. Then came the Court of Cassation’s finding after 10 hours that the two had not committed the crime – the most categorical of all acquittals.
It had all the elements of savage drama – the brutal slaying of Kercher, who was found half-stripped in the Perugia apartment she shared with Knox. The body has been rented by 47 stab wounds, and the throat slashed. The case also had the strong scent of sex fed by paparazzi hyperventilation and prosecutor inventiveness – had sordid playfulness merged into a lethal game? Was it a ritual in Satan’s name?
As British media commentator Roy Greenslade would observe in 2011, Kercher’s killing “had just the kind of ingredients that make headlines: a blood-soaked crime scene, supposed sexual depravity and, of course, Knox, the accused female, already on her way to being both demonised and celebrified.”
Some have argued that crime is a gendered activity, and while this argument can be taken too far (one then sees “gender” everywhere like some Freudian fascination), it is useful in terms of picturing the Knox case. Criminologist Ngaire Naffine suggests in Feminism and Criminology (1997) that the sex of the offender does feature in the statistical account since crime has a presumptive bias, “something that men are expected to do, because they are men. And women are expected not to do, because they are women.” Expected behaviour – and performance – are everything.
Knox’s first trial saw a slew of sexualised images fed with prurient glee by the authorities: the sexually charged student from the United States; the presence of erotic underwear and vibrators strewn across the apartment; the use of drugs and the penchant for mad partying. Then the prosecution shifted its focus: Kercher was killed because she had become a monstrous irritant to Knox, a veritable superego questioning her moral scruples and personal hygiene.
Only part-time drug dealer Rudy Guede, a drifting Ivory-Coast national, ended up being jailed in a speedy separate trial, though the judge found it impossible that he had acted alone – the nature of the wounds suggested that Kercher had been held down as the stabs were inflicted. Complicity was in the air. The huge question mark lingered like an interminable smoke signal, and encouraged the continuing frenzy about what happened.
The trial muddied all those concerned, a slimy taint that served to cover the participants and pollute an entire legal system. A Knox industry grew, filled with its commodities, its hawkers, its purveyors, its capitalisers. “You could call it,” argued Peter Popham, “the industry of human misery” (The Independent, Nov 6, 2010).
It created an entire commentariat of speculators, be it through opinionated blogs or yet another leering film director with, as Popham would explain, “the lousy idea of making another lousy film about it.” It caused what was deemed a “superficial fault line among the journalists that few of us paid notice to” – that which divided the Knox-supporting “innocentisi” from the condemning “colpevolisti”.
The entire case was potholed and ragged. Forensic evidence proving the presence of Knox and Sollecito at the scene of the crime was threadbare, a point repeatedly pointed out by the defence. The murder weapon found in Sollecito’s kitchen did not pair up with Kercher’s wounds. Knox had gone through her lengthy interrogation session without the guiding hand of an interpreter, making the admission that she had been at the residence during the killing weak.
The trial mocked the legal system, and the prosecution led by Giuliano Mignini. But Mignini was merely operating in an environment shaped by the reforms of 1989, which drastically modified the available discretion on whether cases can be brought to trial. “In many other systems,” argues The Economist, “the case would never have gone beyond the committal stage.” The current reform drive of Matteo Renzi’s government is more directed at the civil, rather than criminal system.
Knox, despite being deemed the angel of innocence by her supporters, accused a Congolese-bar owner, Patrick Lumumba of the murder, something which she received a slander conviction over. Part, then, of the Kercher story has no official accomplice, the spectral force who supposedly assisted Guede in his murderous enterprise. Few would have guessed, argues Barbie Latza Nadeau, that Kercher “would eventually become the forgotten victim of her own heinous murder story” (The Telegraph, Mar 28). Female victimhood mattered less here than potential female culpability.
Kercher family attorney, Francesco Maresca, could only lament at the outcome of court proceedings which leaves complicity hanging as torment. “Whoever was Guede’s accomplice does not have a name.” Perhaps that is grotesquely fitting for the case that threatened to continue with its pervasive sickness.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org