This summer, I followed my boyfriend to Italy. He had received a fellowship, the sort where you live in a castle and are served prosecco while you think brilliant thoughts. Our daughter and I trailed after him, eating his leftover shaved ham (very delicious) and attending intimidating dinners. One night, in the garden of a local restaurant, after some lemon liqueur that had the same effect on my conversational skills as grain alcohol, I piped up to ask what the table thought of "the Amanda Knox thing."
There was a flicker of amusement among the international crowd. "It was a Masonic ritual, I heard," someone from Holland said. Another, a painter from Kenya: "She got hysterical and lost her mind. Don't all American girls abroad get hysterical?" "Sex, sex, sex," a German videographer added. "You know how it can be … between roommates … dirty dishes and things. …" This went on until my toddler passed out in a rose bed. Most of the table concluded that Knox was guilty. Certainly, it was the most fun theory.
In case you aren't, like myself, a follower of sensational stories: An American girl, Amanda Knox, and her then-boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, were sentenced to 26 and 25 years of jail, respectively, for the murder of a fellow student from Britain, Meredith Kercher, in 2007. Another man, Rudy Guede, was convicted of murder and sexual assault in a separate trial, after his DNA was found inside the victim, under her fingernails, and in the victim's smeared blood. Guede, a small-time drug dealer who was born in the Ivory Coast but raised in Perugia, was sentenced to 30 years. After naming Knox and Sollecito as co-killers, Guede's time was reduced to 16 years. During the trial, Knox and Sollecito were accused of planning and carrying out a sex crime that ended in the slow sawing open of the victim's throat. The jury, made up of citizens of Perugia, bought it.
The court proceedings have been long and heavily covered. I'm obviously not a legal expert, but I can point to several sources to reference if you'd like further detail, including 10 books in English alone. Amanda Knox's personality has been picked apart and studied more than most celebrities', perhaps even more than the new princess, Kate Middleton.
For a slightly trapped Umbrian tourist with a 16-month-old on her hands, this case seemed a gift. Finally, something to talk about in my broken Italian with the locals! Do you think she's guilty? My pension owner, a jolly man with two kids, said yes, definitely. Hadn't I been to college? It was an orgy with a knife! An American expatriate friend over cappuccinos at Sandri's: Guilty. It's a known fact that the girl had sex with three men in two months. Need we say more?
Having seen the behavior of many drunken Americans in Italy, at first I accepted this. My apartment in Perugia was located just above an expatriate hangout, and I would lie in bed and listen to the boozy reverie all night. They could all be murderers, I raged into the pillow. Every last yowling one of them.
Yet as I researched the case during those midday hours when everything in Italy is closed, the story made less sense. For one thing, during her interrogation, Amanda named her boss, a bar owner named Patrick Lumumba, as the killer, and herself as present in the cottage. But Lumumba had an airtight alibi of tending his bar, Le Chic, that night. Why this bogus accusation implicating herself?
Then there was the prosecutor's theory of a bullying four-way sex game gone wrong. At the time of the murder, Knox and Sollecito had been going out only six days. Plus, Sollecito professed to being a virgin before he met Knox. Have you ever been a virgin? A virgin does not get bored after six days, especially when his girlfriend looks like Amanda Knox. Why on earth would he want to have an orgy with a local drug dealer?
As I followed the appeal process, the presented facts were quickly becoming disturbingly contradictory. Meredith Kercher's blood was on the murder weapon, a knife found in Sollecito's kitchen. But no it wasn't, the experts who testified at the appeals said. That was other organic matter¾likely rye bread. OK, well, what about the fact that Knox bought bleach at 7 in the morning after the murder? Wait, but she didn't. A witness later said her co-worker was coerced into saying that by a reporter. (Plus, after a violent diaper emergency, I myself can tell you that no store in Perugia is open at seven in the morning.)
And then, while out running one incredibly humid day, I found this dog. It was a scruffy thing, matted, wandering in Perugian traffic. I took off my shoelace, made a leash, and took him to the shelter to get his microchip checked. The owner (the dog's name was Bruno), turned out to belong to a good friend of Patrick Lumumba, the man Knox named as the murderer. And so, due to my love of canines, I found myself lunching with Lumumba.
Lumumba (whose uncle, he told me, was the real Patrice Lumumba, the great Congolese political leader slaughtered by the Belgians) wasn't sure exactly what I was doing asking him these questions. I wasn't either. But he didn't really care. What he wanted, like many wronged people, was for someone to listen to his story.
And what a story it was. Because of Knox's accusations, he was ripped away from his young son in the middle of the night, interrogated, beaten, and held in solitary confinement for 14 days. His business remained closed for four months, even after his name was cleared. And he definitely thought Knox and Sollecito were guilty.
"When put in front of a judge," he told me, "I pleaded with him. 'What was I doing here? I didn't do this!' And Knox? She said nothing. Why would she say nothing? She must have done it. She is a cold woman. She did it."
Patrick Lumumba was a nice guy put through hell, and I left that lunch not liking Knox very much. Yet Lumumba is also suing Knox for slander. I can't blame him, but given his anger and the damage she did to his life and reputation, I did wonder if I could entirely accept his take on her guilt.
Now, frankly, I was getting obsessed. I hid behind a bush with my kid and listened to a newscaster give his report about the new DNA findings. I got up at 5 in the morning and crept to the cottage where the murder happened, staring in the window that the prosecutor argued no one could climb into, meaning the killer had to have keys. But the window didn't look that high. I could probably climb up there. The whole thing made my head hurt. I started to be unable to sleep.
Though I was supposed to return to the U.S. in mid-August, I kept my daughter in Perugia two extra weeks to go to the appeal. My family questioned the decision. Who was I, Jessica Fletcher? But there was a chasm, it seemed, between what we, the media-fed public, knew about the case and what was fact. This was a rare chance to bridge my own gap.
The gallery of the courtroom is a social, chatty place. Weary reporters filed in with the public, followed by an army of cameras. Everyone knows each other, and some of the producers talked to me, curious about this new person, with her magazines and grubby, non-Italian shoes.
"You think they're innocent?" they quizzed me.
"Yeah," I stammered, unprepared. "I think so. What do you think?"
They shook their heads. It's a story, and journalists don't take sides. Still, they filled me in on the tidbits they'd heard. Knox and Sollecito turned off their phones that night not so they couldn't be tracked, but because they didn't want their parents bothering them during sex. Knox named Lumumba as the murderer because it was 5 in the morning and she'd been interrogated all night in a language she didn't, at the time, understand very well. She had only been in Italy about six weeks, and she hadn't had any food or water for hours. (This didn't exactly explain why she fingered Lumumba, but it did help me understand what sort of pressure she was under.) Amanda's DNA is mixed with Meredith's blood on the bathroom sink because she brushed her teeth every day. The knife the police had didn't match Meredith's wounds because it wasn't the right one.
So why are these people still in jail? There are many layers of reasons, largely having to do with the singular and complicated Italian legal system. Not that ours is so perfect. (Please see the West Memphis Three.) But some of this mess, it may be said, was caused by tabloid-hungry folks at dinner parties who wanted a different death for Meredith Kercher than a break-in gone wrong. I know I did, sad as I am about it. And Giuliano Mignini, the prosecutor, obliged us.
Now the robbery-murder, too, may just be another theory about what happened that night. But no one has yet questioned whether or not Rudy Guede's DNA is linked to the body. My educated end-of-summer conclusion: Two innocent people are locked up partly because orgies are fun to talk about.
Sept. 7 was my last day at the hearing, which, incidentally, is going extremely well for Knox and Sollecito. (Incriminating DNA evidence: eradicated.) My career as a crime tourist was over. I had to fly home to my real life. Bills were waiting, novel deadlines loomed. My kid really needed some day care.
In a last, lame attempt to document the event, I stuck my phone into the throng of photographers and snapped Amanda Knox. In the picture, she's startlingly thin and tired-looking. The temperature had been in the 100s for the last three weeks; my daughter and I had taken to lying on the tile floor through the dangerously hot siesta hours, sucking on ice chips. Knox's cell, I'm told, is next to a huge, un-shuttered window that the sun beams into all day. No question of air conditioning, and I very much doubt she is ever offered ice. In court she sat with her hands on the desk, trained not to look at anyone behind her.
Sollecito is more willing to look around. His head is shaved and his shoulders are broader than in the earlier photos, presumably from strengthening himself enough to survive in a maximum-security men's prison. At one point, bored, he cased the room and gave me a blank but curious stare. Unable to resist, I returned the look with a sympathetic, motherly smile.
He shrugged. I don't care about anything anymore, he seemed to say. Then he turned around again, waiting for all of this to come to an end.