On October 3, Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito were acquitted, on appeal, of the murder of Meredith Kercher, a 21-year-old British student stabbed to death in her bedroom in Perugia on November 1, 2006. The announcement brought to a close one of the most gripping court cases of recent times.
In Italy, the decision was greeted with boos and jeers from a public who had come to see Knox as a depraved femme fatale. In America, it was seen as justice at last for a girl who had been treated badly because she had the misfortune to be beautiful. In Britain, the tabloids’ sadness that they would no longer be able to run daily pictures of “Foxy Knoxy” was qualified by a sense that there might be some closure for the Kercher family.
Though the court case is finished, we haven’t heard the last of the story. Knox is reportedly in negotiations to sell film rights, ostensibly to cover some of the legal fees she’s racked up. And there will be the usual rush of books, articles and television programmes purporting to give the whole story. This is the first since the acquittal, but the 11th so far and, as with any good match report, one presumes most of it was written before the final whistle.
John Follain is the Rome correspondent for The Sunday Times and this book is a mixture of his own interviews and the publicly available material. It brings together as much of the story as we know, beginning with Knox and Kercher’s arrival in Perugia and ending with Knox’s flight home to Seattle.
In a case as familiar as this has become, it is surprising to go over it from the start. We meet the blameless Meredith, an intelligent student who followed her love of Italy to study there for a year, despite the wrench of being away from her ill mother. We meet Sollecito, Knox’s weed-smoking, violence-fixated boyfriend. We meet Rudy Guede, the itinerant Ivorian who remains the only person convicted of the crime, now serving 16 years in prison. We meet the investigators: a mix of talented professionals, doing their best in trying circumstances, and incompetents, mucking up evidence-gathering and leaking salacious details to the press.
At the centre of it all is Knox, the eccentric daughter of a wealthy Seattle family, casting her shadow over the whole case. Just 19 at the time of the murder, she invites judgment as a lamp draws moths. Even Follain, for all his attempts at objectivity, occasionally lapses. About her Facebook page, he writes: “Amanda filled in the section 'Interested in’ with the single word: 'men’.” Anyone with a Facebook account will tell you that this is simply the pro forma way of expressing orientation, but in Follain’s hands it becomes a byword for licentiousness. He lingers on Knox’s oddities, such as her habit of doing impromptu yoga, as much as the story-changing which led to her original conviction with Sollecito in 2009.
Meredith’s family bear their grief with heartbreaking dignity, from the moment her father John learns his daughter is dead to the final acquittal. They turn down half a million pounds from a television channel for coverage of the funeral. They never get drawn into the ad hominem brawl of the coverage of Knox, or express any satisfaction other than that justice is being served.
At times the case seemed as if it had been dreamt up by a committee of tabloid hacks and Hollywood screenwriters: beautiful victim, beautiful city, beautiful suspects and a seedy undercurrent of sex and drugs. The question of guilt dogs the book as it did the trial. At times the circumstantial evidence, in particular their changing stories and strange behaviour the morning after, seems compelling. A witness claimed to see Knox queuing to buy bleach at 7.45am, and the couple kissed and cuddled even as the police arrived at the scene. But Sollecito was the only one of the pair connected to the crime scene by DNA, and there were significant flaws in the way the evidence was collected. Certainly enough for reasonable doubt.
At one point Follain describes Father Saulo, a priest assigned to keep Amanda company in jail. “He believed Amanda was sincere when she said she was innocent,” Follain writes. “But he refused to make up his mind on whether she was in fact innocent or guilty. He was certain that even if he read the thousands of pages of the investigation, he still wouldn’t be 100 per cent certain either way.”
It’s unlikely that Death in Perugia is the “definitive account”, as it claims on the cover. But it does a good job of reminding us that amid the reams of print and reel are human lives; some innocent and some guilty, but all irreparably disfigured by this horribly sad story.