Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Italian Job

This is an expanded version of an article published in the June 2011 issue of UK political magazine Liberator -  www.liberator.org.uk

Amanda Knox & Raffaele Sollecito

British student Meredith Kercher was tragically murdered in Italy by a burglar. The burglar was prosecuted and found guilty, so why were students Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito also prosecuted? Why was their trial called, “a railroad job from hell” by CBS  investigator Paul Ciolino?   Nigel Scott explains

The application and interpretation of the law varies considerably across Europe and elsewhere and the extension of extradition treaties has brought this home to people who would not normally give the justice systems of other countries a second thought.  Within the EU, discrepancies have been highlighted by Liberal Democrat MEP Sarah Ludford, who has campaigned for several British citizens who have become ensnared in foreign trials. 

Recent entrants to the EU have reformed their legal systems and this has provided reassurance for travellers to the former communist states of the East.  Few of us would think that the systems of some established members also require comprehensive reform, but Italy is such a state and the journey of Premier Silvio Berlusconi through the courts will highlight this for all to see.   

The problems of Italy’s leader are far removed from those of his countrymen but the impact of the system on two young students, Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito is frightening and could easily happen to any of us or our children. 

What is different about Italian justice and how has this shaped what has been called the ‘trial of the century’. 

First and most telling, at least when compared to the UK, there is no ban on pre-trial publicity once a suspect is charged.  Prosecutors brief favoured journalists and drop tit bits of ‘evidence’ that may not be true and are not necessarily used in court. This practice creates a climate in which the accused is assumed to be guilty before the trial starts.  In the words of Daily Beast blogger, Barbie Latza Nadeau, “In a country like this it’s not really about proving guilt, it’s about proving innocence.”  This turns the presumption of innocence on its head. 

The second major flaw is that juries are not sequestered. In trials that can last a year, it is argued that this is not practical.  Jurors (or lay judges, as they are called) are encouraged to read widely and discuss the case with each other as it proceeds. Inaccurate media reports become de facto part of the trial.  Anyone who remembers the treatment the Daily Mail (among others) meted out to Chris Jefferies last winter when he was arrested and released without charge during the Joanna Yates murder investigation, will know what the tabloids can do.  Jefferies is now suing six newspapers for defamation. Knox and Sollecito were forced to endure two years of similar character assassination by tabloid in Italy and the UK before their first guilty verdict was announced in December 2009.  They are now midway through an appeal.

The third flaw is that investigations are controlled by the prosecutor, not the police. This approach brings with it the danger that a prosecutor who has prematurely arrived at a view of the crime can direct the police to pursue one line of inquiry and ignore evidence that does not fit.  In Perugia, the investigation was under the control of Giuliano Mignini, a controversial figure who was himself under investigation for abuse of office at the time and was subsequently found guilty.  

In Knox and Sollecito’s case, events in the days after the murder were misinterpreted as the theory that the murderer was close to Meredith was pursued.  On the night of the murder Knox sent a text to employer and bar owner Patrick Lumumba, ‘See you later’, in reply to his message saying she was not needed that night.  This was interpreted as ‘See you later to murder my flat mate’.  When Knox told Kercher’s friends when she met them at the police station that the victim had been stabbed, the police supposed that Knox could not have known unless she had participated in the murder.  In fact, Knox had learned this from her Italian flat mate in the car en route to the police station. 

When Knox, who was by then locked out of her flat because it was a murder scene, bought clean knickers, this was interpreted as casual disregard for her dead friend.  Knox and Sollecito’s phones were tapped in the hope that they would say something incriminating.  When police learned that Knox’s mother was on her way to Italy to support her, they arranged an all night interrogation session to break the pair and brought in specialists from Rome, led by Edgardo Giobbi.  When CBS journalist Paul Ciolino later said to Giobbi, “you don’t have any physical evidence, you don’t have eyewitnesses, you don’t have a murder weapon, what do you got?” officer Giobbi replied that he only needed to know one thing to determine guilt, “He said, ‘I’ll tell you why…….she was eating pizza!”

Edgardo Giobbi
The interrogations resulted in the famous confessions, by which Knox and Sollecito were arrested.  Mysteriously, they were not recorded, although they seem to be the only interviews that were not recorded during the whole case. The convenient absence of recordings allowed the prosecutor to charge Knox and her parents with ‘calunnia’ (slander) when they made allegations that she had been struck. Lumumba was implicated, though he was eventually able to clear himself when his alibi was confirmed.

Numerous prejudicial stories then appeared in the press, referring to ‘evidence’ that was never mentioned again.  In the UK, serious newspapers like The Times as well as the Daily Mail and others, printed stories that would never form part of the prosecution case.  A knife that did not fit the wounds was discovered at Sollecito’s flat and a bra clasp that was recovered from the murder scene 46 days later, were found to harbour quantities of DNA that were ‘revealed’ by overriding machine controls.  This ‘low copy number’ evidence was subsequently challenged in a paper written by forensic experts and published in the New Scientist.

“There is no ban on pre-trial publicity once a suspect is charged.  Prosecutors brief favoured journalists and drop tit bits of ‘evidence’ that may not be true and are not necessarily used in court.” 

Thus was Knox vilified and turned from an ‘A’ student into an out of control drug crazed psychopath. Sollecito was similarly destroyed. Many who raised questions over the prosecution approach were issued with writs.  Twelve law suits were started.  Those indicted so far include Knox and both her parents, her attorneys, and a selection of journalists. Separate action has also been taken against Sollecito’s parents. 

In April this year, the Committee to Protect Journalists, an independent body that defends the rights of journalists worldwide, wrote a letter to the Italian president: “CPJ is particularly troubled by the manifest intolerance to criticism displayed by Perugia Public Prosecutor Giuliano Mignini, who has filed or threatened to file criminal lawsuits against individual reporters, writers, and press outlets, both in Italy and the United States, in connection with the Kercher murder investigation as well as the investigation into the Monster of Florence serial killings.”  Mignini’s action against local journalist and blogger Frank Sfarzo was singled out for particular criticism.  Full details of the complaint are set out at www.cpj.org.

The real murderer, Rudy Guede, was identified when his DNA was found on Meredith’s body, in her room and in her purse.  He had fled to Germany but was arrested there, brought back and found guilty at a separate fast-track trial.  This development did not lead to the release of Knox and Sollecito.  They remained in the frame as alleged co-conspirators of Guede.  

Rudy Guede Mug Shot

Meanwhile the internet gave birth to a new phenomenon: online vilification.  A group calling itself ‘True Justice for Meredith Kercher’ and a linked chat room, ‘Perugia Murder File’ (PMF), were set up to insult the two students and members of their families. Supporters of these sites harassed and intimidated members of Knox’s family and friends both online and in person in their home town of Seattle.  PMF has been reported to the FBI as a source of hate speech. 

By the time the guilty verdict of the first trial was announced, in December 2009, many observers had begun to question the Perugian justice system. A campaign to exonerate Knox and Sollecito coalesced around a website ‘Injustice in Perugia’.   

The Wikipedia page, ‘The Murder of Meredith Kercher’ became embroiled in controversy and many neutral editors were banned. Thirty pages of arguments in the ‘discussion’ section, delineate the battle. Frustrated supporters of Knox and Sollecito eventually posted an online petition asking Jimbo Wales, the Wikipedia founder to intervene. 

Wales investigated and ordered a review.  He commented, “I just read the entire article from top to bottom, and I have concerns that most serious criticism of the trial from reliable sources has been excluded or presented in a negative fashion.”  A few days later he wrote, “I am concerned that since I raised the issue, even I have been attacked as being something like a ‘conspiracy theorist.”  Some biased editors left the page, but the fight on Wikipedia continues.

The tide seems to be turning and recent victories in the courtroom over re-evaluation of the controversial DNA evidence and witness testimony have given rise to fresh hope.

The Kercher family employed their own prosecutor, as is permitted in Italy, who has joined in cross examinations and also briefed the media. Innocent bar owner Lumumba was also represented. He sought damages for defamation from Knox.

Knox and Sollecito’s defense therefore faced three lawyers and three legal teams as Lumumba’s case ran in parallel with the murder trial.  

As the retrial grinds slowly on, a new judge, Claudio Hellmann, from North Italy is directing proceedings. Knox, Sollecito and their families pray that he will be independent and will have the courage to instruct his ‘jurors’ to acquit.   

Nigel Scott is a Haringey Liberal Democrat Councillor and supporter of the campaign to free Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito.