Tue 4 Oct 2011 17.22 BST
First published on Tue 4 Oct 2011 17.22 BST
The overturning of the murder convictions of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito for the murder of British exchange student Meredith Kercher in Perugia, Italycame as no surprise. The appeals trial showed that virtually all the crucial evidence used in the original trial to convict Knox and Sollecito was faulty, erroneous, worthless, or manipulated.
Acquittal was the only possible, rational verdict. Knox got out of Italy as fast as her family and friends could get her away. While the prosecutors may formally appeal to the Italian supreme court, the case is essentially over and Knox will never be extradited back to Italy from the US.
But big questions remain. How could two innocent people be convicted of such a heinous crime, backed up by a 400-page opinion, spend four years in prison, and then have their convictions so resoundingly overturned?
The answer lies in the Italian concept of face, la faccia, whose deep and pervasive power most Anglo-Saxons who have not lived in a Mediterranean country have a hard time appreciating.
The story begins almost a decade ago, long before Meredith Kercher’s murder, when the pubblico ministero (public prosecutor) of Perugia, Giuliano Mignini, opened an investigation into the mysterious death of a doctor whose body was found floating in Lake Trasimeno in 1985.
Mignini believed the doctor was connected to a satanic sect, which had murdered him because he was about to go to the police and reveal its many crimes. Mignini believed this shadowy cult was connected to infamous murders committed by a serial killer known as the Monster of Florence.
The Monster shot and mutilated young lovers in the hills of Florence between 1974 and 1985. He was Italy’s Jack the Ripper, and the case of the Monster had become one of the longest and most expensive criminal investigations in Italian history. It has never been solved. (The full story is recounted in a book I wrote with the Italian journalist, Mario Spezi, The Monster of Florence.)
Mignini theorised that this satanic cult consisted of powerful people – noblemen, pharmacists, journalists and freemasons – who ordered the Monster killings because they needed female body parts to use as the blasphemous wafer in their black masses. Putting himself in charge of the investigation, Mignini became so obsessed that he crossed the line of legality, wiretapping journalists and conducting illegal investigations of newspapers.
He was indicted for these and other crimes, including abuso d’ufficio, abuse of office, in 2006. One prosecutor said he was a man “prey to a kind of delirium”.
Then, in 2007, came the murder of Meredith Kercher. Mignini took up the case with a vengeance. He and the entire Perugian power establishment, who approved various stages in the investigation and subsequent arrests, rushed to judgment. Believing that Knox’s behaviour after the killing was less than normal, they hauled her in for a gruelling and possibly abusive 14-hour interrogation and extracted a compromising statement from her. That was enough.
They held a press conference, at which the chief of police of Perugia announced that they had identified the killers: Knox, her boyfriend Sollecito, and a third individual, Patrick Lumumba. Caso chiuso, they said. Case closed.
Over the next week, the crime scene was analysed. Much of the evidence, no doubt to the great surprise and dismay of the police and Mignini, pointed to an unknown fourth person. His bloody handprints and DNA were everywhere on the crime scene, as well as the victim, who had been sexually assaulted. The suspect was quickly identified as a drifter and small-time crook named Rudy Guede, who had fled to Germany the day after the murder. He was picked up and brought back.
The evidence against him was overwhelming and he admitted he was present when Kercher was attacked; he confessed that he left her dying and fled, fearing he would be blamed.
He claimed someone else had done it while he was in the bathroom, listening to his iPod, his ears plugged, unable to hear her screams.
At this point, in any rational investigation, Knox and Sollecito would have been released. But Mignini’s career – and the reputation of the police force and judiciary – hung in the balance.
To admit such a colossal mistake would humiliate them in front of the entire world. It would be a massive loss of face. This was especially acute for Mignini, who was already under indictment in the Monster case.
Furthermore, Guede had been involved in a string of crimes, for which he had never been prosecuted by the Perugian police. An enduring mystery is why Guede was repeatedly released after committing serious crimes, such as breaking and entering while in possession of a knife. If it turned out Guede had murdered Kercher alone, hard questions would be asked of the Perugian police and prosecutors about why they had repeatedly released him.
For a year, Knox and Sollecito were kept in preventive detention – Italy has no bail system – while Mignini, the police, and various forensic experts built the case against them. Crucial evidence that could have exonerated them was lost or mishandled. For example, the hard drive on Sollecito’s computer, which could have shown he was on his computer during the time of the murder, was “fried” by investigators as they supposedly tried to copy it.
Salacious, false, and misleading details were leaked to the press, poisoning the atmosphere against Knox and Sollecito. This tactic was particularly effective since jurors in Italy are not sequestered or forbidden from reading and discussing the case while the trial is ongoing. It is a common tactic in Italy, although it is strictly forbidden by the Italian law of segreto istruttorio.
All of this led to the not-surprising conviction of Knox and Sollecito. At the appeal most of the evidence and witnesses were re-examined.
The appeals process in Italy is generally considered to be much fairer than trials of the first degree, and people are not generally considered convicted until they are convicted on appeal. This is why Mignini, even after his conviction for abuse of office, was able to continue prosecuting the case.
About 50% of all criminal convictions in Italy are reversed or greatly modified on appeal. Knox and Sollecito join the 4 million Italians since the war who have seen their lives ruined by false criminal charges, only to be proclaimed innocent after many years of agony and imprisonment.
While they don’t like others pointing it out, many Italians are well aware that their judicial system is dysfunctional. Silvio Berlusconi is absolutely right when he says the judiciary needs fundamental reform. The Italian judiciary, a holdover to a great extent from the Mussolini era, when Italy was a police state, acts with no checks and balances, in which prosecutors and police wield enormous power.
If you are arrested for a crime and have no alibi, you are in very serious trouble. The de facto burden of proof is on you to prove your innocence, despite lip service in the Italian constitution to the idea of innocent until proven guilty.
The Italian justice system often seems more concerned with preserving the honour and reputations of powerful individuals than with finding the truth. This, in a nutshell, explains why Knox and Sollecito were not released when Guede was identified, why dubious DNA and forensic lab work was relied upon, why prosecutors and police leaked so much damaging and salacious information to the press, and why these two innocent young people spent 1,450 days in prison for murder they did not commit. It was all about honour, reputation, and the saving of face.
Douglas Preston is the co-author of The Monster of Florence, a non-fiction book chronicling the case of an Italian serial killer. He criticised Mignini in his book, and has since done so in print, and last month Mignini accused Preston of masterminding a US press campaign against him. “It’s all Preston,” he said.
• This article was amended on 4 October 2011. The original stated that Giuliano Mignini was jailed for 16 months on abuse of office charges. In fact, the sentence was suspended. This has been corrected.
American returns to an emotional welcome in Seattle after being acquitted of Meredith Kercher’s murder in Italy
Amanda Knox, acquitted of murdering Meredith Kercher in Perugia, Italy, makes an emotional speech to the world’s press at Seattle airport, where she has arrived home
Meredith Kercher’s family express bewilderment and frustration over decision to acquit Knox and Raffaele Sollecito of her murder
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