This Friday, what promises to be the trial of the year opens in a high court in Perugia, Italy. It's one of the most salacious murder cases ever, and it has rocked Italy for more than a year now. It's not the titillating circumstances -- the fact that it involves attractive and upwardly mobile college students with faces that could be mistaken for Bellini's Madonnas or that sex and drugs were part of the mix -- that has upset people. Their consternation stems from the fact that this murder was beyond rational explanation.
So far, no motive has been uncovered in the murder, committed in the university city of Perugia in Italy's central Umbria region. There is no murder weapon or confession, nor are there any star witnesses. There is only the simple circumstance of a dead body, found at approximately 1:00 p.m. on Nov. 2, 2007. The legs of the corpse were found spread apart, a bloody T-shirt pushed up over the woman's breasts, her head, with the eyes fixed in a rigid gaze, turned to the left, her tongue bone broken and her neck bisected by a deep and long gash.
The victim, Meredith Kercher, who grew up in Coulsdon, England, was 21 at the time of her death. She had completed six semesters of European Studies at the University of Leeds, and she had been registered for several weeks at the University for Foreigners of Perugia. She lived in a student apartment at Via della Pergola No. 7 -- the scene of the crime, just below the university and with a view of the Umbrian mountains.
As the trial opens this week, the country will be looking on in fascination -- as if it were gazing into an abyss.
Perugia is a city straight out of an Italian picture book, complete with arches, stairways and twisting alleys. The wedding ring of the Virgin Mary is kept in the cathedral. Otherwise, there is nothing unusual about the city, except that disposable syringes are kept just behind the cash register in the pharmacy next to the courthouse, and that many customers ask for them and then quickly leave the pharmacy, without so much as a smile or a goodbye. In fact, Perugia has the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of drug-related deaths among Italian cities.
Perugia is a prime destination for those eager to learn the language of Dante and pop star Eros Ramazzotti, complete with the corresponding gestures. One of them was Meredith Kercher, the daughter of a music journalist from southern England, and a participant in Europe's Erasmus university exchange program. She was a fast learner. But she had hardly had the chance to learn the language before she was found dead.
It's easy to meet people in the city's bars and nightclubs, or on its public squares -- just as easy as it is to disappear, because Perugia is a city full of young foreigners who often leave as quickly as they come. The perpetrators of the "Black September" terrorist attacks at the 1972 Munich Olympics prepared for their mission in the city. And Ali Agca learned his first bits of Italian here before shooting the pope in 1981. It was also temporarily home to Amanda Knox.
Knox, a 21-year-old who has the looks of an all-American girl, is lively and outgoing, cheerful and articulate. She reads "Harry Potter" and sings Beatles songs while playing the guitar. In Seattle, where she grew up, 21 is the legal drinking age. But Perugia is different, a mixed zone of small-time dealers and affluent families, Erasmus students, the future elite and "Punkabestia" -- punks with dogs.
There are no parents and no relatives to worry about, just endless amounts of time and crowds of people who are all in the same position and are unlikely to ever see each other again. The beautiful American knew how she could cast a spell on men. She enjoyed it and even kept records of her first affairs. Perugia spelled freedom, and anything seemed possible there.
Amanda Knox and Meredith Kercher shared a student apartment on Via della Pergola with two other women. Knox claims she was the first to notice that something wasn't right on the morning of Nov. 2, 2007. Knox and her boyfriend at the time, Raffaele Sollecito, are now the main suspects in the Perugia murder trial.
A neighbor had found Kercher's mobile phone under a tree and contacted the police. By the time officers rang the doorbell at 12:35 p.m., Knox had already notified a roommate and two friends. Together, they broke down the door to Kercher's room. The two other women living in the apartment had gone away on holiday.
Knox told police she had spent the night at Sollecito's apartment and had not returned until that morning. The bloody towel in the bathroom had not struck her as especially noteworthy, she said, or even the fact that the door of the building was open when she arrived. She told police that she had showered and washed her hair, as always.
The investigators noticed that all of the rooms had apparently been scrubbed with concentrated cleaning agent after the murder. They were even more surprised that none of Knox's fingerprints could be found in the apartment, despite the fact that she lived there.
Sollecito, 24, told police that he had spent the night at home, in front of his computer, and that Knox was with him. He comes from a good family in Apulia, he was an exchange student in Munich as part of the Erasmus program and he was studying to become a software engineer.
"You get to know many people from all over the world," Sollecito wrote in his blog, "and in the end you spend every second of the day in a circle of meeting points and places where you can have fun. You say no one, two or three times, but then you stop, and already you are in the game of 'fancazzismo'" -- which roughly translates as "general lunacy."
Knox says she liked Sollecito because his glasses made him look like Harry Potter. They met at a classical music concert and were in bed together after only two hours. From then on, they were inseparable, making love, smoking, drinking and constantly talking.
Friends were surprised by the behavior displayed by the couple shortly after the crime. "They were in no way upset by the death of their friend, and they were constantly whispering sweet nothings into each other's ears," says one of the friends. They had even bought lingerie and talked about the next night, as if nothing had happened. Knox talked about the details of Kercher's death as if she had thought about them carefully. "She bled to death very slowly," Knox said.
'Attracted to Violence'
The police found a kitchen knife in Sollecito's apartment with traces of the DNA of Knox and Kercher on the handle. The medical examiners wrote, very carefully, that the knife was "incompatible" with the murder weapon. But the police also found the imprint of a Nike athletic shoe that could have belonged to Sollecito in the blood in Kercher's room. It also turned out that Knox's and Sollecito's computers and mobile phones had been switched off at the time of the murder.
Knox was questioned again, this time for several hours, without an attorney and without an interpreter. Then she said: "C'ero" -- I was there, at the time and scene of the crime. Yes, she said, she had heard screams coming from Kercher's room, but she had covered her ears. She told police it was a black man -- Patrick L., the owner of a bar called Le Chic, where she occasionally worked as a barmaid. The 38-year-old, a Reggae musician known around the city, was locked up on murder charges on Nov. 5, 2007, together with Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito.
But unlike Knox and Sollecito, Patrick L. had an alibi and was released after 10 days.
Knox lied, but why? She claimed police had pressured her and insisted she was innocent.
Since then, she has claimed that she smoked marijuana with Sollecito that night, and that the two showered together. But Sollecito now claims that Knox left his apartment at about 9 p.m. Their statements are now contradictory, and they are no longer a couple.
The tape from a video surveillance camera in the parking lot across the street shows that Knox entered the building shortly before the murder. But traces of Sollecito's DNA were also found on the victim's bra. A neighbor claims that she heard a terrible scream, followed by the steps of people running away. Another witness has testified that he saw Knox near the building, together with Sollecito and another man.
That man was soon identified. Someone had forgotten to flush the toilet in the bathroom of Kercher's apartment. This would prove to be disastrous for Rudy Guede, a minor drug dealer, now 22, who came to Perugia from the Ivory Coast as a child. His DNA was found in the toilet bowl. Traces of sperm on the body of the victim also matched his DNA. On Nov. 20, Guede was arrested at the train station in the western German city of Koblenz. He knew Kercher and Knox from the clubs and had been to their apartment once or twice. He claimed that he had had a hooked up with Kercher, and that he was sitting on the toilet when the murder happened.
Guede said that the murderer was an Italian, and that when he came out of the bathroom with his trousers still undone, the Italian injured him with a knife and called out: "Negro found, guilty found." Guede claimed he then ran out of the house to get help. He insisted he wasn't the murderer.
Guede knew he didn't stand a chance in court, even if the medical examiners were unable to determine conclusively that the victim was raped. His lawyers advised him to agree to a "fast-track" trial to avoid a life sentence. In Italian jurisprudence a life sentence can in fact be just that. Guede agreed. On Oct. 29, 2008, he was sentenced, in a trial closed to the public, to 30 years in prison for murder and the use of sexual violence. It was a trial based on circumstantial evidence. To this day, Guede says that he did not kill Kercher.
"She falls to the ground, tastes the blood on her mouth and swallows it. She could no longer move her lower jaw, and it felt as if someone were moving a blade in front of the left side of her face." This could have been a description of the way Meredith Kercher died, but instead these are sentences from Knox's diary. As an exercise in a creative writing class, she imagined how two brothers, high on drugs, raped and stabbed a girl.
Why was Kercher killed? Was it an accident, a sexual game gone out of control? Was it revenge, a Satanic act, a crime stemming from excessive drug use, as in the case of the Sharon Tate murder in 1969? The police analyzed the hard drives of Sollecito's and Knox's computers, studied their Internet blogs and leafed through Sollecito's manga comics collection. According to the investigation files, Sollecito has a penchant for violent pornography and horror films, as well as knives and the morbid punk music of Marilyn Manson. He seemed withdrawn and was deeply affected by the death of his mother.
But these things are perfectly normal. His regular use of marijuana was also not unusual. Most of the students in Perugia smoke pot when they socialize.
On his Facebook and MySpace pages, Sollecito describes himself as "honest, peaceful, sweet, but sometimes completely crazy." Knox calls herself "Foxy Knoxy" and appears in a video in which she is drunk, as well as in a photo depicting her holding a toy weapon.
But in the free for all that is cyberspace, that doesn't even seem alarming. Nevertheless, when the magistrate extended the pretrial detention at an arraignment hearing shortly before Christmas 2007, he described Knox as having "a multilayered personality, naive and cunning at the same time," and Sollecito as being "attracted to violence," immature and uninhibited. His description reflected the age-old bias against unrestrained young people left to their own devices.
Amanda Knox's father, Curt Knox, is a controller at the Macy's department store chain, and his wife is a teacher in Seattle. "My daughter is 100 percent innocent," he says. Knox's parents have been traveling back and forth between Seattle and Perugia for the past year. They used to love Italy, her mother says.
All requests to have the pretrial detention changed to house arrest were denied. For Paolo Micheli, the examining magistrate, there is no doubt that Knox, Sollecito and Guede were at the scene of the crime together, presumably to force Kercher to participate in a sexual game. Micheli believes that the men held her down while Knox applied the knife. These are the allegations that will be raised in the second trial.
After the crime was committed, Micheli alleges, the three tried to portray the murder as the result of a burglary, cleaned the apartment and broke a window. The DNA evidence found at the scene, "logic and common sense" are sufficient evidence, writes the judge. He believes that there is a risk that Knox will attempt to flee because of her American citizenship. He is also convinced, as he writes in his 17-page grounds for rejecting the requests to change the pretrial detention to house arrest that she is "prepared to kill again."
Knox is being held in the Capanne provincial prison. She has no explanation for the evidence against her. "I know that I didn't kill Meredith," she says.
She tries to believe that nothing has changed. She spends her time reading, singing and learning languages. She already speaks Italian fluently. And she writes in her diary. Her words read like attempts to find a story that will make everyone happy. She writes: "The truth is that I no longer know what the truth is."