A Deadly Year in Italy Exchange Student Murder Trial to Begin

A trial set to begin in the Italian city of Perugia revolves around a brutal murder committed in the seemingly idyllic milieu of language schools and exchange students. The case surrounding the slaying of 21-year-old Meredith Kercher has rocked Italy like few other crimes.

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.

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