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Victim, Vixen, Villain

6 minute read
Nina Burleigh

When I first laid eyes on Amanda Knox, she was the star of an eerie pageant, surrounded by clicking cameras, wearing a pale blouse and walking into a Perugia courtroom on a summer morning in 2009. She proceeded to spend the next two days testifying in her own defense. She spoke confidently in Italian and held up under questioning, but at times she seemed a bit tone-deaf, especially on the subject of her dead roommate, at one point saying, “I am trying to get on with my life,” when asked how she felt about her after the murder. I could see in those moments what the colpevolisti (those who think she is guilty) saw: the aloof and icy Foxy Knoxy who, in their eyes, has now gotten away with the 2007 murder of British student Meredith Kercher.

Knox’s appearance at Sea-Tac airport in Seattle on Oct. 4, the day after an Italian appeals court overturned her 2009 conviction, was of an entirely different tenor. Warbling and tearful, she thanked the supporters who believed in her innocence all along and half-collapsed back into her chair. Which is the real Amanda Knox?

In 10 months of reporting on the case in Italy for a book, I found that the answer seems to depend almost entirely on what passport you hold. In the U.S., Knox is the victim of a foreign judicial system gone awry. She is the Seattle girl with a penchant for doodling peace signs and hearts on letters and journals in jail, wrongly sentenced to 26 years in prison in December 2009. Her family, from suburban Seattle, got sympathy in the U.S., where television producers vied to get them on morning talk shows. But they never made their point with Italian and British people, whose response to the turn of events–judging from online commentary–has ranged from mystification to fury.

The case certainly revealed ugly stereotypes of Americans held by people abroad. Chief among them was the assumption of American racism, with the white-woman-blaming-the-black-man trope reiterated in the prosecutor’s closing arguments. (Knox at one point implicated her employer, a Congolese bar owner, under pressure from the police, she says.) Others came into play as well. A Perugia feminist told me Knox reminded her of the female Army private involved in the Abu Ghraib torture pictures. There was also a whiff of class bias, as the more formal British and Italians judged the attire of the Knox family–women in shorts in summer and men in baseball caps. They did not approve.

In Britain, Kercher’s homeland, Knox is the American-exchange-student version of Casey Anthony. Members of Kercher’s grieving family have made it clear that they believe Knox participated in killing her, and they are upset by the appellate verdict. “For us, it feels very much like back to square one,” said the victim’s brother Lyle afterward. Some British observers are barely able to contain their revulsion for the exaggerations of Knox’s supporters, like this one from one of her Seattle defenders, lawyer Anne Bremner: “Amanda is what she is–a pure girl scrubbed in sunshine.”

I encountered similar over-the-top defensiveness in my reporting of the case–the insistence, for example, of some of her supporters that Knox never tried drugs (definitely not seconded by friends of hers I interviewed, who spoke of occasional marijuana use). These inconsistencies gave rise to a sense that her friends were creating a false person. The British could imagine only one reason for that: they must have had something terrible to hide.

Americans understand that the Knoxes woke up one day to find television trucks parked outside their houses and had to figure out what to do. The family kept silent just long enough for the journalists in Europe, led by the British pack, to scour the Internet for leads. They found Knox’s Web page, on which she had posted exercises in short-story writing, one of which involved a rape and self-cutting. It was not difficult then to create the Foxy Knoxy persona, a perfect fit for the prosecution’s sensationalist theories.

Italy’s response to the Knox phenomenon says more about gender politics and media culture circa 2009 than about whatever happened in the house on the edge of Perugia’s picturesque centro district the night after Halloween 2007.

One of the strangest aspects of the case was the way the Italian prosecutor, journalists and the Italian public seemed resistant to the simplest explanation of the crime: a robbery gone wrong, committed by the man already convicted of the murder, Rudy Guede, who was born in Ivory Coast and eventually raised by a Perugia family. Almost two years after the murder, I was only the second journalist out of a pack of dozens to go to Milan to follow an important thread on Guede, the third person–after Knox and her Italian ex-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito–convicted of murder in the case and now serving a 16-year sentence. I spoke to the owner of a nursery school where, the week before the murder, Guede was found with a knife and a computer stolen from a Perugia law office in his backpack. The police took the knife and computer and let him go.

No one had ever put much effort into trying to understand this young man’s troubled psyche, his sleepwalking, his fugue states, let alone understand how the crime scene at the house resembled other episodes involving Guede. Instead he was treated as though invisible–a reflection perhaps of Italy’s attitude in general toward immigrants.

Even after Guede’s conviction, prosecutors and the public believed that Knox and Sollecito (whose conviction was overturned with hers) took part in the murder with him. The Italian affinity for conspiracy theories didn’t help. Dietrology–literally behind-ology–is a national intellectual sport that examines controversies and sees plots everywhere. When I met Giuliano Mignini, the prosecutor in the case, to talk about the Kercher murder, he often preferred to talk about a broader conspiracy involving Masons and Florentine judges. In one interview he lectured me about the naivet of Americans who don’t believe Kennedy assassination conspiracies. “Why do they call it a conspiracy theory?” Mignini asked. “Why are they called conspiracy theories? Caesar was killed by more than 20 senators. Is that a conspiracy theory? It’s normal that people work together.”

What’s next for Knox? Officially exonerated in Italy, she now embarks on the rest of her life in the U.S. as a free, if tainted, woman. While in prison, according to her family, she filled thousands of pages with writing, and those boxed-up journals preceded her home. It is only a matter of time before she publishes her own version of her Italian misadventure–a story in her own words, which will nonetheless be read differently in three nations.

Burleigh is the author of The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox (Broadway, 2011)

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