Amanda Knox and the Public Fascination with Homicide
In December 2009 the entire world, and most especially the Italian and American portions of the world, became engrossed with the murder trial of Amanda Knox (and to a much lesser extent, the trial of Raffaele Sollecito, her boyfriend and co-defendant, and the death of Meredith Kercher, the victim).
I once bought a set of vintage American newspapers from the 1860’s. When my friends and I looked over them, the thing that most fascinated us was the ubiquity of homicide reportage. Since newspapers were invented, nothing has sold newspapers like murder, except for murder trials.
Back in the high-crime 1980s, I used to greet a New York friend, whom I would catch reading the New York Post, with this question: “Any good murders today?”
Murder is the most ancient of stories. Cain murdered Abel. Oedipus murdered his dad. Arjuna didn’t want to murder his cousins, but Krishna told him not to over-stress. O.J. murdered Nicole. Read the most famous folk tales, such as those of the Brothers Grimm – they are filled with grisly manslaughter.
Evolutionary biology suggests that humans are born with a murderous streak, and so it is wise to pay attention to the ways in which our fellows may be murderous, as well. Chimpanzees, our evolutionary cousins, are notoriously violent. Deliberate murder, not to mention the organization of murderous raiding parties, appears to be common amongst chimps. Hunter-gatherers, our evolutionary ancestors, also appear to have killed each other at frightening rates (see, e.g., David Buss’s “Why We Kill”).
It would make sense for humans to have acquired an innate fascination with stories having to do with human violence – ever since the invention of speech, listening to stories of violence has been one of the best ways to avoid being murdered yourself.
50,000 years B.C.E.: “Yorp just hit me on the head with a big rock!” says one of your cave man friends, moaning and holding his bleeding noggin. Next time you see Yorp strolling over, suspiciously holding a big rock, you high-tail it in the other direction. You live to tell the tale. It is a tale of violence, full of sound and fury, and others listen attentively.
Trials add the additional spice of a mystery behind the murder -- and of a profound difference in opinion as to who the murderer is. When you add to this volatile mixture a few choice catalysts, such as allegations of kinky sex, a wealthy or beautiful defendant, or a flamboyant prosecutor, then…Voila, you have murder-tainment, one of the world’s fundamental media commodities.
Eventually I expect CNN’s Nancy Grace to expand her raging murder-philia into an entire network devoted to homicide. Until then, we will have to make do with seven daily versions of “CSI” and three of “Law and Order”.
Now, is Amanda guilty?
First point: we really shouldn’t have an opinion, actually (especially us Americans). The rational thing to do would be to suspend judgment. The case is too murky and complex for anyone to make up their minds as the result of a few television specials or blog articles – yet most of us do, and I will as well (it’s human).
If I had to bet, I would guess that Amanda is not guilty. My reasoning is simply that it’s hard for me to imagine three people getting together to murder a roommate. I don’t see it. I know that weird things happen, but I don’t like to accept a weird answer when a more ordinary and plausible answer is right at hand.
The prosaic and likely explanation, to my mind, goes like this: Rudy Guede (already convicted), the co-defendant from the Ivory Coast, was hanging out and flirting with Meredith Kercher. At some point he started coming on heavy with her and when she resisted, he began to rape her. He used a knife to subdue her and went too far. Somehow, he had her pinned in such a way that she was unable to scratch him (unusually, no hair or skin was found under her nails).
Cognizant of his guilt, Rudy fled the scene without even bothering to flush the toilet. Next, he fled the country, and was caught in Germany. His guilt seems fairly likely.
Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito say they spent that night at Raffaele's house. The world press has ceaselessly reminded us that they had sex and smoked pot, as if either of these facts were relevant. The next day Amanda returned to discover Meredith’s corpse. She and Raffaele panicked. They called the police but immediately began to fear that they would be suspects, so they quickly began to concoct alibis. That was a big mistake.
Under intense interrogation, Amanda broke down and confessed to a crime she hadn't committed, as people are well-known to do under intense pressure, then changed her story and implicated the owner of the bar where she worked. As a young and immature person accused of murder in a foreign country, she soon unraveled psychologically. Doing cartwheels in a police station was her way of trying to stay sane in an insane situation. Regrettably, that was another big mistake.
After a year in prison waiting for trial, Amanda became somewhat unhinged. When she appeared at trial, she tried to keep her spirits up by smiling a lot. That was another huge mistake.
She was confronted by an absurdly inquisitorial prosecutor who is himself under indictment and is the subject of a scathing portrait in the book “The Monster of Venice.”
The prosecutor's theory of the case was that, alternatively, it was part of a satanic ritual or it was a sadistic sex-game gone awry (he seems to have had a particular fascination with satanic rituals, and has used them before as his theory of a crime; but then, to be fair, maybe there are more satanic cults in Italy than one would expect). The prosecutor considered it supporting evidence that the defendants had been under the influence of “drugs.” They had smoked weed! It seems marijuana makes you murder people, as the movie Reefer Madness so hilariously established.
I cannot fathom the prosecutor's arguments concerning DNA evidence, though apparently it was convincing to the jury. Apparently, DNA evidence was found on Meredith’s bra and on the murder weapon, a knife. But since Meredith and Amanda lived together, it seems rather likely, and therefore not very probative of murder, that Amanda’s DNA was all over the place. After all, she lived there.
Another anomaly, to my mind, is the fact that Rudy Guede's feces were found in the toilet the next day. That means that Amanda and Raffaele helped Rudy rape and murder Meredith, and that they did so without themselves being scraped or scratched, and that they then spent the whole night and next morning cleaning up the crime scene without moving or touching the corpse. I don't understand how two people who themselves would ordinarily be shitting bricks, as my youthful friends used to say (meaning, terrified), could spend the whole night and morning cleaning up a murder scene and yet leave un-flushed feces in the toilet. They cleaned the whole house meticulously but didn't flush the toilet? The two committed a murder and then didn't use the toilet themselves whole night long, or even the next morning? Not even to pee? Strange.
In the end, in the prosecution’s favor we can count the following evidence: the defendants initially lied and then lied again; they acted strange under interrogation; they smiled in court; their DNA was found in places where they lived; they were the kind of evil kids who have sex and smoke pot and don’t get along with their roommates.
In Amanda and Raffaele’s favor, we have this: the prosecution’s theory of the case is utterly bizarre and rather unbelievable; the evidence is totally circumstantial; and there is an extremely plausible alternative explanation, that Rudy Guede murdered Meredith on his own, which is the way that virtually all rape-murders are committed. If one could find statistics for rape-murders committed by lone male assailants with criminal records, as compared to rape-murders committed by young couples with no criminal records, I suspect the ratio would be enormously high. It is not that hard to imagine an unstable young man becoming sexually frustrated and committing a rape-murder. It is, on the other hard, rather hard to imagine that a cherubic young Italian man from a privileged family would suggest to his girlfriend, "Hey, let's get together and help this drug dealer murder your roommate. That'll be cool."
As the sports announcers never let us forget, it’s never over till the fat lady sings, a saying particularly appropriate in the Italian context. Italy is the nation of the improbable. Anything can happen, even an acquittal on appeal. The case isn’t over yet. There are still more newspapers to sell.
As a parting prediction, I offer this whimsy. Berlusconi is a friend of America. He loves Obama. Berlusconi knows a lot of people in Italy. He’s rather well-connected. He will make some calls, (very discreetly, of course, considering his own substantial legal embarrassments). Italy and American can’t afford to hate each other. Subtle diplomacy will work subtly behind the scenes.
On appeal, the length of Amanda’s sentence will be reduced. After she has begun to serve the sentence, it will be reduced again, quite mysteriously and generously, once her name has fallen out of the newspapers and the world has moved on to its next celebrity murder. She will be free again in her thirties, maybe even her twenties.
Looking on the bright side, Amanda went to Italy to learn Italian. When she finally comes home, she will know it all too well.