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When There Are No Good Guys

February 2, 2014

I’ve been studying the Amanda Knox case recently. According to the prosecution, she and two men attacked her housemate, raping and killing her. One of the men was a known burglar who carried a knife and had threatened burglary victims with it on at least one occasion. This man left traces of his DNA inside the victim’s body and on the victim’s body and in the victim’s room along with bloody handprints and footprints and fled to Germany after the murder where he was caught.

Amanda and her boyfriend, Raffaele, supposedly helped this man kill Amanda’s housemate but left no DNA or other physical evidence at the scene. They returned to the house the morning after the murder and called police who broke down the door to the victim’s bedroom and discovered the body and a grisly scene. The prosecution says all three participated in the rape and murder, but Amanda and Raffaele removed their DNA and other traces while leaving an avalanche of forensic evidence implicating the known burglar.

The prosecution did not explain exactly how Amanda and Raffaele accomplished the selective forensic sanitization, but they did leak to the press a photo of the bathroom in Amanda’s house which, in the course of the investigation, had been treated with a chemical that made all the walls pink. It looked like blood was everywhere. Everyone following the case knew that Amanda had returned home from her boyfriend’s house the morning after the murder and, with the the victim still lying undiscovered behind a locked door, had taken a shower. So the photo with the blood seemingly everywhere made it look like Amanda had psychotically showered in a blood-drenched bathroom that would terrify any normal person. She had not of course, but the photo played well for the tabloids.

Jurors in Italy aren’t sequestered.

The prosecution also hired as consultant the chief of the forensics lab that was analyzing the physical evidence for the case. Dr. Renato Biondi was in charge of the lab and it was one of his subordinates, Dr. Patrizia Stefanoni, doing the analysis. This is legal in Italy since it is assumed the analysis will be done objectively.

Police had removed a knife from Amanda’s boyfriend’s kitchen that they thought looked very clean and that looked about the right size to have been the murder weapon. Of course, this knife had Amanda’s DNA on it since she used these utensils. Using shockingly sloppy techniques not in accord with any known standard of practice, Stefanoni managed to get a positive result despite the fact that the amount of DNA initially on the knife was too low to be measured prior to the magnification step carried out by the lab in which even a few cells-worth of DNA can be turned into enough material to analyze using something called a “polymerase chain reaction.” A random knife from a random person’s apartment would probably also have yielded a positive result, but the lab did not perform this routine control procedure.

The court, in its wisdom, ordered the test repeated by an independent lab in Rome. The second test found no blood on the alleged murder weapon, no DNA from the victim, no traces whatsoever from the victim, but they did verify that Amanda had handled that particular knife. The second lab took the trouble to carefully list all the departures from internationally accepted forensic procedures taken by the first lab.

The knife is still part of the evidence in the case. The jurors have access to all of the scientific back-and-forth between the two labs.

Let’s move on to the rest of the prosecution’s case.

Before Amanda’s arrest, she was interrogated all night long by a half-dozen or more police who (she says) yelled and threatened and hit until she implicated both her boss and herself. Her confession was ruled inadmissible because police had not recorded the interrogation, but she was charged with and convicted of slander for implicating an innocent man. Police later explained that they did not record the interrogation and confession because they were initially questioning Amanda as a witness and witness interviews need not be recorded under Italian law.

Of course, all jurors know all about the improperly-obtained confession even though it is not part of the court proceeding.

Let us summarize the prosecution’s case: we have a theory of a clean up that may be termed surprisingly adept, we have leaked photographs that spiced things up for the tabloids, we have an unrepeatable positive lab test on a knife from Raffaele’s kitchen. The prosecution says the second lab found nothing on the knife only because there was so little of the victim’s DNA present that it was used up during the first testing procedure. They also say the internationally recognized testing procedures that were not followed are just technicalities, so, they say, the knife should be considered damning evidence.

The prosecution also says Amanda acted like a guilty person trying to shift the blame when she fingered her boss in the wee hours of the morning while being interviewed/interrogated. Since the conversation wasn’t recorded, we don’t know exactly how she came to implicate her boss and also confess to being present at the scene of the crime. Amanda claims police told her what they wanted her to say and she eventually said it, but this cannot be verified or refuted because the interrogation wasn’t recorded (this is why unrecorded interrogations of suspects are illegal in Italy).

Looking at the prosecution’s argument, there is (obviously) no need for a defense.

We have a trial in which the accused, the defense, the prosecution, and the judge all know there is no case. It’s just a question of how gullible and/or ill-informed and/or unscientific and/or susceptible to tabloid journalism the jurors are. In an Italian courtroom, you need only a majority and it’s important (obviously) to have the press on your side.

The really scary part is this is a story with no good guys. If you look at the courtroom in Italy, it’s just the bad guys and their victims. My guess is the successful prosecutors, the subordinate in the testing lab, the respected judges, the rapt tabloid journalists, and the hard-working police all sleep pretty well each night.

I’m not a fire and brimstone kind of guy, but I can’t help hoping and praying that there is, in fact, a Hell and a devil and the eternal fires and the whole damn thing.

In case you didn’t know, Amanda and Raffaele were convicted and served 4 years before the conviction was overturned. Recently, another court declared them guilty again. Amanda is relatively safe in Seattle. Raffaele is in Italy and may go back to jail.

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From → Amanda Knox

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