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Down the Rabbit Hole with Amanda Knox: Forsaking Legal Shangri-la

In polite society, we are supposed to presume an accused person is innocent and piously lay the burden of proof squarely upon the shoulders of the prosecution. Few of us actually do that, however, when evaluating a case. How can we? Even as members of a jury, it is difficult or perhaps even impossible for human beings to avoid saying to themselves, “Suppose she’s guilty, what would that look like?”

“Innocent until proven guilty” is legal Shangri-la, a perfect world that even the most disciplined juror is likely to depart from at some point, perhaps fleetingly, but more likely for a modest interval. Let us do that here, openly, with the Amanda Knox case. Let us admit that part of anyone’s decision process must be to assume guilt and see where it leads.

Amanda Knox was Meredith Kercher’s housemate and does not have an airtight alibi. Thus, she may have murdered Ms. Kercher and we will assume she did just that. She had means if her boyfriend (Raffaele Sollecito) and Rudy Guede were willing to help her as the prosecution theorized. Knox did not have an identifiable motive unless there was something going on between her and Meredith that no one knew about, which is of course possible. She certainly had plenty of opportunity as Meredith was home alone on 1 November 2007 and Knox was close by with keys to the house.

Means? Maybe. Motive? No. Opportunity? Yes.

The first hurdle we must cross with our presumption of guilt is Rudy Guede. A drifter/burglar, Guede was present in the room when Kercher died; he fled to Germany the next day after spending time at a dance club the night of the murder. On the run in Germany, short of cash and sleeping on trains, he spoke to his friend via Skype and described the events that caused him to literally have Meredith’s blood on his hands. He first told his friend that he wasn’t in the house at all, but then said he was there and had been making out with a willing Kercher when he left her briefly to go to the bathroom. He heard the doorbell ring and then heard Kercher scream at which point he left the bathroom, fought with her assailant – a man slightly shorter than himself who insulted him in Italian and then ran off – and finally tried to save Meredith who was bleeding to death. He said Knox was not there and indicated he didn’t know who Sollecito was – by this time, both were in jail. Guede also said that Meredith had complained to him of missing money and, at the same time, told him she had quarreled with Amanda. There is no evidence Kercher had any prior association with Guede.

The police heard every word of the Skype conversation.

Since we assume Knox was present at the murder scene, it must be the case that Guede was purposely concealing her participation. Based on his conversation with his friend, he seemed to be trying to make it look like Amanda was innocent of the murder, but guilty of stealing Meredith’s money. Guede of course is not a reliable witness: he had been arrested for burglary a week before but had been released, he was implicated by hard evidence in two other burglaries, and he almost certainly murdered Kercher. Since we don’t have any reason to trust him – he dramatically changes his story even during the brief conversation with his friend – we are free to discount his statements and to assume Knox and Guede are guilty.

However, Guede’s claim that Amanda was not there is bolstered by the physical evidence. Quarts of Meredith Kercher’s blood were spilled in the room. Guede himself was covered in blood: he left bloody handprints and bloody footprints in multiple places in the room. He also left DNA traces on the victim’s clothing and on her purse and inside her body. Knox lived in the house, but there was no trace of her in Kercher’s room at all: no DNA; no handprints, gloved or otherwise; no footprints; nothing. (Small footprints that could have belonged to Amanda or to her housemates were found using luminol, but these tested negative for blood.)

So we have one unreliable witness as well as missing physical evidence indicating Knox was NOT present at the crime scene. But she may still have been there. We can say that in addition to being willing to kill for no apparent reason and being surprisingly persuasive, Amanda Knox was also extraordinarily cautious: she undoubtedly wore gloves (probably multiple layers) and seems to have convinced Guede to lie for her during any phone conversations he might have after the murder.

And Ms. Knox was exceptionally well informed. She apparently knew Guede’s MO for breaking and entering and attempted to duplicate his usual entry method by breaking her other housemate’s window (Filomena’s) with a rock. Thus, she set up a scene that looked a lot like something the Perugia cops were rather familiar with – a Guede break-in. It was good enough to hoodwink the second jury who acquitted her and allowed her to walk away after serving 4 years in prison (Knox returned to Seattle in 2011). Her handiwork, though well done, was not sufficiently professional to fool the first and third juries who saw through it and convicted her not only of the murder but also of staging a crime scene.

Our presumption of guilt remains intact although it does now depend upon Knox having some unusual abilities and knowledge. One last hurdle remains.

After committing what was almost the crime of the century, a dangerously-persuasive, glove-wearing, burglary-scene-staging, no-motive-needed murderess made an interesting pair of decisions that are somewhat troubling: first, she retained no lawyer; second, she offered the police her full, unreserved cooperation. Her two surviving housemates hired lawyers immediately, made statements with their lawyers present, and went home. Ms. Knox chose instead to spend all night at the police station the same day her victim’s body was discovered.

Our presumed guilty case must now be reconciled with this behavior. In the days after the murder, Knox spent 20-40 hours (accounts vary) at the police station frequently repeating her claim that she was at her boyfriend’s house the night of the murder, but finally broke down sometime after midnight on the fourth day and admitted she was present at her house while her housemate was being raped and murdered. Unfortunately, her statements are filled with uncertainty and, of even more concern, she got the details wrong. This presents us with our most intransigent problem thus far.

Here are excerpts from her two statements, taken down by police in Italian and later translated into English. One statement was signed by Knox at 1:45 am and the other at 5:45 am on 6 November 2007.

I felt confused . . . 
I do not recall whether Meredith was there or arrived afterward . . .
I struggle to remember these moments . . .
I do not recall whether Meredith had been threatened beforehand . . .
I recall confusedly that he
[P. Lumumba] killed her . . .

I am very confused in my head . . .
I heard Meredith screaming . . .
I don’t recall whether Meredith was screaming . . .
I imagined what could have happened . . .
When I woke up . . . I was in bed with my boyfriend.

Patrick Lumumba, a bar owner, was Amanda’s boss and was, as usual, at his bar making his living; he raped no one, murdered no one.

Normally, “breaking” a suspect and getting a load of garbage for your trouble is very bad news. In fact, police usually withhold some details from the press hoping to hear them related by the suspect: a confession containing unpublicized details is rock solid, unshakeable. Knox’s confession was, from this standpoint, a disaster: A bizarre fairy tale, it was every bit as accurate as a wild guess.

Knox’s cooperative behavior and fabricated confession need not derail our presumption of guilt, however. Consider the following: “The naiveté was pretense; in reality, she was a daring young woman, overconfident and arrogant, eager to play cat and mouse with police interrogators. When they finally broke her, she gave them nothing but nonsense as a ruse in a last-ditch effort to save herself.”

In fact, Knox’s claim that Lumumba murdered her housemate was itself a crime (calumny) for which she would later be convicted. As for the interrogation, we do have to admit no lawyer was present which made it technically inadmissible in the murder trial. But this changes nothing. We remain free to assume what many say is obvious: she was lying about Lumumba but telling the truth about watching her housemate die.

How is our “house of guilt” doing? We’ve constructed it assiduously; however, the support beams do appear to be a trifle weak. We would be much happier if Knox had mentioned Guede in her early morning breakdown (even police didn’t know about him at that time) or if she had left some DNA on Meredith’s body or if Guede had told his friend she was the ringleader.

Unfortunately, as it stands, it wouldn’t take much of a temblor to bring our presumption of guilt down upon our heads. In Italy, by the way, if there happens to be an earthquake and if, God forbid, your house should fall on you and kill you, your family can actually charge seismologists with a crime. The seismologists might even get prison sentences. (Yes, really.) Now suppose our house of guilt should collapse. You will be crushed, rhetorically, but you will have no legal recourse, even in Italy. Thus, I am bound to remind you in the most emphatic possible way, you can walk out of this little house we’ve built any time. Please remember, earthquakes of all kinds are quite common in Italy. I’m just saying.

Let’s get back to the story. It is difficult to fathom the reasons for Lumumba’s arrest. The night of the murder, he was – surprise! – pouring drinks for customers. Knox told police he had texted her telling her not to come in as it was a slow night.

But in the 1:45 am statement – written by police in Italian and signed by Knox – Knox changed her story:

I received a message on my cellular phone from Patrik, who told me that the premises would remain closed that evening, because there were no customers, and thus I would not need to go to work. I responded to the message by telling him that we would see each other at once; I then left the house, telling my boyfriend I had to go to work.  

Police might have wondered how Knox got it into her pretty little head that this popular, gentle, family man, who had been living and working peacefully in Perugia for many years, had killed Meredith. “What are you smoking, Ms. Knox?” was one possible response. They could have brought Lumumba in for questioning and verified his alibi. They didn’t.

Virtually the moment the exhausted college kid “remembered” leaving her boyfriend’s house, meeting her boss, and sitting in her kitchen while Patrick raped and murdered her housemate who may or may not have been screaming, police arrested the nonplussed Lumumba.

They held the law-abiding businessman for two media-filled weeks with the result that his business shut down permanently; years have passed and he still has not been able to re-open his bar. Later, police indicated they were shocked, shocked to find out he was serving customers when Meredith was murdered.

No one knows what they were thinking. I can feel the ground shaking.

Amanda Knox has repeatedly claimed she was heavily pressured by police interrogators and told exactly what she was supposed to “remember.” According to Knox, the Lumumba-dunnit squad came up with their own nonsensical narrative and forced it on the one surviving housemate who hadn’t hired a lawyer. Perhaps she’s lying.

It’s too bad the interrogation wasn’t recorded. Police recorded every one of Knox’s cell phone calls starting 3 November, but unfortunately neglected to record the interrogation. The lead prosecutor, a man by the name of Giuliano Mignini, explained why in a CNN interview: Perugia’s police had “significant budget problems,” he said.

No one has ever calculated the total amount of money spent investigating the Knox case, so we can’t  compare it to the estimated cost of establishing a colony on Mars or to the value of the gold in Fort Knox. We can only say they spent lavishly. In addition to the phone taps, police were recording Amanda and Raffaele as they conversed alone in the waiting room. Later, they recorded conversations on prison phones as well as almost forty thousand calls made by Sollecito’s family members over a multi-year period. But there was not enough money to record the interrogation. Another decision in the difficult to fathom category.

The air of mystery surrounding the behavior of Perugia’s police is becoming a dense fog. The windows are rattling.

When the sun rose after Knox’s wee-hours Lumumba-dunnit session, it was the 6th of November 2007. Knox, Sollecito, and Lumumba were all jailed. At a triumphant press conference, the chief of police made the following statement.

Initially, the American gave a version of events we knew was not correct. She buckled and made an admission of facts we knew were correct and from that we were able to bring them all in.

Mr. de Felice meant to brag but instead let the cat out of the bag. And “difficult to fathom,” found a whole new level. There is a low-pitched rumbling now. I do hope you got out of the house.

The guilty 20-year-old American girl we’ve been concocting with no history of violence and no motive who teamed up with someone she didn’t know to murder her housemate and got this man to lie to his friend for her and who somehow left no trace at a horrific crime scene while also staging a burglary fitting the man’s MO and who then practically lived at an Italian police station for four days – an act, it must be said, whose stupidity is so extreme it cannot be measured on any normal scale – where she chose to put an end to an aggressive interrogation (remain silent, IDIOT girl!!!) by confirming the cops’ ridiculous theories, all the better to fool us, is not going to come into focus, now or ever, despite all our attempts to conjure her.

The chief of police and the lead prosecutor themselves wrecked our presumption of guilt. While Guede was sleeping on trains in Germany, these public officials were busy dreaming up a “version of events” they “knew were correct,” putting their story into a young woman’s mouth during an unrecorded interrogation, and then, relying on what has to be the most hesitant “admission of facts” in the long history of interrogations, arresting the husband, father, and local bar owner known as Patrick Lumumba, a man we can confidently describe as the least-likely suspect in all of Perugia.

Knox and Sollecito were likewise unlikely suspects, to put it mildly, but that would be remedied. It was just a matter of rearranging the pieces on the chessboard while your opponent gets a cup of espresso. Police and prosecutors have provided us with many years’ worth of sick entertainment with their willingness to do whatever was necessary to make Knox and her hapless boyfriend look like suspects who might be detained by competent officials.

The twisted story of the vicious, seductive, insane Foxy Knoxy, written with the assistance of the tabloids, began in earnest when police released without comment a terrifying photograph of the blood-soaked bathroom where Knox had showered the morning after the murder, before she and her unfortunate boyfriend called the police. Knox claimed, incredibly, that she didn’t realize anything was wrong with the bathroom. Her bizarre, psychopathic behavior is truly amazing.

Except for the ‘truly’ part. The bathroom wasn’t actually covered in blood – there were a few drops on the sink and a dull footprint on a bathmat, that’s it. Actual pictures of the bathroom found in court documents are night-and-day different from the nightmarish vision released by police.

Here’s what happened: The police, while investigating the murder, treated the entire bathroom with phenolphthalein, a chemical that turns a delightful pink after a little while. The cops then snapped a dramatic photograph and – wink, wink, nudge, nudge – released the pic to a hungry press corps.

Stories about the shower in the bloody bathroom are still being told.

It doesn’t stop there. Prosecutors claimed, before the first trial, they had receipts that proved Knox had purchased bleach the morning after the murder in order to wash the house clean of her DNA. No such proof made it to the trial, however. Cleaning your DNA from a murder scene while leaving someone else’s untouched is impossible in any case, but that’s unimportant if your only goal is to get a million idiots to line up behind you.

It’s hard to imagine, but it gets worse. Once Knox was in prison, awaiting trial, a prison doctor told her she was HIV-positive and got her to list all her past lovers. This list was – you guessed it – promptly leaked to the press by the next corrupt official down the line. Amanda was of course perfectly healthy.

I will apply dietetic measures for the benefit of the sick according to my ability and judgment; I will keep them from harm and injustice. Hippocrates did not protect Amanda Knox and space considerations force us to stop here, with the phony HIV diagnosis. There is no need to continue in any event. We can simply say the list of prosecution tricks is a lot longer than the list of Knox’s lovers and leave it at that.

Here, in the land of rationality, we did not fall for the stories promulgated by the bizarre alliance between the tabloids and the prosecution, but we did assume guilt. Indeed, we labored mightily, but failed to create a portal by which Amanda-Knox-the-deadly-siren might enter the real world. We are left with the horribly banal: beautiful Meredith in the prime of life cut down by a nobody with a knife because she arrived home ten minutes too soon.

Our presumption of Knox’s guilt buckled, you might say, under its own weight. If even a presumption of guilt cannot stand, then Knox is innocent beyond a reasonable doubt. Of course, we still have some doubt. Maybe she did an amazing job pretending to be a naive young girl (she sure fooled her parents!). There is always doubt. But reasonable doubt? Not in this universe.

Post Script

After the police had spent four days and countless hours of expensive overtime for the interrogation team breaking a delicate young woman suffering from trauma and sleep deprivation, threatening her with prison, telling her that her boyfriend had disputed her account (he had not), getting her to doubt her own memory, and convincing her to fabricate a nonsensical story implicating both herself and her innocent boss, they shuffled off to her boyfriend’s house and found a knife in a drawer that could not possibly have been the murder weapon (it was much too large) and took it to the lab and tested it. Not surprisingly, lab tests confirmed no DNA on the knife and no blood on the knife.

HOWEVER, the lab proceeded with the full testing procedure anyway in violation of every international standard in the book and performed a duplication process called PCR capable of producing significant DNA from a single cell. This lab had tested dozens of samples containing large quantities of the victim’s DNA and was not, by any stretch of the imagination, properly equipped to guard against single-cell contamination. Of course, they got a positive result for the victim’s DNA on Raffaele Sollecito’s too-large kitchen knife and the prosecution declared they had found the murder weapon.

The violation of international standards by the police lab was confirmed by independent court-appointed DNA-testing experts at one of the most prestigious universities in Italy; their report was scathing and stated unequivocally that the knife could easily have become contaminated with a microscopic trace of the victim’s DNA while it was being handled and analyzed at the police lab.

Given that the knife was actually too large to have been the murder weapon anyway, you might wonder how the prosecutors kept observers in the courtroom from laughing at them. They came up with the following theory, beautiful in its simplicity: Meredith Kercher was murdered with two knives, not one. Guede and his accomplices grabbed her, pulled her hair, struck her, sexually assaulted her, and stabbed her twice in the throat with a small knife. This knife hit bone and slipped, cutting Guede’s hands. The trio of murderers then switched knives. Since the final, slashing wound could, theoretically, have been made by any sharp object, the prosecutors ask us to imagine that it was the kitchen knife, not the original smaller knife, that made the wound that left Meredith Kercher choking to death on her own blood.

And now we have the prosecution’s case in its full glory and at its full power. The two-knife theory explains why there was a microscopic trace of Kercher’s DNA on Knox’s boyfriend’s knife which explains why Knox eventually admitted to being present at the murder scene which explains why the Guede break-in appeared to have been staged which shows how diabolical Knox really is which helps to explain how she managed to avoid leaving any traces at the murder scene, why she thought she didn’t need a lawyer, and how she succeeded in confusing the police with her misleading accusation of an innocent man. As far as how she got Guede and Sollecito to go along with her desire to end her housemate’s life, that’s easy enough to explain: just look at how seductive she is. Add in some drug use and don’t worry overmuch about a motive and you’ve got yourself a murder.

We’ve come full circle. Previously, our presumption of guilt collapsed rather spectacularly. But I had withheld information. Is it now possible, keeping in mind the two-knife theory and the DNA evidence, to imagine Knox killing Kercher?

Certainly, if you’re Meredith’s parent or sibling, you are going to reasonably ask, “What exactly is my daughter’s/sister’s DNA doing on Raffaele Sollecito’s kitchen knife?” Explaining that it was a laboratory error (oops!) may, understandably, not carry much weight with the Kercher family. Even though the prosecution has abandoned logic and honesty and simply engaged in a witch-hunt, the Kerchers may have legitimate questions about the DNA testing. They have no motive to falsely accuse anyone, so we must assume the Kerchers really believe Knox and Sollecito murdered their beloved.

For the rest of us, however, the case is quite clear. We humans are good at telling stories like the two-knife theory. We could make up a story about how you must have paid Guede to murder to Meredith. That trip to the bank you made in October 2007 was rather suspicious. Why did you go to the bank on that particular day when it’s not your usual routine? Are you saying you can’t remember what your account balance was? Are you saying you suddenly gave up on years of good financial habits that particular October? We know you’re lying. With a dozen cops, the tag-team interrogation technique, and a few credible threats, we could have quite a party. Maybe we’ll even take you to a foreign country to have our little celebration. I’m sorry, but I don’t think you will enjoy it much.

Most people involved with the prosecution or on the various juries presumably know Knox and Sollecito are innocent; after all, they have quite a bit of information at their disposal, more than enough to prove the them that the two kids are innocent. It would be interesting to subject a number of the participants in what is essentially a noir farce to lie-detector tests in an effort to determine who actually harbors irrational beliefs and who is feigning irrationality. However, this assumes the prosecutors and jury members have actually taken the trouble to form an opinion about the case. They may not have. A child can wholeheartedly believe something he or she knows nothing about, simply parroting a parental belief. A weak student can memorize an idea and spit it back without having thought about it. For all we know, most of the people involved in the Knox case, including jurors, have no opinion about it at all!

 

The Tragedy of Dershowitz

I just watched him talking about how Amanda Knox could, if she had been tried in this country, possibly have received the death penalty because of the “considerable” evidence against her.

This is very frightening to me. The fact that a man like Dershowitz, a brilliant Harvard professor, a legal expert, could throw all reason into the trash and say something so utterly preposterous is deeply, deeply terrifying. It means anything goes. Perhaps I should buy a gun. Without reason, there is no civilization; we might as well be chimpanzees.

It’s not simply a matter of a difference of opinion. Whether or not we should keep soldiers in Afghanistan is an opinion. The Knox case has nothing to do with opinion. Saying there is “considerable” evidence against her is like saying there is “considerable” evidence that the holocaust never happened. It’s such nonsense that even talking about it is costly because you are lending legitimacy to an absurd idea.

There are many people who, like Dershowitz, give up any intellectual credentials they may have and make comments that are so stupid they can only be described as obscene. It is difficult to provide a clear, sensible explanation for this behavior: it could stem from a desire for attention or perhaps it is an indication that we are fundamentally irrational as a species, destined to never go far beyond the techno-chimp stage or maybe we should think of it in religious terms as ever-present evil manifesting itself. I don’t know.

No matter how you look at it, if some supposedly serious person “reasons” as follows: “heads I win; tails you lose,” you immediately know person in question is intellectually a child, incapable of adult reasoning. That Dershowitz, who I have to believe knows better, pulls this off while keeping a straight face (mostly) is certainly a sight to see.

Dershowitz ticked off five pieces of “very, very considerable” evidence, each one more nonsensical than the last, but I have the stomach right now to discuss only the first piece of “evidence” he mentioned. Of course, no one who has given up reason is going to be convinced by my discussion, but the rest of us need to see Dershowitz and many others who hold positions of respect and trust for what they really are: mere prancing royalty. So here we go.

Four days after Meredith Kercher was murdered, Knox was at the police station for her second all-night session with police. Knox had spent many hours during the three days previous at the police station, including the entire first night after the murder. During the final all-night session, the police may have pressured her to some extent. This is not necessarily wrong as the police do have a job to do, as long as they don’t overdo. The interview or interrogation (call it whatever you want) was not recorded and no lawyer was present even though the interrogation of a suspect is inadmissible under Italian law unless a lawyer is present. This fact doesn’t necessarily mean all that much either. Police may have decided not to do an admissible interrogation for any number of reasons – they needed information so perhaps they decided it was worth cutting corners if they were able to find the killer. Police all over the world will sometimes push the envelope and bend the rules to get results.

You’ll notice I am being extremely charitable to the Italian police here, taking their side as much as possible without throwing away all logic. The paragraph above is one-sided, but not absurdly so. Thus, I can present the prosecution’s side, but I am not allowed, as a serious commentator, to spout absurdities. If I do, I have sunk, like Dershowitz, to the level of the tabloids.

Let’s get on with the story. After maintaining repeatedly that she was at her boyfriend’s the night of the murder, Knox broke down sometime after midnight on the fourth day. She signed two statements that said she was present at her house when her housemate was murdered and that her boss, with whom she had had a text exchange the evening of the murder, was also there and that it was he who killed her housemate. These statements can be called confessions, admissions, or just statements, whatever you prefer.

Now comes the part where Dershowitz throws away his reputation and his standing. How do we interpret Knox’s statements about her boss? What are we allowed to say whilst retaining our credibility? We know Knox’s boss, a bar owner, was nowhere near the house that night – he had a rock-solid alibi.  Thus, Knox’s confession did include supporting details that only a witness or perpetrator could recite accurately, but the details were nonsense. What police got from Knox was no more accurate than if they had interrogated a random person off the street and asked them to make up a scenario for what might have happened the night of the murder.

Now what? Heads I win, tails you lose? Yes, says Dershowitz, this is how we do things downtown.

Had Knox’s confession contained actual details about the crime that were not common knowledge, this would obviously strengthen it as evidence. Accurate details of this sort are called “corroborating statements” in the interrogation business. In fact, a recorded confession containing corroborating statements is extremely strong evidence and could, by itself, be enough evidence for a jury to convict a suspect. Heads I win.

However, Amanda Knox provided no corroborating statements; she tried to, but they were fabrications. Aha! says Mr. Dershowitz. These fabricated statements, like correct statements, ALSO point to Amanda Knox’s guilt. Tails you lose.

Clever, clever girl she is, providing false details about the crime in a vain effort to throw us off. But she can’t fool us; we know she’s guilty. I’m Alan Dershowitz, I’m a Harvard professor, I understand logic. Heads I win, tails you lose. If she were tried in the U. S., she might very well get the death penalty (smile)! Oh, yes.

Of course, if you are an idiot and you begin with the premise that she is guilty, you will naturally interpret her apparent lack of knowledge about the crime as an attempt to throw us off the trail or confuse us or deflect blame from herself by implicating an innocent man. Knox knew her boss was at his bar that night surrounded by patrons, but this is irrelevant. It is obviously all part of her fiendish plot. Everything points to the guilt we know is there.

Knox’s ridiculous fabrication is actually exculpatory: As Dershowitz and every cop and every judge and every lawyer in the world knows, when a suspect confesses with fabricated details, we immediately have strong reason to doubt the person was even a witness much less the perpetrator.

When you include the fact that the police overtly treated Knox as a suspect but didn’t treat the interrogation in accordance with Italian law, you have an open and shut case of a coerced confession (the law was passed specifically to prevent coerced confessions). Italy’s highest court declared Knox’s confession inadmissible; needless to say, this has no effect on Dershowitz’s dazzling display of intellectual power.

“We know she’s a liar,” Dershowitz said. In fact, we know nothing of the sort. We know someone fabricated details about the murder during Knox’s late-night interrogation. Knox’s claim that it was the police who fabricated those details and pressured her to repeat them is entirely plausible and, in the absence of a recording, cannot be convincingly refuted.

Maybe all of this seems terribly complex and subject to many opinions. It is not. Knox got the details about the crime wrong in her confession. Period. She got it wrong. Dershowitz has chosen to interpret correct details as damning evidence AND also to interpret incorrect details as damning evidence. I would say his reasoning powers are at the level of sixth-grader, but this would be an insult to sixth-graders.

When Dershowitz dies, someone should scratch “Heads I win, tails you lose” on his gravestone.

Junk Science Can KIll

I’ve been reading up on the DNA testing that put Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito in prison for four years. They are free because the courts had the testing checked by an independent lab which concluded the original testing that convicted them was utter nonsense.

We’re not talking about a dispute among scientists here. We’re talking about the difference between science and believing that the moon is made of green cheese. Let me explain.

Genetic testing is pretty reliable but there is a new kind of testing called Low Copy Number (LCN) testing which is basically the same as the old testing but involves just a few cells and so is more delicate. LCN testing is controversial and many scientists say shouldn’t be used to put someone in prison.

There are some scientists who say LCN testing can be used if a series of precautions are taken. No scientist anywhere in the world (not a single one) says it’s okay to use LCN testing in court without these precautions.

Just so you know, here are the precautions that are mandatory when testing DNA from just a few cells. Suppose you are testing an alleged murder weapon for the victim’s DNA. First, the lab doing the test must never have had any of the victim’s DNA anywhere in it. Second, along with the murder weapon a control object must be collected from the same place and must be treated in exactly the same way and must test negative for the victim’s DNA (so if you take a knife from the alleged murderer’s house, you have to take a spoon as well and test that too). Third, the LCN test has to be done twice, once on half of your sample and then again to make sure your results are accurate. Fourth, the person doing the testing must not have access to the victim’s DNA profile so that it doesn’t influence the results (you can subconsciously try to make your profile match the one you know it is “supposed” to match) .

Let’s review: 1) separate lab; 2) control object; 3) double sample; 4) blind test.

Some scientists say if four out of four of these procedures are followed then LCN might be okay to use in a criminal trial. For the evidence that put two kids in jail who had no motive and no history of violence, ZERO out of four of the procedures were followed.

The Scientific Police in Italy conducted an LCN test of a knife in a lab and on machines that had tested items loaded with the victim’s DNA. For all we know, based on the records the lab has released, items with large amounts of the victim’s DNA could have been tested during the same hour as the knife. There was no control object – if there were, it would probably have tested positive. There was only one sample. Finally, the test was not done blind.

Not only that, the scientist who did the test was seen on video handling multiple pieces of evidence from the case without changing gloves each time as is required by strict international protocols.

So we have a demonstrably incompetent scientist doing a test that no geneticist on earth recognizes as valid producing evidence that was the sole cause of Amanda Knox’s conviction. The murder victim was covered with a veritable truckload of DNA from the real killer who is currently in jail. The idea of putting two additional people in jail under these circumstances is grotesque in its barbarism.

Even worse, with Knox out of jail and safe in Seattle, there was an appeal and the Italian bozos overturned the acquittal which had overturned the first conviction and produced a second conviction that is now being reviewed by Italy’s highest court which is presumably also staffed by bozos.

I’m not sure what the problem is here. It’s hard to understand how Italian officials can be so clueless. They aren’t stupid. The problem, I think, is the court doesn’t have an independent panel of experts with the power to exclude from any consideration what might be called “witch hunt science.”

A lot of smart people mix up science and magic. If one sorcerer says one thing and another sorcerer says the opposite, the response, even from a experienced judge, might be, “well, who can know the truth.” However for an expert panel of say five geneticists, many things that are controversial and confusing for a judge would be cut and dried for them.

Any five geneticists from anywhere in the world, would discount the knife DNA “evidence” in the Knox case. It would be an easy 5-0 decision. The only geneticist in the world who thinks the knife DNA is reasonable is the person who actually did the analysis. And actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if this woman knows that what she did is utter nonsense. Dr. Patrizia Stefanoni’s boss was actually hired by the prosecution as a consultant – so her job became effectively to find a DNA trace if it was humanly possible to do so and she did succeed, by literally ignoring every precaution in the book.

The bottom line: courts, including U. S. courts, need independent scientific panels with the power to block junk science from being used in the courtroom.

Knox is out of jail, but Todd Willingham, also obviously innocent, is dead, also due to junk science.

When There Are No Good Guys

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.

Amanda Knox, Politics, and Tabloid Thinking

It’s pretty scary what can happen when tabloid journalism winds up at the highest levels of a criminal justice system.

Here’s a good conspiracy theory. (Insert name of president) issued “stand down orders” on September 11, (insert 2001 or 2012). All’s fair in politics, right? But what if this kind of wacko thinking winds up in courtrooms affecting the lives of real people?

In Italy, Amanda Knox was questioned by police and hit a couple of times as they pressured her to tell them what they wanted to hear. This happened years ago. When she was finally released from prison, she told her parents about the abusive behavior of the bullying morons who pass for Italian police and her parents told a newspaper. Now the Italian clowns are suing her parents for repeating this allegation. (Maybe they’ll sue me too.)

Italian courts have, comically, accepted the idea that repeating an accusation could be construed as slander and so Amanda Knox and her parents are actually facing two separate Italian judicial proceedings stemming from this “slanderous” police brutality complaint of Amanda’s and her parents’ conversation with a reporter.

It gets worse. Much worse.

In 2007, Amanda’s housemate in Italy was murdered by a local drifter/burglar and Amanda and her boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito were tossed into prison as was the actual murderer. Four years later, the two innocent kids were released, but now another Italian court has again declared them guilty.

Amanda is safe in the U.S. and will (probably) not be extradited but Raffaele might actually go back to prison even though we know that not only is there no evidence that either of them was involved, we can be virtually certain that they could not have possibly have been.

The Italian prosecutor’s bizarre story is that Amanda, her boyfriend, and the actual murderer all attacked the victim as part of a strange sexual game. After the murder, Amanda and her boyfriend somehow removed all traces of their DNA and fingerprints and footprints and handprints while leaving all of these from the third person both on and in the victim’s body and all over the room so that he would be blamed and they would get off.

Really. That’s the theory. This is in a real courtroom in Italy, not in some third-world country. A real courtroom, with terrifyingly real consequences. And this is not an exaggeration of or caricature of the prosecution’s theory. It really is that ridiculous. Needless to say, the prosecution does not explain how a couple of kids with no training in criminal forensics and no history of criminal activity could have pulled off this crime of the century.

In fact, of course, it would have been impossible for them to do what they are accused of having done. No one could realistically do it. Theoretically, I suppose they could have worn some kind of protective suits while their fall guy went barehanded and uncovered. But the prosecution doesn’t make this claim. They say the two kids did one hell of an amazing selective clean-up job such as has never before been seen in the annals of crime.

The prosecution theory is utter stand-down-orderesque nonsense in court affecting two young lives. I feel bad for the victim of the murder in Italy and for the two victims of Italian courtroom buffoonery and I worry that I’ll be next.

I live in a country where, more and more, people on the fringes are taken seriously. During the Benghazi congressional hearings, senator Graham actually asked General Dempsey about “stand down” orders. Yes, a U.S. senator actually asked the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff whether or not there was an order given to our military to not do the heroic job they’ve been doing in the middle east every single minute of every single day for the past twelve years.

In Italy, a prosecutor named Mignini puts forward nonsensical fantasies about satanic sex rituals to explain an already-solved crime and puts two innocent people in jail. Here, a senator’s questions give credence to absurd fantasies about a president who is supposed to be some kind of secret terrorist agent.

It is just mildly comforting that the stand-down-order craze shows signs of winding down. I’m sad to say the tabloid nightmare for Raffaele Sollecito continues in Italy. This gentle computer geek has already spent four years in prison with hardened criminals. Tabloid thinking at the highest levels of Italian government might well send him back.

Sample Balanced Budget Amendment

Amendment 28:

Beginning in 4 years from the date of date of ratification of this amendment, the following Balanced Budget Amendment shall go into effect.

The Congress and President of the United States shall, each year, pass a budget in which the national debt as a percent of the gross domestic product is projected by the Congressional Budget Office to decrease by some amount larger than zero. If the Congress and President fail to pass such a budget, the President shall apply reductions in discretionary spending on a percentage basis equally across all federal agencies so that the Congressional Budget Office shall project a decrease in the national debt as a percent of gross domestic product for that year.

The mandate above may be waived if and only if (1) 2/3 of both Houses of Congress issue a declaration that a national fiscal emergency exists requiring an increase in the national debt as a percent of gross domestic product and (2) the President signs the declaration of national fiscal emergency. Each declaration of national fiscal emergency shall apply for a single budgetary year and each such declaration must be voted on by Congress and signed by the President.

End of amendment.

Before 1980, we regularly lowered the ratio of debt to gdp. There were a few minor exceptions during recessions but, for all intents and purposes, we paid down the debt every year. The government’s books were not only balanced, they were better than balanced. Almost every year.

This occurred even though we ran small deficits most years because economic growth meant an increasing gdp and so our debt burden dropped and dropped even though the raw number of dollars of debt increased. To understand this, imagine a kid working a low-wage job earning 12,000 dollars a year. Suppose he has 5,000 dollars of credit card debt. Fast forward 20 years, he’s earning 100,000 dollars a year and has 12,000 dollars on his credit card. In another 20 years, the kid has done well and now earns a million dollars a year and has 30,000 dollars on his credit card.

The kid technically has ever-increasing debt, but since it now represents only a tiny fraction of his income, he has nothing to worry about and can easily pay it off.

That’s the way it used to be with the our national debt. We argued about how much to tax and how much to spend, but we regularly made our debt a smaller and smaller fraction of our economy. If we hadn’t fallen off the wagon in 1980, we would have had an insignificant national debt in 2008 when the derivatives monster bit us in the ass. We’d still be in a little bit of a hole now, but nothing like the one we’re in.

The course change Republicans made in 1980 was nothing less than historic. Previously, they had been focused on balanced budgets. Old-fashioned Republicans preferred limited spending, but if Democrats were in power or if roads needed building, these guardians of fiscal responsibility could be counted on to insist on sufficient taxes to pay for whatever spending Congress approved.

Indeed, these Republicans strenuously opposed tax cuts in the absence of a balanced budget. And it never even occurred to them to cut taxes while increasing spending.

By 1980, Republicans were apparently afraid that the public had an unlimited appetite for tax and spend and they abandoned their fiscally responsible stance in favor of deficit spending. Republican strategists thought (for reasons that are difficult to comprehend today) if they could hold the line on taxes, enormous deficits would somehow force the government to spend less.

By 2000, a Democrat in the Whitehouse and a largely Republican Congress had balanced the budget again, but it was short-lived and only made a small debt in the massive “starve the beast” debt. There followed four years of Republican control of both the Presidency and Congress. “Starve the beast” had mutated into a bizarre policy meme requiring low taxes and big spending. Tax rates were slashed and there were big increases in both entitlement and military spending. The national debt resumed its climb.

It was a beast all right, but it sure as hell wasn’t starving. Even after the derivatives crisis of 2008 pushed the national debt above 100% of gdp, there was no substantive change in Republican policy.

A 2010 bill to create a deficit reduction commission died when Republicans voted against their own bill because they were afraid tax increases might be part of a deficit reduction plan. In 2013, Republicans abandoned the sequester, which made small cuts in discretionary spending, apparently because they feel deficits are a better deal in an election year.

The Republicans of 2014 clearly would NOT support a balanced budget amendment even though the one proposed above is exactly what they say they want. To keep “starve the beast” going, they would have to pay lip service to any proposed amendment while quietly trying to kill it. Remember, we had a long string of balanced budgets after WWII and these Republicans are the loyal philosophical grandchildren of those who abandoned the whole idea of balanced budgets basically because they were allergic to any and all tax increases.

Let’s get it straight. Low taxes? Yes, definitely. Increase spending? Sure, okay by me. Cut discretionary spending? No, too unpopular. Cut entitlement spending? Only if Democrats do it. Reduce the deficit? No, that would take the pressure off.

I’m a little baffled, but then I have been since 1980. In fact, I’m still reeling from the Republican debt clock at their 2008 convention. Were they bragging?

The modern (read: not conservative by any reasonable definition of the word) Republicans’ quiet wait for a full-blown fiscal crisis that would allow them to get what they want seems more than a little risky to me. They’re like Linda Hamilton at the end of the first terminator movie: she knew the storm was coming, it was just a matter of time.

I’ll tell you something. I don’t like it. I don’t like it one bit.

Go Ahead, Make My Day

This should be the new slogan for both parties. We’d all be better off.

Conservative Script: You want your precious government programs you pathetic, bleeding-heart takers? Fine. Pay for them. Go ahead and raise taxes to cover all your good work. When you’re done taxing the Hell out of everyone, we’ll throw you out of office and lower taxes and stimulate the economy and cut your wasteful programs.

Liberal Script: You want a balanced budget without tax increases you selfish, heartless fat-cats? Fine. Take the money. Go ahead and cut programs to pay down the debt. When you’re done trashing popular, necessary programs, we’ll throw you out of office and raise taxes a little and build some infrastructure and help some people.

That’s all we want from either side. Just tell the other side, “Go ahead, make my day.”

We don’t care who says it first. If we can’t do the reasonable thing and raise taxes a little AND cut spending a little, that’s fine. Pick one and do it. Toss a goddamn coin if you have to.

This should be the electorate’s message to our bickering government.