On November 2nd 2007, in the hillside town of Perugia, Italy, behind a locked door and covered up by a duvet, Meredith Kercher’s body was discovered. The British exchange student was half-clothed and had been stabbed multiple times in the throat. The cause of death was asphyxiation. Her short life and tragic death are now steeped in infamy, serving as the catalyst for one of the most divisive, misconstrued, and unjust investigations—and subsequent trials— in history.
Because they were the first people to come upon the crime scene, American student (and Meredith’s house-mate) Amanda Knox and her then-boyfriend, Italian student Raffaele Sollecito were the primary suspects from the start. Everything happened head-spinningly fast. A mere four days after Meredith’s body was discovered, Knox and Sollecito were imprisoned; two years later, convicted of murder; 2 years after that, acquitted; a year later, that acquittal overturned. In a recent discussion of the case, I asked Sollecito why he thought they became suspects so quickly. “They suspected us simply because we were the first ones to the murder scene,” he said. They arrested us with invented evidence that had no grounds of reliability.” The invented evidence worked perfectly– by the time it became clear that the prosecution’s claims against the two were false, they had both been arrested and thrown in prison, their names slandered around the globe. “I was initially arrested because they claimed that a shoe print in blood matched the pattern of my sneakers,” says Sollecito. “That wasn’t valid, and they admitted that it wasn’t a match in the end, but it was enough for them to send me to prison in the first place.” The prosecution also erroneously claimed that Sollecito’s pocket knife– which he carried with him at all times– was the murder weapon. Again, the charges were proven to be false, but the damage had already been done.
In overturning the acquittal this year, the Italian Supreme Court brazenly sided with the prosecutors who initially convicted the two, breathing new life into the long-dead, thoroughly baseless theory of a cultish sex game gone awry—a hypothesis that featured prominently in the original trial, but had since been dismissed by the appellate judges.
There were innumerable mistakes made that allowed the wrongful convictions of Knox and Sollecito to occur. Evidence was collected in an astonishingly rudimentary fashion, with obvious contamination occurring. The investigation had been carried out by the local police force instead of the more able Carabinieri, and hunches and suspicions—instead of irrefutable evidence and facts—became more than enough of a basis for arrest. The investigators displayed incredible tunnel vision in their attempt to secure convictions, ignoring crucial evidence implicating the real perpetrator. Lies and misinformation were treated as legitimate evidence, and blatant falsehoods and slander circulated throughout the world press. But all of these pale in comparison to the work of one man: prosecutor Giuliano Mignini. For Mignini, Halloween is like Christmas. Enamored of all things mystical and dark, and with a penchant for dreaming up a good story, he would have been an excellent mystery novelist. Unfortunately for the scores of innocent people he has since sent to prison, he became a prosecutor instead.
The first theory Mignini advanced was born out of the murder’s unfortunate proximity to Halloween. He initially postulated that Kercher was killed in a Satanic ritual, but then decided she had more likely died in a “sex-orgy-gone-wrong.” When no evidence appeared to corroborate his claims, he invented it. As he would have you believe, a powerful sexual jealousy, greed, and rampant marijuana smoking had caused Knox to morph from a mild-mannered college student with no history of violence into a murderous she-devil, with the apparent ability to convince similarly mild-mannered Sollecito to kill, a propos of nothing, as well. It’s unlikely that his invented characters would have been believed by anyone were it not for the help of the global media. Sex sells. Violence sells. Backed by sensationalist tabloids and respected periodicals alike, Mignini’s fictionalization of Knox and Sollecito became real. Moreover, it became much more captivating than the truth. The fantastical motives ascribed to the defendants seem almost too strange to be made up. It turns out that Mignini had an M.O. of his own.
Mignini had been pushing conspiracy theories involving Satanic orgies long before his involvement in the Kercher case. In 1985, a prominent doctor was found dead outside of of Perugia. Dr. Francesco Narducci’s body was recovered from Lake Trasimeno, pumped full of Demerol. It was clear that he had drowned; the levels of Demerol in his system indicated a suicide. The cause of death was clear, and the case was closed. However, in 2001, Mignini advanced a new theory. From the 1970’s to the 1990’s, a serial killer—dubbed the Monster of Florence by the press—had been terrorizing Central Italy. 16 people, mostly young couples, were murdered, often with the females’ bodies left mutilated. A propos of nothing at all, Mignini began to fantasize that the couples were killed so that their body parts could be harvested and used in satanic rituals. Although he had absolutely no evidence on which to base his fantastical assertions, Mignini contended that Narducci was a member of the cult who had become a security risk, so his fellow cult-mates had plotted his murder and framed it as a suicide. His assertions became even more far-fetched as the case progressed: he theorized that Narducci’s corpse (which had been buried by his family years prior) had been replaced with a different body—as the cult was using Narducci’s corpse for ritualistic purposes—and he went so far as to dig up the grave in an attempt to prove his body-double theory. He was, of course, wrong. Instead of conceding this, he asserted that the body had in fact been swapped not once, but twice. His ludicrous premise was challenged by an Italian journalist, Mario Spezi. When Spezi publically discredited Mignini’s theory, Mignini had him arrested and thrown in jail.
Mignini went on to charge 20 people with the cover up of Narducci’s “murder.” However, in a preliminary hearing, a Judge threw out the charges against all 20, citing the lack of (any) evidence to back up Mignini’s ridiculous claims. There was no evidence showing that Narducci had been the victim of a murder, let alone involved in a satanic sect. So: when Mignini was inexplicably placed at the helm of the case against Knox and Sollecito, he had already charged 20 innocent people with crimes they didn’t commit. In fact, at the beginning of the trial, Mignini was being investigated for abuse of office, thanks to the rampant prosecutorial misconduct that took place during his handling of the Narducci case.
The Real Perpetrator
From the start, there was overwhelming evidence pointing towards a local small-time drug dealer and petty thief, Ivory Coast native Rudy Guede as Kercher’s killer. Forensic analysis showed that a bloody hand-print found on a pillowcase underneath Kercher’s body matched Guede. His DNA was found in and on Kercher’s body. His DNA, mixed with Kercher’s blood, was found on her purse. Shoeprints in Kercher’s blood matched the size and make of a pair of Guede’s shoes. When the police tried to contact Guede, they found that he had fled to Germany, where he was arrested for trying to board a train without a ticket. Despite all of the evidence supporting Guede’s guilt, Mignini began throwing wrenches in the investigation as soon as he could. He instructed the hired pathologist not to take Kercher’s body temperature at the earliest possible opportunity; thereby preventing a specific time of death from being determined, and ensuring that the prosecution would have some flexibility in their presentation of the murder’s time-line. Guede had a recognizable M.O. that was present in all of his other crimes—he would throw a heavy object through a window, and then scale the wall and enter the building through the broken glass. When investigators discovered the broken window at the scene of the crime, they immediately wrote it off as a cover-up, not a break-in. The obvious evidence of forced entry would have eradicated Knox and Sollecito from the suspect pool from the start.
Guede’s role as Kercher’s killer is undeniable, and he was initially sentenced to 30 years for murder. However, in return for his testimony implicating Knox and Sollecito as co-conspirators, his sentence was reduced to 16 years on appeal. He will be eligible for work-release starting next year.
Judge Hellman, who presided over the case’s 2011 acquittal, had this to say: “In the small bedroom where there was supposed to have been a struggle, an erotic game that escalated into an orgy and finally the stabbing of Meredith, there was not one single biological trace of Knox and Sollecito, while there were abundant traces of Guede: it is impossible that the two students were able to erase their tracks and leave behind only those of Rudy”.
It’s difficult to know what the future holds for Sollecito and Knox as their retrial begins in Florence on September 30th. For any of the wrongfully convicted, there is a paralyzing sense of vulnerability, a deep-seated helplessness in determining your own fate. Those of us who live outside prison cages have, at the very least, the sensation of control over certain aspects of our existence. Sollecito and Knox are living a Kafkaesque nightmare; their lives stolen, then given back, albeit broken, and now possibly taken away again. Joseph K., Kafka’s protagonist in The Trial, is prosecuted for an unknown crime by a faceless, unreachable authority, against whom he is utterly powerless. The unreachable authority has a face in this trial– in fact, it has many faces, but the one looming largest is that of Giuliano Mignini.
“My innocence doesn’t make the matter any simpler… I have to fight against countless subtleties in which the court is likely to lose itself. And in the end out of nothing at all, an enormous fabric of guilt will be conjured up.”
–Franz Kafka, The Trial