TAKING THE CASE
It was that rare day in the Pacific Northwest—sun and blue skies with just the right temperature—the kind of day most Washingtonians savor, as they know it won’t be long before the summer ends and it’s the start of the “Seattle Rain Festival: October through May.” It was July 2008, and I was at the Semiahmoo Resort, on a spit of land jutting out into the Strait of Georgia—the body of water separating Canada and the United States on the far western coast of both countries—near Blaine, Washington. Semiahmoo, which appropriately means “water all around” or “hole in the sky” in the original North Straits Salish native language, has beautiful views of mountains in all directions—Mount Baker, the Twin Sisters, and Canadian mountains rising up behind White Rock, British Columbia.
Semiahmoo is only a couple of stone throws away from Birch Bay, which my grandparents used to visit from their home in Lynden, Washington, and the Peace Arch at the border, where past generations of my family posed for photographs. This was the “other” part of Western Washington, a remote area where the Nooksack and Skagit rivers periodically flooded the land, depositing sediments that created flat plains and fertile black soil perfect for farming. It was a magnet for immigrants from The Netherlands for which the landscape was a reminder of home. My family lived there for four generations. Semiahmoo was a respite from the pressures and push of Seattle, my day-to-day location, that also felt like coming home.
Presenting itself as the Capital of Cool, Seattle was in fact a city of contradictions. Haunted by the ghosts of the musicians Kurt Cobain and Jimmy Hendrix, dead by suicide and overdose, respectively, Seattle may be the most progressive city in America. It tolerates open air drug dealing and homeless encampments throughout the city, while it is also home of the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos, founder, current executive chairman, and former chief executive officer of Amazon, the world’s largest and fastest growing retail organization. Bezos isn’t actually from Seattle, though, although Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and another one of the richest men in the world, is. The Seattle area was also the birthplace of Costco and Starbucks. The city was seemingly all about looking mellow and laidback, while maintaining a steady level of stress and drive on the inside. So, when I got a chance to make an exit to a place like Semiahmoo, even if it was doing the biz (i.e., the business, or working, as a lawyer in my case), I took it. And, hey, it was summertime.
In fact, that weekend the biz was attending the 2008 Annual Meeting of the Washington State Association for Justice (WSAJ) at the Semiahmoo Resort. The WSAJ was a mostly white male kind of place, which was typical of the lawyering profession. Because it wasn’t always easy for a woman who isn’t into golfing to make headway in the boys’ club atmosphere of the legal world, I took advantage of opportunities offered by groups like the WSAJ whenever I could.
Getting to stay in places like Semiahmoo is one of the perks of my job as a successful Seattle lawyer, although I usually don’t have time to kick back and relax at such events. It was during a coffee break that I saw a call coming in from Mike Heavey. Mike was a judge for the King County Superior Court, where I had presented cases many times, so I figured I'd better take his call. I picked up as I walked out to my car to talk in private.
“Anne, you probably heard about this Amanda Knox case, right?” he asked.
“You mean the student from Seattle who was charged with murdering her roommate in Italy?” I replied.
The case had already been in the media for a couple of months.
“I think there’s been a real travesty of justice here. You’re a lawyer who has a lot of exposure in the media. I think you can really help us.”
Mike went on to explain how there was no evidence against Amanda, how it was improbable that someone whose life had been exemplary could—out of the blue—commit such a horrible crime, and how the police and prosecutors in Perugia, Italy—where she was undergoing hearings that were under seal— were leaking false information and mistreating her. Thus far, they had:
· Subjected her to hours of abusive interrogation, even hitting her on the head to coerce a confession;
· Leaked her diary;
· Lied to her by saying she had been infected with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV);
· Used that false medical information to get her to make a list of men she had slept with; and
· Used that list to try to paint her as a wicked slut, a siren who used sex to lure men to their demise.
Hearing all this, I had an overwhelming feeling that this was a travesty of justice and an outrage. I felt that, given my role in the media analyzing and commenting on high-profile cases like those of O. J. Simpson and Scott Peterson, I really was in a position to help. I agreed because this was not a case being tried in a fair and impartial courtroom. It was being tried in the media and, as I was later to learn, on the internet, in private chat rooms where like-minded individuals posted conspiracy theories and spent hours scouring the internet for “clues” they thought would be evidence of guilt.
I thought the case would go on for a couple of years, but that turned into a decade.
Along the way, I would be trailed and attacked by hacks and trolls. They plastered social media with lies and contacted every media organization where I appeared and every organization I spoke with or that gave me an award. They defamed me by saying I was “vile” and a felon who had been disbarred (an obvious lie).
In retrospect, I realize Amanda’s case was a forerunner of things to come. Her trial was not a trial of law, but a trial by media, convicted by the internet, before she even had a chance to present evidence or hear witnesses. Her guilt was not decided by a jury of her peers, but by her facial expressions and calisthenics.
The Amanda Knox case was also a forerunner of our current era of “fake news,” and the 2020 United States presidential election, in terms of polarization of opinion and the influence of both traditional and non-traditional media.[i]. In fact, pro-Putin bloggers capitalized on the case as a way to drive a wedge between Europe and America.[ii][iii] Their involvement was also a forerunner of things to come for American politics.[iv] The Amanda Knox bloggers, with their conspiracy theories and confirmation biases, looked a lot like the QAnon folks that would appear just around the pike.[v]
I called Amanda’s case “a conviction based on kisses and cartwheels.” That is what this book is about. It’s about Amanda Knox, but it is also about our present state of affairs, where courtrooms and juries are thrown out the window and are replaced by the story of the moment, where convictions are delivered by internet chat rooms instead of physical evidence, where people spend hours “doing their own research” on the internet to find information that confirms their own biases. We live in an era where everyone is an “expert” and the real experts are discounted and dismissed, where everyone considers themselves a journalist, yet discounts any journalist they disagree with. Justice is thrown out the window.
A central theme of this book is how the media (including what I would call citizen’s media, or social media) has grown to have an oversized effect on high-profile criminal cases in our current era. The media has negative effects, in splashing scandalous news across the front pages of newspapers that turn out to be untrue and that have prejudicial effects on ongoing court cases, as in the case of Amanda Knox. That’s why lawyers like me have to get out ahead of the news so we can shape the story to help our clients. The media, however, can have negative effects in other ways.
Although the jury in the trial of O. J. Simpson, accused of murdering his ex-wife and her boyfriend, were sequestered away from the media for 265 days, the media turned it into a story about race, tapping into Black peoples’ grievances about past injustices and polarizing opinions about the case along racial lines. This was a story where his lawyers got out ahead of the media and created a story they felt was beneficial to their client. Although proven true, based on the fact they reached their goal of an innocent verdict, the long-term effects can only be seen as negative for justice in the future.
Scott Peterson, convicted of murdering his pregnant wife, had many similarities to Amanda Knox’s case, including the fact that the press concluded from the start that he “looked guilty.” The West Memphis Three, like Amanda Knox, were damaged by newspaper reports, leaked by detectives in the case, that they were involved in a Satanic cult. All of these cases are covered in this book, including the role of newspapers and the media, which are quick to scrutinize and judge people accused of crimes in high-profile cases, and the snap judgements that media consumers form based on what they see in their social media feeds or read on online forums, or the misinformation they glean from the internet. But when hard facts come to light that go against snap-judgment headlines and the lies of biased bloggers and forum posters, all that fades into the background. In this book, we are going to chase them out of the shadows and take a hard look at their impact on the proper execution of justice: not only newspaper reporters and television interviewers, but tabloid writers, citizen journalists, bloggers, Tweeters, and forum posters writing under anonymous fake names.
About eight hundred years before the birth of Christ, an elaborate and sophisticated civilization developed in what is now central Italy. The Etruscans, by their own description, were composed of twelve cities, the “Dodecapoli,” which predated Rome. One of those cities was Perugia, which is now the capital of the Italian region of Umbria. The Etruscans absorbed the culture of the ancient Greeks, with whom they traded, and had a lavish culture of feasting and art where women appeared to be the equal of men. They created beautiful paintings of their domestic life in tombs for their loved ones, buried deep below the earth, and in carvings on the local cliff sides.
But the Etruscans also had a dark side. They were highly superstitious. They hung on the words of their priests, who sacrificed sheep and examined the shape of their livers to predict the future. Most of the ancient churches of modern Umbria and Tuscany are built on the foundations of ancient Etruscan temples that were oriented to be able to identify patterns of stars in the sky to aid in the prediction of future events.
Two thousand years later, the ancestors of the Etruscans are now the citizens of Perugia and other cities and towns across the modern-day Italian provinces of Lazio, Umbria, and Tuscany. Perugia itself is beautifully perched on its hilltop, a perfect Goldilocks city—not too big and not too small—that is a magnet for thousands of students from around the world seeking education in the culture of Italy, with its multiple languages and cultural education programs. They mill about in the Piazza Novembre and frequent bars and cafes in the narrow city streets. Although not as extreme as their Etruscan ancestors, many modern day Perugians, like many Italians in general, have superstitious beliefs. They may go to various extremes to avoid situations that they think will bring them bad luck. They won’t sit with their backs to the door in a restaurant, or else they will never get married. They won’t walk under a ladder, or it will give them bad luck. God forbid a black cat should cross their path. Hovering over all of this malaise is the omnipresent evil eye. In some individuals, however, irrational beliefs can be taken to extremes, just like in the United States.
Perugia is a sister city of Seattle, although the two cities don’t have much in common, apart from one or two statues celebrating their sisterhood. Most natives of the cities were probably unaware of that fact until the Amanda Knox case burst on the scene.
Giuliano Mignini, the lead prosecutor in Amanda’s case, was a native of Perugia. He held superstitious, irrational beliefs that weren’t far afield from his Etruscan ancestors, and were way outside the norm even for superstitious Italians. He followed a conservative version of Catholicism and endorsed conspiracy theories, not unknown to many Italians, that the Masons conduct secret activities, including ritual sacrifice.[vi]. Amanda was dropped into this landscape naïve and unaware, and, on a fateful Perugian night at a music event, locked eyes with Raffaele Sollecito. They rarely left each other’s side during the next six days.
On Halloween night, October 31, 2007, while most students were roaming the streets of Perugia and crowding into nightclubs and bars, Amanda and Raffaele were holed up in his apartment, smoking weed and making love. Amanda was scheduled to go to work at a bar owned by Patrick Lumumba, a native of Africa who had worked hard to start a business in the city, but she got a text saying he didn’t need her that night. Relieved, she spent the rest of the night at Raffaele’s.
The next morning, she returned home and took a shower. Finding the door of her roommate, Meredith Kercher, locked, and not getting a response to her knocking on the door, she called Raffaele, who came over and tried to break the door down without success. They called the police, who arrived and broke the door down. That’s when they found the body of Meredith, whose throat had been brutally slit. Prosecutor Giuliano Mignini eventually arrived on the scene and immediately formed his own opinion of what had happened. The body was covered with a blanket, which led him to the questionable conclusion that the murder had been committed by a woman. At the initial investigation of the crime scene, Raffaele was hugging and comforting Amanda, which led Mignini to decide she was a sex-obsessed sociopath who didn’t care about Meredith’s death. Amanda and Raffaele were brought to the police station separately. The police found a text message to Patrick on Amanda’s phone, which led Mignini to conclude Patrick was involved. What followed was forty-three hours of tag-team police interrogation in Italian (in which Amanda was far from fluent), where she was hit on the head and yelled at to “remember!” She was asked to imagine what it would have been like to be there with Patrick and Raffaele and hear the screams of the dying Meredith. In a daze, she put her hands over her ears and described what that might have been like. Then the Italian police transcribed her imagined scenario as a factual confession. They told Raffaele the game was up and that his American girlfriend had fingered him in the murder.
What followed was a tsunami of media insanity. The English tabloids jumped on the story, fueled by the fact that the father of the murder victim, John Kercher, was one of their own (a freelance writer for the tabloids). Front page on the English tabloids was a picture of what looked like a sink covered in blood. The photo was leaked by the prosecution. How had Amanda blithely walked past this on the way to the shower? In fact, it was not blood; it was red dye from the chemical luminol, which had been used later by investigators to illuminate blood not visible to the naked eye. During the sealed hearings of Amanda and Raffaele, a story that they had bought bleach to clean up the crime scene leaked to the press. When a vaunted “receipt” for the bleach was finally produced, it turned out to be for pizza.
After getting back to Seattle from my weekend conference, I had breakfast with Mike and a local screenwriter named Tom Wright. Both Mike and Tom had daughters who were in the same class with Amanda at Seattle Prep, a prestigious local private high school. They all lived near each other in the West Seattle neighborhood, which would turn out to be a bulwark of support for Amanda over the next four years. They gave me more background about the case, and a few days later I met her family at Mike’s house: Edda Mellas and Amanda’s stepfather Chris Mellas, Amanda’s biological father Kurt Knox, and his wife Cassandra.
I would soon obtain videotapes of investigators working the crime scene. What I saw floored me. The Italian investigators were not properly wearing protective clothing. Their hair was hanging out everywhere. The video of the crime scene investigation had frequent stops and starts, with gaps that had no explanation. At one point, a large woman mysteriously crashed through a window. Investigators were leaning up against a wall talking on their cell phones. They posed the body for photos, moving it and poking gloved fingers into the stab wounds on the neck. They were constantly talking while collecting evidence, which could have caused contamination from their saliva. They scrubbed away bloody shoe and footprints instead of properly collecting them as evidence.
They stopped by Raffaele’s place, grabbed the first knife they found in a kitchen drawer, transported it in a shoebox, and sent it off to the lab for DNA analysis. When they decided they didn’t have enough evidence connecting him to the crime scene, they went back a month and a half after the murder and picked up a bra clasp off the floor of Meredith’s bedroom. It had been kicked around so much it had turned from white to black. They had failed to collect that clasp for forty-six days. They sent it to the police lab, which subsequently claimed Raffaele’s DNA was on the clasp.[vii]
My experience as a lawyer told me this was compromised, contaminated evidence that should not be admissible. I felt the world would be shocked to see that this was the Amanda Knox crime scene. Unfortunately, it would take four years for the Italian courts to bring in forensics experts from La Sapienza, the premier Italian university, to pronounce that the only two pieces of physical evidence the Perugia prosecutors had, the bra clasp and the knife, were unreliable due to contamination and shoddy police lab procedures, and were totally worthless in a court of law. Other than that, the prosecution had nothing but cartwheels and kisses. However, Amanda and Raffaele would sit in jail (with Raffaele spending considerable time in solitary confinement) until the final verdict of complete exoneration was reached. That would take years and three trials—not just double jeopardy, but triple jeopardy.
Many people don’t think about the criminal justice system until something goes wrong—someone we KNOW to be guilty goes free or we see a headline about someone who was wrongly convicted and spent the best years of their life in prison. We want more of the bad guys convicted and none of the good guys put behind bars. And that’s the way it should be.
But it never is.
There will always be guilty people who go free—some rich, well-resourced, seemingly immune to punishment. Odds are that we’re never going to be a country where the innocent—especially the poor, people who can’t afford the best lawyers, who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, who don’t look like everyone else, but look like the kind of person who did it—always avoid prison. But I believe it’s more important to protect the innocent than to get all the bad guys. Our founders believed this, too.
Benjamin Franklin said: “That it is better 100 guilty persons should escape than that one innocent person should suffer, is a maxim that has been long and generally approved.”[viii]
Today, that maxim feels radical. We have access to more information than at any time in human history, yet we are increasingly less informed and more certain of our opinion, more convinced of the morality of our convictions. There are few things the public is more certain of than the innocence or guilt of a man or woman accused of something they believe to be true—a man raping a woman, a cop accused of racism, a hero turned to villain.
The Amanda Knox story is about what happens when we search for proof of what we believe at the expense of the facts, when “innocent until proven guilty” is replaced by guilty if we can’t prove otherwise, and when reparations for the victim come before fidelity to the facts. When the media—including social media—acts as an accelerant to all of the above, and premature judgment overrides justice.
I’ve seen quite a bit. I’ve seen mothers who have killed their children. I’ve seen rapists walk free. I’ve cried with women who, even though I knew they were victims of domestic abuse, I didn’t think I could prove they were. I’ve been in enough courtrooms and jail cells, hospitals, churches, kitchens, and funeral homes—and seen enough of the worst that humankind is capable of—to have a good idea whether someone is probably guilty or probably innocent.
When I first heard about Amanda Knox, I “knew” she was guilty.
A radio station called the first week of November in 2007, a few days after the murder had captured the world’s attention, and asked me to chime in. At the time, I “knew” what everyone else knew from the salacious media reports out of Italy. I heard that she’d confessed, that she’d explained to the Italians that she’d had ritualistic, satanic sex with the roommate she’d been fighting with, that she and her boyfriend had removed Meredith Kercher’s clothes and done unspeakable things to her and viciously murdered her with a kitchen knife.
I’d seen the way she’d been acting. I’d heard she was doing cartwheels at the precinct after the murder but before she was arrested. I read the same stories and watched the same cable television as everyone else.
I saw the video of her making out with her boyfriend outside the crime scene after the cold-blooded murder but before she’d been fingered by the Perugia police. I read that the two of them had lived it up and gone out for pizza while their friend’s body was being parked at the morgue. I read that, in the midst of her grief, she’d gone out and bought lingerie.
All my experience told me this is not the way innocent people act. This isn’t the way people in grief act. I’d seen hundreds of victims, murderers, and wrongly accused, innocent bystanders. The innocent ones don’t think about their next pizza slice or the next sexy thong they’re going to wear for their boyfriend. That’s not the way they act. They’re horrified. They’re in tears. They can’t function. I knew it in my gut. But I didn’t need to rely on my gut.
I was assured repeatedly by the media reports that there was forensic evidence to back me up—gobs of it. On the murder weapon. On Meredith’s clothes. And I knew what that meant. I knew all I needed to know. Amanda Knox did it. She was a killer. And she was never coming home.
On the radio, I said I thought the best thing her family could do was get in touch with the State Department and ask them to try and convince their Italian counterparts to extend Amanda some leniency, some compassion—the kind of things she refused to give that beautiful British girl. The evidence was all there. She did it. She was going to be convicted. And I knew her only chance was to employ as much of the weight of the United States government as possible, cooperate early, and hope for a chance to see the light of day. Someday.
I didn’t give much thought to the case after that.
Until I got the call from Judge Michael Heavey.
He made his pitch. He told me what the media hadn’t told me about the case.
And I was in.
Amanda Knox was represented in Italy by Carlo della Vedova. The lawyer for the family of Meredith Kercher, Francesco Maresca, was a classic Italian bella figura. Meaning that he looked smart in that courtroom in his tailored Italian suits. Too bad he didn’t spend as much effort on getting the facts of the Amanda Knox case straight as he did on his suits. He walked out in the middle of one of Amanda Knox’s court presentations in 2010, saying she “bored him.” Since she was completely exonerated in a later court hearing, that seems like a limited approach to the pursuit of justice.
The real villain of the Amanda Knox fiasco was Giuliano Mignini. He was a member of a right-wing Catholic sect and believed the Masons were controlling the world and conducting ritual sacrifices involving babies. His beliefs had previously led him to make a complete mess of the investigation of a serial killer in Florence. That case was covered by the writer Douglas Preston in a book called The Monster of Florence,[ix] which he co-wrote with a local Italian journalist named Mario Spezi. Young people in Italy are plagued by a lack of jobs that means they often live with their families for many years after they graduate from high school or college, and since that typically means living in apartments in cities, they have no privacy. It is not uncommon for young people, therefore, to drive off to rural areas to make love to their partners. The Monster of Florence killer was preying on these young couples, lying in wait in rural areas outside Florence and shooting them in their cars while they were in the act of making love. He would often cut off the genitals of the women after their deaths. Mignini pursued a hair brained idea that it was the work of the Masons and never caught the actual killer. When Preston and Spezi started closing in on who the real killer was in the course of researching their book, Mignini responded by having Spezi arrested and put in jail.[x] He allowed his conspiracy theories about satanic cults and ritual sacrifices to blind him to the facts of the case and lose sight of the true killer, both in the Monster of Florence and Amanda Knox cases. He was obsessed with sex and rigid, moralistic ideas.[xi] He was eventually convicted for abuse of office, yet he was allowed to continue prosecuting cases.
On the ground covering the Amanda Knox trial in Italy were hundreds of journalists, but there were three English-speaking freelancers who stood out as particularly pro-prosecution. They included the Americans Andrea Vogt, a writer from Idaho, and Barbie Latza Nadeau, who always seemed to be looking at something above the skyline. Then there was Nick Pisa, a writer from the underbelly of the English tabloids, who worked for the Daily Mail. Pisa would later prematurely and wrongly report Amanda was found guilty, which the Daily Mail (or, as I like to call it, the Daily Fail) plastered on the front page, despite the fact Amanda was found not guilty just moments later.
The lawyers working with Amanda in Perugia had little experience in how to handle a case with such international implications. They didn’t speak to the press, as talking to the press was frowned upon in Italy, and many felt it could actually harm a case. That’s why we mobilized a group of American lawyers and others with relevant expertise (we called ourselves Friends of Amanda Knox, or FOAK) to take the case of an innocent abroad to the media instead of the courtroom. The reason? Big cases often aren’t decided in the courtroom. They’re determined in the press. The court of public opinion, inevitably, dictates what happens in the courtroom.
It’s impossible for jurors not to be swayed by what they hear in the press and on social media, even if they don’t think they are. Even if they can’t remember a salacious story they read or an ignorant, easily disproven tweet, the narrative set forth in the press and social media works its way in. That’s why good trial lawyers know they’ve got to get as many of the facts out in the press as soon as possible. You’re playing to your audience. That was even more important in this case because of differences in how Italian criminal cases are prosecuted.
US law is based on common law, where findings of particular judges become precedent, and are used to form opinions for subsequent cases. After an arrest for a serious crime like murder, defendants can usually pay a fine, or “bail,” which allows them to stay out of jail pending trial, unless a judge deems them to be a serious threat to the community. Defendants have the right to be tried by a jury of their peers. A judge oversees the trial, and jury members are picked randomly from the community. Lawyers for both the defense and the prosecution get to interview potential jury members and weed out those who may have particular biases and prejudices that might go against the client or the prosecution. The judge gives instructions to the jury on how they are to interpret the law in making their decisions, how to remain neutral, and how to render judgment. If convicted, they have the right to appeal, but judgment by the highest court is final.
Italian law is based on civil law, which are laws passed by the parliament and written in a judicial code. Unlike the common law, which comes from England, civil law is basically an outgrowth of the legal codes established by Napoleon, and extends to countries formerly under Napoleon like France, Spain, Portugal, and Italy. Defendants remain in jail pending the outcome of the trial. Most trials are overseen by a panel of three judges, but for crimes like murder they are conducted in the Corte D’Assise or Court of Assizes. The evidence is heard and verdict rendered by a combination of two professional judges, giudici togati, and usually six giudici popolari, or “popular judges.”[xii] These latter are randomly drawn from a local registry of persons who are eligible based on being between the ages of thirty and sixty-five, not having criminal records, having minimal education requirements, and not being in certain positions, including judges, police, and clergy.[xiii] Service is obligatory for all eligible citizens. Potential members are vetted in advance for biases and prejudices relevant to the case at hand, and the giudici popolari get instruction on how to participate in the trial. During the trial, the giudici togati sit in black robes at a panel flanked on either side by (usually) six giudici popolari wearing a sash with the Italian tricolors of green, white, and red. Although journalists writing about the case call them the “jury,” this actually confuses the issue, since a more accurate translation is “panel of appointed and popular judges.” After evidence is heard, the giudici are sequestered in the Camera di Consiglio, where there are beds, eating facilities, and showers for as long as it takes for them to reach a verdict. They vote with the youngest giudici popolari going first and the giudici togati going last so as not to have undue influence. They only need a majority to determine the verdict. A tie goes to the accused. If the verdict is innocence, the defendant is released and compensated monetarily for the time they spent in prison, as well as their court costs. The verdict can be appealed to the Corte d’Assise d’Apello where, based on an administrative review, the case can be sent back for a retrial, which occurs de novo. [xiv]
One of the sticking points of the Amanda Knox trial was the lack of sequestration of the jury during the period of the trial itself.[xv] Many Italians felt unfairly criticized by people like Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington State, who pointed out lack of sequestration of the jury and the potential for bias of the Italian “jury” by sensationalized reports in the media.[xvi] Most juries in the United States, however, are not sequestered, and similar efforts to vet and instruct juries to avoid biases occur in both countries. Only high-profile cases, like that of Michael Jackson and O. J. Simpson, which are covered later, have sequestered juries, and even then, it’s unclear how effective or enforceable that has been. Some argue that sequestering juries causes them to try to return verdicts more quickly in order to return to their normal life.
The media frenzy surrounding the Amanda Knox case was allowed to happen by prosecutor Mignini, who had his judgment fixed on a sex-crazed female murderer as his explanation of the case. He fed the press a steady stream of tabloid headlines, which made their way into tweets and stories on Facebook. The salacious stuff, the stuff that wasn’t true—it was having no trouble spreading across the globe. The truth in this case, as it usually is, was much more boring and thus had a much harder time spreading. The story of a prosecutor out of control isn’t limited to Italy, however. The story of the out-of-control prosecutor in the Duke Lacrosse case is told later in this book, as is the creation of a myth of a satanic cult in the case of the West Memphis Three by police and prosecutors. In those cases, creating prejudice through leaks to the press had many parallels with Mignini.
In highly publicized cases, jury candidates often come in with preconceived notions based on what they’ve previously heard. That’s why we vet juries so carefully, because jurors have often already made up their minds. I’ll often ask the jury pool to write down everything they know about the case—everything they’ve heard and where they heard it. You can get a good idea what their view of the case is just from that exercise.
In a cop case, I’ll ask questions to the group like: “Who here wanted to be a cop when you were a kid?” Nobody raises their hand. So, I’ll ask why: “Because you get shot at.” “Because everyone hates you.” It tells you about their biases, which we all have. I’m not looking for people who aren’t biased. In cases where I’m representing police, I’m looking for people who can set those biases aside.
When we pick juries, we ask every prospective juror: “What do you think about the case? Do you think you’ll be able to put your personal bias aside?” If they are unable to do so, or if they consume news about the case or discuss it, the judge can declare a mistrial.
Think about that for a second. On social media, we make up our minds as we read tweets and headlines, or look for “facts” on online forums that are often biased, not properly sourced, and/or filled with misinformation. We gravitate toward news sources and social media posts that align with our pre-existing biases. Our criminal justice system is set up to keep erroneous, misleading, and ill-gotten information out of view of juries so they can better determine guilt and better protect the innocent. As anyone who read about the last two presidential elections on Facebook or Twitter knows, not all information is true. Not every source is credible. When facts are a matter of life and death, information is vetted by a judge, not an algorithm.
I was uniquely qualified to deal with the Amanda Knox case because I was a high-profile lawyer with experience dealing with the media. I could go on television and talk to the camera and make a convincing argument. I was well spoken and articulate. I could deal with the muck and sewer of the tabloids, which this case entailed. Judge Heavey knew me, and right away he thought of me to help address this travesty of justice.
But the other reason I was “uniquely qualified” to work the Knox case wasn’t so obvious. In spite of my outward confident persona, I’ve always seen myself as an underdog person. This may be hard to believe for a girl who grew up in relative privilege. I also endured tragedy at an early age and understood what it was like to be different.
But that’s a longer story I’ll deal with later. Right now, let’s move on to the trial of a lifetime.
[i] Nina Burleigh, "How Amanda Knox's Trial Was the Dawn of the Fake News Era," Rolling Stone, June 13, 2019. Retrieved from https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/amanda-knox-nina-burleigh-fake-news-italy-murder-847731 September 3, 2021.
[ii] Graig Graziosi, "Amanda Knox publicly shames alt-right blogger for attacking her as a 'greedy leech' and 'murderer'," The Independent, February 10, 2020. Retrieved from https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/amanda-knox-alt-right-a9328381.html October 7, 2021.
[iii] Natasha Bertrand, "'A model for civilization': Putin's Russia has emerged as a 'beacon for nationalists' and the American alt-right," Business Insider, December 10, 2016. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/russia-connections-to-the-alt-right-2016-11 October 7, 2021.
[iv] "Labyrinths: With Amanda Knox and Christopher Robinson," November 20, 2020. Retrieved from https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/plato-the-primate-pooped-tim-tandice-urban/id1494368441?i=1000499554623
[v] "Labyrinths: With Amanda Knox and Christopher Robinson," November 20, 2020. Retrieved from https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/plato-the-primate-pooped-tim-tandice-urban/id1494368441?i=1000499554623
[vi] Nina Burleigh, The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trial of Amanda Knox (New York: Crown, 2011).
[vii] Peter Gill, "Analysis and implications of the miscarriages of justice of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito," Forensic Science International: Genetics 23, (2016): 9-18. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1872497316300333
[viii] Benjamin Franklin. Letter to Benjamin Vaughan.
[ix] Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi, The Monster of Florence (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2013).
[x] Alix Kirsta, "'I thought - I'm in serious trouble here'," The Guardian, December 14, 2006. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2006/dec/14/italy.ukcrime September 7, 2021.
[xi] Nina Burleigh, The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trial of Amanda Knox (New York: Crown, 2011).
[xii] Daniele Mastrogiacomo, "Come funziona la giuria e in caso di parità..." La Reppublica, June 1, 1999. Retrieved from https://www.repubblica.it/online/fatti/martarusso/giudici/giudici.html September 12, 2021.
[xiii] "La giuria popolare in Italia e nel Common law," studentigiurisprudenza.it, November 15, 2018. Retrieved from https://studentigiurisprudenza.it/2018/11/15/la-giuria-popolare-in-italia-e-nel-common-law/ September 12, 2021.
[xiv] "La giuria popolare in Italia e nel Common law," studentigiurisprudenza.it, November 15, 2018. Retrieved from https://studentigiurisprudenza.it/2018/11/15/la-giuria-popolare-in-italia-e-nel-common-law/ September 12, 2021.
[xv] Liz Robbins, "An American in the Italian Wheels of Justice," The New York Times, December 5, 2009. Retrieved from https://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/12/05/an-american-in-the-italian-wheels-of-justice September 12, 2021.
[xvi] Beppe Severgnini, "I verdetti fai-da-te e quel tifo Usa sbagliato," Corriere della Sera, December 8, 2009. Retrieved from https://www.corriere.it/cronache/09_dicembre_08/caso-amanda-knox-tifo-america-commento-severgnini_0619fc9c-e3f1-11de-8eb6-00144f02aabc.shtml September 12, 2021.