Six years ago, Vanessa Sollecito was not expecting any dramatic changes in her life. As a young Italian woman living independently in Rome, she loved her work as a lieutenant in the carabinieri, Italy’s national military police force. Vanessa had earned the competitive position as an extension of her previous military service, initially as one of the first women to join the Italian Air Force, and then as an officer in the national navy. Highly educated, experienced and accomplished, Vanessa looked forward to continued gradual success in her career and her life.
Vanessa grew up in the small, picturesque town of Giovinazzo in southern Italy with her brother, Raffaele Sollecito, who is seven years younger. The two are close, having shared both happy and sad life events, including their parents’ divorce and their mother’s early death.
Vanessa’s and Raffaele’s worlds fell apart completely on November 6, 2007, when Raffaele and his then-girlfriend, Amanda Knox, an American, were arrested in Perugia, Umbria, for a murder they did not commit. In the years since, Raffaele and Amanda, both college students in their twenties, were imprisoned, tried, convicted, retried, acquitted and released. Currently they are awaiting another trial, possibly with further convictions and further imprisonment for Raffaele, an Italian citizen. (It is unlikely the United States will extradite Amanda in the case of another conviction.)
The forces behind this seemingly never-ending process include provincial vendettas, petty corruption and the excruciatingly slow Italian court system. As a result, the families of both defendants have been forced to live in varying states of uncertainty, their lives knocked off track for six long years, with more to come.
As Raffaele Sollecito was prosecuted, his family was persecuted. For months, all of their phone calls were intercepted and recorded by authorities. They were accused of planning crimes to interfere with the trial. The entire family was sued by prosecutors because a television station aired crime scene photographs they claimed the whole family had provided to them, even though Vanessa was not connected in any way. After five years, a judge has finally dismissed the case.
In addition to the injustice perpetrated against her brother and her family, Vanessa personally suffered many losses. Her life’s focus changed completely; she lost friends, was seriously injured in a moped accident, and eventually moved away from Rome to be closer to her family. Worst of all, she was targeted and watched by her employers, who, over time, found a way to force her out of her career position, turning their backs on her after she had served in the country’s military for ten years.
Recently, in an e-mail interview, Vanessa wrote about her unique experience.
Question: How did you feel at the beginning, when you first realized what was happening?
Vanessa Sollecito: I remember very clearly. I was just about to go to lunch at work when my father called me and told me to run to look at the TV, because Raf had been arrested. I stopped myself and ran to watch while I spoke with my father, both of us looking for reasons for what had happened.
“Maybe they need to do more investigation, and Raf knows something they need,” I told him.
Really, I was incredulous, and the more TV I watched and the more the minutes passed, the more my blood became ice, and I felt my breath throbbing in my brain. Out, empty. I felt the beginning of years without end of tragedy.
From Raffaele Sollecito’s prison diary, 7 November 2007
“Dear Papa and Sis, and to all who read these lines. I am writing from an isolation cell, damp and cold. There are peepholes in every corner where agents can watch, even while you use the bathroom. The bed is made of industrial sponge, the television cannot be used, the bathroom is filthy; I am making a request that it be clean. Today I got a blanket, so at least
when I’m asleep I’m warm…..
“At this time I think of Vanessa. I would like you to read this letter. I am very sorry for this whole mess and to have involved you indirectly because of your job. I cannot imagine what you are going through now. I am so sorry, Vane, I did not want you to be in this situation; please forgive me. I love you. Now I can say that I understand what it means to walk through hell, and I pray to God that nothing more happens to me ……Now I go to sleep, I hope to see you again soon. A strong, strong hug.”
Vanessa: Days later I tried to call the Perugia police and carabinieri, to ask for information about Raf’s health — not about the investigation — and I wanted to speak with some person in charge. I didn’t want them to think I was using my role as a police official to intrude in an open investigation. They did not want to speak with me about Raf, though, and after that they knew me, so I couldn’t try again.
Maybe I should have gone in person, and my father too, the first time Raf called me and told me a friend of his girlfriend was killed, and they were there when police discovered the body. We would have understood the situation better; we would have advised him and helped him make better choices, to be aware of the danger he was in. But Raf had told us everything was ok.
Q: When the first trial began, were you hopeful?
Vanessa: For the first trial, I was not hopeful. Of course my heart hoped, but my mind told me otherwise. I had studied the absurdities in the case documents, and I knew how the system works here in Italy. Too much media, too much blablabla, too many rules for the defendant, too much ground to cover. I had lived and worked knowing too many people with the mentality.
Q: How did this situation affect your life?
Vanessa: Eventually, this destroyed my life completely. At the beginning, lots of people stayed close to me, but mostly out of curiosity, I discovered. After the first trial, lots of them disappeared — some trusted the TV and the media, and believed that Raf was guilty. Some were scared of the heaviness of the problem and its implications. Some were tired of trying to help me, because some of the worst aspects of my particular character came out under the circumstances.
I used to travel a lot and spend time in social activities with friends. I practiced a lot of sports; I was always studying and learning new things, improving the quality of my life and working to advance myself. I loved going to the theater and to book presentations. I joined cultural associations and attended conferences and courses. Now some of those interests are only a pleasant memory.
I suffered more at first because I was without my family near. They called me mostly to study documents or to prepare for the trial. They thought that I was very strong and I didn’t need anything, but if this is true, it is also true that I am human. I thought of my dead mother often during those moments.
Before this happened, my father and I were closer, warmer. He was nearer to me, because he was not preoccupied with this tragedy. He was calm, his health was strong, his job was good. A normal life all changed for the worst after this. I am so worried about him today.
“Let’s say I am a kind of collateral damage of this story. Hit hard, penalized, no one knows how much pain I also had to deal with.”
— Vanessa Sollecito, to UmbriaLeft.It, October 15, 2011
In his memoir, Honor Bound: My Journey to Hell and Back with Amanda Knox, Raffaele wrote about his sister, “Vanessa is almost absurdly accomplished.” It is true. Educated in political science, international relations and law, archaeology and human resources development, Vanessa holds several undergraduate and graduate degrees and certificates. In her employment, she focused on corporate security and HR management. She is a champion equestrian who has competed nationally and internationally in show jumping. She has been a personal trainer, a nutritionist and a multidisciplinary martial arts instructor. Her athletic accomplishments include wrestling, canoe, driving, swimming, javelin and high jump, all at competitive levels.
Question: What were your position and duties in the carabinieri?
Vanessa: I was an official in the carabinieri, a lieutenant, one level before captain. They had transferred me many times to different regions of Italy for different duties. This was because I was one of few official women with specific competences in some areas. My last employment was in Rome, at the chief logistics office in command of the region. I was responsible for controlling structures, soldiers, some departments, organizing meetings, participating in important events (I was there when your President Bush visited, twice), verification of documents for some procurements, and so on.
I was in the carabinieri for almost 6 years. Before that I was in the military for almost 4 years. I worked and studied hard, learned tolerance, made sacrifices. I had many jobs and won many awards.
Q: What happened at your job?
Vanessa: Lots of my colleagues and superiors at the beginning isolated me. Some of them told me we could not criticize police operations. Some of them listened to TV and media and trusted that my brother was guilty. After I showed them documents from the case, they didn’t answer. They didn’t want go inside that situation. They were indifferent. For them, I was a problem because of my surname, and because I helped my family with my abilities.
One day, after two years of my brother’s tragedy, I was presented with a bad situation. For two years, my employers had been pressuring me to resign, but I didn’t want to lose my job, so I resisted. In January 2009 the system decided to hold a competition — one I had won years before — to decide my future employment and that of a few of my colleagues. This was illegal. You can listen to the complete story here (in Italian):
After many years of service with above-average ratings and no demerits, I was fired. They told me I had an “unsuitable attitude for the role of an official of the carabinieri” — after almost 10 years! It was obviously absurd. I filed a first appeal, but I lost, because the judges told me the carabinieri can hold employee competitions (– against the law!).
I filed a second, final appeal, and told the judges in the European Union that what had happened to me (and only to me in that competition) is not permitted. They told me I was right, but that Italy would disregard European laws and rule against me. Now I have an appeal in European court. They will rule in my favor, but they can’t give me my job back. This is one more absurdity of our country, but nobody talks about it, because people are scared to pit themselves against our system.
Q: Did you receive any financial compensation?
Vanessa: For almost ten years of work, I received less financial compensation than I needed even to pay my lawyer — less than €5,000.
“Of all the cases of ordinary injustice perpetrated against the military, which I work with every day, what happened to Vanessa Sollecito is certainly one of the most blatant.”
— Giorgio Carta, Vanessa’s defense lawyer
The focus of her employers’ actions against Vanessa was psychological. They urged her to sign forms indicating she was under mental stress and needed time off for a rest. “If I had done this absurdity,” says Vanessa, “I would have fired myself directly with my own hands.”
In the end, the police were able to use subjective measures of her mental health against her anyway, couching their decision in the same defensive doublespeak common to the judges’ written motivations for her brother’s convictions. In denying her appeal, the Italian court wrote:
“The mere fact that at the time, in the competition for an officer cadet, the person concerned has the requisite qualifications does not, of course, exclude the possibility that, following the tests, the psychological report, interview and final aptitude evaluation have denoted behavioral deficiencies such as to exclude specific aptitude to unconditional service as an officer on active duty.”
In other words, the fact that the applicant is qualified does not necessarily mean she is qualified.
When Raffaele and Amanda Knox were acquitted at the end of their appeal trial in 2011, their families were relieved and happy. At last they could regain some sense of stability and the opportunity to move on. Vanessa says, “For me, however, it was with the awareness that my life would never be the same as before this tragedy.”
This past March, things fell apart again. In a startling decision, the Italian Supreme Court annulled the verdict of the appeal trial that had freed Raffaele and Amanda. They have sent the case back to a lower court for a retrial of the appeal, beginning this September.
The written motivations for the high court’s decision were released in June. To many observers, the judges of the Supreme Court seem to have overstepped their bounds, reinterpreting evidence instead of evaluating legal procedure. Some analysts read the motivations as actually instructing the lower court to purposely reconvict Raffaele and Amanda.
The day the report was released, Vanessa felt devastated all over again. She wrote to her supporters on Facebook: “We are totally destroyed. My father’s health is worse. There is no more money to deal with two and more years of courts. Again. All again. I am feeling lost. What is the future?”
Some weeks later, the shock has worn off a bit. Vanessa, in her typical way, soldiers on, even allowing herself the confidence to hope. She imagines regaining a life suited to her talents and drive, with at least some of the sense of contentment she once took for granted.
Q: What would your life be like today if this had not happened?
Vanessa: Today? Maybe I would have good work, hoping always to advance. Before this tragedy, I dreamed of entering carabinieri aviation — I was a military pilot in the aviation academy before my carabinieri job — or in their sport group for horseback riding and show jumping at international levels, as I was doing before. I had a normal life with friends, a partner, my family safe. But today this is only an imagination.
Lately I am trying to restart my life: I try to do projects, I try to imagine my future, but often I realize I am dreaming, for now. To restart I need people to trust in me, and to help me to reach my goals. And I deserve and I want big goals, nothing less.
Q: What would you like the future to hold for you?
Vanessa: The future for me, I don’t know. I want to have back the things I’ve lost. A very good career, sincere friends, horses. A few years ago, after I was fired, I went back to working full-time with horses. In the past I was a prominent competitor in show jumping. I would like to come back to it at that high level, but since I am not working, I need sponsors or patrons to help me. I am willing to move abroad if it’s necessary.
If I stay in Italy, I dream about opening a little B&B on the sea in my delicious town, Giovinazzo, where the food, antiquities, history, sea and people all are perfect for tourists. There are lots of tourists every year who come here to visit; and we have few structures to welcome them. I also think about having an export trade of our local, traditional, handmade and genuine products (the best in the world!) of food, wines, and oil. Of course, to realize this, I would need the help of someone prominent in restaurants or exporting to be interested with me in these important and profitable projects.
Q: What would you like people to know?
Vanessa: I have suffered very much for Raf’s situation, for my family’s tragedy, for the rape of the memory of my mother, for all my life — work, friends, partners — and the future that has been completely removed and destroyed. But I would like people to know how much I am capable of, how important my accomplishments are, and how I wish for a full, interesting and peaceful life.
For more information about Vanessa: Sollecito, Raffaele. Honor Bound: My Journey to Hell and Back with Amanda Knox. New York. Gallery Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster. 2012