Amanda Knox has published her book, Waiting to Be Heard, and is engaged in a series of media interviews. Pundits on both sides have been weighing in and the internet debate about the case rages on. Exactly what is it about this case which makes it so interesting and controversial?
My theory is that what we have is a "perfect storm" consisting of a number of factors brewing a mix of emotions which lead to a media frenzy. Let me list some of the important ones.
1. The Place – Perugia is in Umbria, an Italian region which was originally part of the Papal States. It is not Rome, Venice or Milan. It hosts a large and boisterous throng of foreign students trying to "find themselves" in a year abroad and often using drugs and sex to help locate the path to self-awareness. This is not exactly like importing nine thousand West Africa college students to a school in rural Mississippi but it is not really that different either. All of the town/gown dispute issues going back to the Middle Ages are amplified in this atmosphere. The locals, still devotely Catholic and often superstitious, depend upon the influx of the foreign students to sustain the local economy but likely have a love/hate relationship with annoying, disruptive and arrogant adolescents from very different cultures.
2. The Police – Italy actually has two police forces, the Carabinieri and the Polizia. The former are generally viewed as more competent and have more experience in serious cases. Needless to say, the Polizia got this case due to the bad luck of the timing of their arrival on the scene. The investigation was led by Monica Napoleoni for whom this was her first "big case" (not a good one to practice on!) and who has subsequently come under investigation for abuse of her position. They failed to promptly take the body temperature of the victim, made literally dozens of mistakes collecting and processing forensic evidence, sent the evidence to an uncertified lab, erased key computer hard drives and made a number of other blunders which tend to sow doubt upon the case leaving room for on line advocates to argue incessantly in cyberspace.
3. The Media – The victim’s father was a writer who often worked for the British tabloids; it is unclear wherther this was a factor in what developed into a tabloid frenzy. These British tabloids are particularly blatant practicioners of "yellow journalism" – these newspapers try to make every story a lurid and sensational "bombshell" to sell papers. They make the American National Enquirer look like the Harvard Classics. It is unclear exactly why the tabloids picked the case up but, when they did, they really ran with it. In Italy, the judicial bureaucracy has all sorts of ways to intimidate journalists who are critical and thus the media tended to toe the prosecution’s line. The American media generally sided with the defendant and so we had very different stories being told to Italian, British and American audiences. In all cases, there was a healthy dose of sex and drugs to entice readers on and – due to police bungling – enough ambiguity to fuel a furious debate.
4. The Italian "Justice" System – Italy has a judicial system very different from the United States system. A proud magistrate bureaucracy considers itself "above politics" and has sweeping powers. Its independence dates back to the Mussolini years. At first this may have worked reasonably well for the central government – after all, the "independent" magistrates were not about to throw Benito in the slammer for drunk driving. More powers were added to combat the Mafia and political corruption so that defendants could be held and denied access to communications with their attorneys. Prosecutors and judges are magistrates and have a degree of unseemly solidarity. The press can’t really criticize the system because prosecutors tenaciously go after critical journalists. From an American perspective, the system appears to lend itself to prosecutorial abuse; but accusations of this kind just lead to more criminal charges. The most distinctive feature of the Italian system is that it is sloooooow and inconclusive. This case has already had two judicial opinions (one for each side) and is nowhere near the finish line. From a media perspective the once a week hearings created a nice, long term event which could be mined for nearly a decade.
5. The Crime – The alleged crime was a "same location" case – the victim and the defendant lived in the same apartment and that’s where the crime was committed. The defendant’s DNA was found in the apartment but that really doesn’t prove anything because that’s where she lived. There were all sorts of abstruse issues about "mixed DNA" but the DNA was actually "mixed" by the bungling police who swabbed large areas onto a a single receptacle. There was no DNA of the defendant found in the room where the crime was committed but arguments could be made that this too was due to police bungling.
6. The Prosecutor – The prosecutor, Mignini, is a controversial figure who had already been in media storm over the Monster of Florence case. He seems to have a predilection toward theories of conspiracy, Masonic cabals, and sexual perversions. He has been known to consult a psychic for advice on tough cases. He is a devout and very conservative Catholic and must have been scandalized by the local student population. He was delighted when he and the police "intuited" a solution to a case which threatened to drive students away and wreck the local economy. He does not seem to have the kind of mind which constantly questions its own assumptions; instead, he seems to be an almost paradigmatic poster child for Confirmation Bias.
7. The Defendant – Amanda Knox was an immature 20 year old with horrible judgment and no sense of self-awareness. She was from the Pacific Northwest and, unlike New Yorkers, had limited exposure to dramatically different cultures while, unlike Alabamans, she had little restraint based on religious indoctrination. She seems to have been almost a kind of female "Forest Gump" blundering from crisis to crisis in Italy without any sense of the motives or attitudes of the people around her. "Naive" doesn’t really describe her state of being adequately – "clueless" may be better. As her book indicates, she has had to grow up very, very, very fast. Her limited ability in Italian makes it difficult to speculate on exactly how her interrogation proceeded in any kind of coherent way. She actually signed a statement in which she identified one of the suspects by providing his height in centimeters (does anyone seriously think she could do this?). Her behavior the first trial was ludicrous and, had I been her attorney, I would have unloaded on her in no uncertain terms (in my jurisdiction all defendants in violent crime cases now wear glasses to trial whether they need them or not – guess why?). On the other hand, there is no way that her behavior should have brought on the plague of accusations and recriminations she has had to endure.
This is a case in which anyone playing with a full deck of cards can conclude pretty quickly that finding guilt beyond a reasonable doubt depends upon setting the "reasonable doubt" threshold ridiculously low and creating a world that no one, other than an abusive prosecutor, would really want to live in. I have concluded that she is clearly innocent but the police and prosecutorial bungling is so pervasive that this is a case in which a degree of uncertainty is undeniable. I guess the way I would put it is that she is no more lilkely to have committed the crime than anyone else. Unfortunately, the Italian bureaucracy does not like to publicly announce its mistakes and so it has become unpredictable exactly how this case will wander through the intestinal tract of the Italian judiciary over the next decade or so.
For starters, the Italian authorities should take whatever steps are necessary to further the pursuit of truth in this case – that includes turning over all relevant forensic evidence incluidng DNA electronic data files to the defense, trying to reclaim erased hard drives, and permitting an independent investigation of police and prosecutorial conduct in the case. This could set the stage for a constructive outcome to what has so far been a ludicrous debacle.