The parents of Seattle's Amanda Knox, the University of Washington student accused in the sensational murder of Meredith Kercher in Perugia, Italy, are going for broke trying to prove her innocence. Recently they took time for a 3-½-hour interview.
For the past nine months, Curt Knox and Edda Mellas, of Seattle, have split the rent on a very non-lovely apartment in Italy’s lovely Umbria region. Tiny, with bars on the windows, a balky overhead fan, sweltering in the summer, freezing in the winter.
But it is close to the Capanne prison, where their daughter, Amanda Knox, has been held since Nov. 6 for her alleged role in a lurid murder case that has become an Italian true-crime soap opera.
Convinced she is innocent, her parents have spent themselves to the brink of financial ruin on her defense. But they also are reluctant to harshly criticize the investigation, afraid of angering Italian prosecutors.
“What we can say publicly versus what we really feel are oftentimes totally different. We just have to leave it at that,” Curt Knox said in a recent interview in Seattle, while his ex-wife, Mellas, and younger daughter, Deanna, spoke from Italy. “It makes the stress level in this thing, it makes it huge.”
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It was the family’s first in-depth interview with a U.S. newspaper.
Knox, her Italian ex-boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, and another man, Rudy Guede, are accused of sexually assaulting, brutally murdering and stealing money from Knox’s British roommate in Perugia, the ancient learning hub near Rome where Knox was spending a year abroad from the University of Washington.
Since the evidence was turned over to their lawyers in June, Knox’s parents are now focused on a Sept. 16 hearing, at which an Italian judge will decide whether to formally indict Knox and send the case to trial. They hope the judge will be swayed by new forensic testing, toss out the alleged murder weapon — a kitchen knife seized from Sollecito’s apartment — and set Knox free.
Views of the case — and of Knox — flip on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Here, the case is seen by legal experts who’ve examined the evidence as deeply flawed. Equally alarming to them is the fact that the lead prosecutor is himself under indictment. But in Italy, Knox is viewed as harboring a secret dark side, and she’s largely presumed guilty.
The difference, Curt Knox believes, is his 21-year-old daughter’s inaccurate portrayal in news accounts as a drug-addled nymph who acted strangely after the murder.
“We don’t have a choice but to believe in their legal system,” he said. “We will take this as far as we have to take this, because she is walking out of there totally free of anything related to this.”
“They found a body”
Amanda Knox had a middle-class childhood in West Seattle, running between the homes of her parents, who divorced in 1989 but continued to live near each other after both remarried.
After starring in soccer at Seattle Prep, she made the dean’s list at the UW and gravitated toward writing and foreign languages. She worked three jobs to save $10,000 for a year abroad.
“One of the things Edda and I talked about with Amanda before she even went to Italy was, what happens if something goes wrong. Your parents are now 6,000 miles away from you. What do you do?” said Curt Knox, 47, a vice president for finance at Macy’s. “At that point, we were thinking about, you know, medical.”
Instead, Mellas, an elementary-school math teacher in Highline, was awakened before dawn on Nov. 2 by a call from Knox in Italy. “She said, ‘Mom, I’m OK, I’m home, but I think somebody might have been in my house,’ ” Mellas said.
Knox told her mother she’d just come home after spending the night with Sollecito to find the front door ajar, droplets of blood in her bathroom, feces in a toilet, and the bedroom door of housemate Meredith Kercher locked. Knox took a shower, then left to fetch Sollecito, who then called police.
Amanda called again a few hours later, this time with panic her voice. “They found a body in Meredith’s room,” Mellas, 46, remembers her daughter saying. “I gotta go, the police want to talk with me.”
Kercher’s throat had been slashed three times, leaving her to slowly drown in her own blood. Crime-scene video shows her room awash in blood, including bloody fingerprints on a wall. Her purse was missing at least 250 euros.
Mellas quickly made plans to fly to Italy, believing her daughter needed moral support. By the time she landed, Knox was in jail.
Holes in the case
The evidence initially presented by police seemed overwhelming: a spot of Knox’s DNA mixed with Kercher’s blood on a faucet; a kitchen knife from Sollecito’s house with Knox’s DNA on the handle and Kercher’s DNA on the blade; and a surveillance video putting Knox at her house near the time of the murder.
Knox also appeared to incriminate herself with a rambling statement — signed at 5:45 a.m. after a 14-hour interrogation — that put her at the crime scene and implicated her boss, a Perugia bar owner. She admitted smoking hashish with Sollecito, clouding her memory.
Soon after, the lead prosecutor, Guiliano Mignini, said Knox and Sollecito had “given the strong impression of contradiction and absurdity” in their statements.
But the case has slowly crumbled. The Italian supreme court threw out Knox’s statement because she’d been denied a lawyer. Knox said she was repeatedly hit by interrogators.
The surveillance video was also tossed, too grainy to be useful. And Knox’s defense experts have found that the knife could not have caused Kercher’s fatal wounds, and they will soon show that the alleged spot of Kercher’s DNA on the knife could match half of Italy’s population, according to Curt Knox.
The bar owner implicated by Knox’s statement was released. That created animosity among Italians and supported the impression the “typical American girl is secretly some kind of monster,” said Maria Rossi, a public-opinion expert in Rome.
But police still lack a credible motive for Knox’s involvement, and there is no evidence putting her at the crime scene, said Joe Tacopina, a high-profile New York defense attorney who vetted the case for ABC News. In fact, Knox’s wet footprints at the crime scene confirm the story she told her mother, he said.
The evidence instead points toward Guede, Tacopina said. The young Perugia man has a criminal history, admitted having sexual contact with Kercher just before her death, and left fingerprints and DNA in Kercher’s blood and on her purse.
“Where is the evidence to keep this girl in jail for a year?” he asked.
Pressure from the press
Curt Knox joined Mellas in Perugia shortly after Amanda Knox’s arrest. At a brief news conference in a regal Italian piazza, Mellas said she was nearly stampeded. “They came at us like a frickin’ herd of elephants,” said Curt Knox.
It was wild back home, too. Reporters staked out their houses. A letter sent by Amanda from prison was stolen and turned up in a British tabloid, Curt Knox said. They stopped putting their garbage on the curb after it was pilfered. Knox’s former classmates were offered up to $20,000 for interviews.
Tabloid headlines proclaimed “The Dark Angel of Seattle” and “Amanda Was a Drugged Up Tart,” following the story line of an American girl who lost her head in Italy.
Most recently, media reports in Europe, based on leaked information, said Knox admitted having sex with seven men in less than two months in Italy. But the stories were wrong: Knox, told by a prison doctor she had tested positive for HIV, actually had listed all her life’s sex partners. “Please oh please let it not be true,” she wrote in her diary. “I don’t want to die.” It turned out to be a false positive.
Despite the deluge, Knox’s parents stayed quiet for months on the advice of their Italian lawyers, fearful of angering the prosecutor on the case.
The lead prosecutor, Mignini, has pursued a theory of an orgy involving Knox, Sollecito and Guede having gone awry when Kercher declined to participate, and accused Knox and Sollecito of staging a burglary to throw off police.
An autopsy found no evidence Kercher had been raped or had sexual contact with anyone except Guede.
The theory resonated with Doug Preston, an author in Maine who has followed the case. He was interrogated by Mignini in 2006 — and his co-author, an Italian journalist, was briefly jailed — after publishing a book critical of Mignini for pursuing an elaborate theory in a serial-killer investigation. Mignini’s theory in that case involved a secret satanic cult that commissioned farmers to steal female sex organs for their rituals.
Soon after jailing Preston’s co-author, Mignini was indicted on charges of leaking confidential information and for wiretapping judges, police and other journalists critical of his handling of the serial-killer case. He has proclaimed his innocence. The case is pending.
In the Kercher case, a single killer “would be way too simple” for Mignini, who favors “conspiracy theories,” Preston said. “His career depends on convicting Knox of murder.”
But Mignini is admired in Perugia for his theories, said Frank Sfarzo, a film professor in Perugia whose blog, Perugia-shock.blogspot.com, is devoted to the Kercher slaying.
“It is good when the prosecutor doesn’t pick the simplest solution. It’s intelligent to think what is unthinkable,” Sfarzo said. “He went deeper and imagined something wider. But he has to prove this is true.”
“We’ll have nothing”
In the middle of a recent three-hour interview for this story, as Curt Knox criticized the “shoddy” crime-scene investigation, the cellphone connection to Mellas, who was speaking from Perugia, suddenly went dead.
They assume their cellphones, their rental house and their car in Italy are bugged and their e-mails read. They avoid talking about the case in prison visits, which usually end, Mellas said, with Knox clinging to her arm. “Walking away is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she said. “Unbearable.”
In advance of the Sept. 16 hearing, they’ve drained their home equity and retirement funds to pay for a defense team of lawyers, forensic experts, investigators and a media adviser in Seattle. They decline to say how much, except that “it would be an extremely nice house in the Pacific Northwest.”
“It’s called being leveraged to the hilt,” said Curt Knox. “Literally, we’ll have nothing. And we’ll do whatever it takes.”
The past nine months have taken a toll beyond the financial. Curt Knox and Mellas have tested the patience of their employers and had to accept money from extended family. They’re clearly exhausted, angry and stressed, but they deflect questions about themselves toward a defense of Knox.
“I can see how hard it is on them,” said younger daughter Deanna Knox, a 19-year-old college student. “They’re drained of all energy. My mom just can’t stop thinking about Amanda.”
Her parents are both relieved and haunted by one thought: It could have been their daughter killed instead of Kercher.
“We have a second chance. They don’t,” said Curt Knox.
“I can’t imagine the pain that family is going through,” said Mellas.
In Preston’s book, he quotes an Italian count who decries the methods of the Italian justice system: tapped phones, doctored conversations fed to the press, prolonged detention, “and finally a trial that lasts many years ending in the acquittal of a ruined man.”
Curt Knox nodded in recognition, tears welling up.
“I just hope it doesn’t take years.”
Freelance reporter Eric J. Lyman contributed material from Rome.