The acquittal last week of Amanda Knox was not welcomed in Seattle's sister city of Perugia, Italy.
PERUGIA, Italy — They may be sister cities, but they’ve never been more estranged.
As Seattle celebrates the homecoming of its native daughter after a long and painful ordeal, Perugia is still brooding about the one who got away.
While the U.S. media chronicles Amanda Knox’s harrowing prison stories and her family’s joyful reunion, Italian commentators are indignantly discussing American arrogance and how “the black man always pays.”
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In Italy, the acquittal of Amanda Knox in the slaying of roommate Meredith Kercher has been called a miscarriage of justice.
“A lot of people here believe justice was not done,” said Alexander Guttieres, a prominent American attorney with a Rome-based international law firm. “But the legal truth and the real truth are not always the same, and the evidence wasn’t there to convict.”
The contrasting scenes in and outside the Perugia courthouse Monday night perhaps most poignantly captured the polemical political reaction the Knox acquittal sparked in Europe last week.
As he read the sentence, Judge Claudio Pratillo Hellman faced the terrified defendants, their anxious families and rows of photographers on stepladders behind them. As he said “assoluzione per non aver commesso il fatto” — acquittal for not having committed the crime — Knox’s sobs of relief broke the gravity and silence of the moment.
Outside, a restless crowd of college students checking iPhones began whispering “Acquitted” and in split seconds, astonishment had turned to anger. One man pulled out a megaphone and started a chant of “Vergona! Vergona” (Shame! Shame!). Another yelled: “They only convicted the black man,” referring to Rudy Guede, 24, who was born in Ivory Coast and who was convicted of Kercher’s murder in a separate trial. He is serving a 16-year sentence.
Police tightened their line around the cordoned-off cobblestone area where the media and lawyers were to exit. But a groundswell of anger erupted when Giulia Bongiorno, the high-profile Sicilian lawyer for Raffaele Sollecito, stepped outside.
“Shame on you!”
The sudden roar of whistling and yelling could be heard far inside the courthouse, where journalists on deadline ran to the window to see what was happening. The crowd pressed toward the lawyer, yelling “Shame on you! Shame on you,” while moving their right hands in a vertical chopping motion that is the Italian sign of disapproval.
Flanked by four special-operations police, Bongiorno pushed through to a small, dark hatchback and sped away.
This bizarre closing scene of Knox’s Perugian legal saga remains etched in the minds of the lawyers, onlookers and journalists who lived it.
“It was a city in revolt,” said Paola Cannizzo, 35, who was in the crowd reporting for the national television station RAI. “In revolt because Italy, for the most part, considered Amanda and Raffaele guilty. They can’t understand how the outcome can be so different, after they were (sentenced) to 26 and 25 years in the first trial.”
In Italy, public frustration is often manifested in the town square. And while the courts may have redeemed themselves in the eyes of the Knox and Sollecito families by declaring Amanda and Raffaele absolutely innocent, they still face a possible review at the Supreme Court level.
The British view
Watching closely will be the family of the British victim, Kercher, 21. Tuesday morning, Kercher’s relatives were left sorting through the remnants of the shattered investigation into their daughter’s murder, visibly anguished over being “set back to square one.”
“The courts said Rudy Guede killed Meredith with others,” said Meredith’s brother Lyle Kercher. “The search goes on to find out what happened.”
Even British Prime Minister David Cameron weighed in Tuesday on an issue that was largely overlooked in the American coverage.
“Those parents … had an explanation for what had happened to their wonderful daughter, and that explanation isn’t there,” Cameron told ITN, Britain’s main private television broadcaster. “I think everyone today should be thinking about them and how they feel.”
Once Knox touched down in Seattle, the images of her hero’s welcome further inflamed public opinion.
In Italy, there was that widely published first snapshot of freedom: the photo of Knox being driven out of Capanne prison in a darkened Mercedes seated next to a man with a broad smile. Who was the man in the dark sedan?
He was Corrado Maria Daclon, close adviser and assistant to head of the Italy-USA Foundation, Rocco Girlanda.
The Italy-USA Foundation promotes positive business and diplomatic ties between the countries. Girlanda, from nearby Gubbio, wrote a book about his friendly prison visits with Knox, which he was granted as a parliamentarian in Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s party.
He also sits on the parliamentary judicial commission, which, until recently, was headed by Sollecito’s lawyer Bongiorno. An excellent trial lawyer, Bongiorno is also a high-profile political figure. Many Italians know her as the Palermo lawyer who famously won the acquittal of former Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti on mafia-related murder charges.
“Upsets on appeal”
“Italy has experienced major upsets on appeal precisely in the majorly ‘famous’ trials,” said Stefano Maffei, an Oxford-educated criminal-law professor who lectures in the U.S. and Italy. “Think of the Andreotti case: the former prime minister and current life senator was first acquitted for the murder of journalist Mino Pecorelli, then (convicted and) sentenced to 24 years, before the Supreme Court finally acquitted him.”
Unlike the U.S., an Italian appeals court may review all the facts. However, added Maffei, the appeals court traditionally shows some deference to fact-finding in the first instance since all witnesses testify there, while the appellate review is mostly “on paper.”
The Berlusconi factor
Tuesday, Berlusconi’s closest ally, former justice minister Angelino Alfano, said the verdict was proof that proposed judicial reforms are needed, as “magistrates never pay” for judicial errors. Berlusconi is being tried on an array of corruption and prostitution charges stemming from his business dealings and sex scandals.
He and his allies say prosecutors (investigating magistrates in Italy) have too much power and should be reined in.
The heated tones prompted the Supreme Magistrate’s Commission to warn Wednesday against politicizing the Knox verdict, but it was too late. Accusations of U.S. State Department meddling in internal Italian affairs, public-relations manipulation and internal political “string pulling” had already leapt into the daily talk shows and news pages. “Southern Europe is the homeland of conspiracy theories and Italy is no exception,” said Maffei.
“Yet there’s a more practical explanation for this current political fallout. In the days before the decision, polls showed a majority of Italian public opinion in favor of conviction. Based on that, spin doctors for the Berlusconi government linked the acquittal with the current debate on Berlusconi and the judiciary to exploit the event to their advantage. But quite frankly I don’t think politics played a part in the deliberation room.”
Even Judge Hellman scrambled to defend his decision, granting an interview to Italian journalists Wednesday. The Seattle Times has obtained an audio transcript of his surprisingly frank remarks, which reverberated through Italy’s national papers Thursday.
“Certainly Rudy Guede knows, but he hasn’t said,” Hellman said. “And maybe the two defendants know, too, because our decision to find not guilty is the result of the truth created within the context of the trial, but the real truth may be different. They may be responsible, but there is no proof. So maybe they know too, but we don’t have anything to go on.”
He expressed sympathy for the Kerchers, but noted he felt a responsibility toward the living, in this case, “two kids, little more than 20 years old.”
“It’s not that I was able to get into the psyche of those two, my impressions were based on the images I saw and a few words they spoke but they seemed normal kids, as normal as many today, well behaved, composed, tested and forged and matured by this experience. That’s all.”
In Italy, the Knox case is fading from the limelight, but the bitter battle over reforming the justice system while Berlusconi is on trial is not going away.
And rightly or wrongly, Amanda Knox — or perhaps more aptly, the memory of Amanda Knox — remains awkwardly stuck in the middle.
Andrea Vogt is a journalist and author who reports on crime, politics and social affairs in Europe and the United States.
She lives in Italy.