Often the more focus there is on a criminal case, the more international attention that it attracts, the more likely it is that it will go haywire; the bigger the case, the bigger the debacle. This certainly applies to the tragic murder of Meredith Kercher in Perugia, central Italy, in 2007.
Rudy Guede was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the murder of Meredith Kercher. His sentence was reduced to 16 years on appeal and later confirmed by Italy’s Supreme Court.
The prosecutor’s fallacy
In March 2015, the acquittals of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito brought a shock conclusion to what had become the long-running judicial saga of the Meredith Kercher murder case.
Few crimes in recent years have attracted as much worldwide attention or led to so much speculation. About a dozen books have been published about the case. There has been one British film about it (a risibly poor one). But, almost eight years later, it has not yet been properly resolved; nor are there currently any indications that it ever will be.
The case is now a prime illustration of the modern-day prosecutor’s fallacy: the overriding belief in scientific, and especially DNA, evidence; and the corresponding undervaluing of what can be more cogent areas of evidence.
Meredith Kercher, from Coulsdon, south London, was the 21-year-old daughter of an English father and an Indian mother. A Leeds University student, she was doing a four-year course in European Politics and Italian, of which one year was spent abroad. She arrived in Perugia, central Italy, in September 2007 and found accommodation at a house in Via della Pergola. This was rented to two Italian women, Laura and Filomena, who looked for two others to share with them. Knox, a US student from Seattle, took the first room, and then went briefly to Hamburg with her sister. While she was away, Laura and Filomena invited Meredith to take the other room.
When Knox returned, she decided to look for a part-time job, and found one handing out flyers and helping out at a local bar, Le Chic. Knox didn’t seem especially suited to this work – ‘I knew this wasn’t the right job for me’ – and the owner, Patrick Lumumba, was soon reducing her hours.
In the few weeks that they shared accommodation, Knox and Meredith did not get on. John Follain, in his book on the case, wrote that ‘Meredith complained increasingly about Amanda to her family and friends’.
In Waiting To Be Heard, her own book, Knox rejects the notion that there was friction between them, although she does accept that she was ‘way too blunt’ and that Meredith was ‘more mainstream and demure than I’d ever be’.
Halloween, 31 October, was a rowdy night in Perugia. Inevitably, the following evening was very quiet.
The case began the next morning, 2 November, when a woman named Elisabetta Lana found a mobile phone in her garden and telephoned police. Often the very first piece of evidence in a case turns out to be one of the most critical, and that would certainly apply here. The police discovered another abandoned phone in the garden and quickly established that both belonged to Meredith. She used two mobiles, one for calls within Italy and the other for calls to her family in the UK.
When they went round to the house in Via della Pergola, they learned that Meredith was missing. The door to her room was locked and the boyfriend of one of the Italian women kicked it in. There was a large amount of blood in the room. Meredith’s body lay underneath a duvet; she had died from knife wounds to the neck.
All that forms part of the case record, and none of it is contested. What follows is my own analysis of these events.
Knox came under suspicion straightaway. She writes that she was first alerted to this by reading it in the Mail on Sunday. It was the puzzling conduct of her and Raffaele Sollecito, her Italian boyfriend whom she had known for about a week, that led them to become prime suspects.
There were two aspects to this. They appeared unemotional and uncaring; Knox seemed so unconcerned that she performed handstands at the police station. This aspect seems of little importance; after all, people may react to grief in individual and sometimes inexplicable ways.
The second aspect is of far greater significance. During initial police inquiries, neither Knox nor Sollecito appeared able to respond to the most straightforward questions. They had difficulty in remembering what they were doing at the time of Meredith’s death, just a couple of days earlier.
Knox then suggested that Patrick Lumumba, her employer, had committed the murder. He was possibly related to Patrice Lumumba, the man who had led the Democratic Republic of the Congo to independence in 1961.
Lumumba was arrested. He told police that, on the evening of the murder, he’d been at his bar discussing Congolese politics with a Swiss professor. However, there was no one to verify this and he was held in custody.
Then the authorities had a breakthrough. Part of a palm print found on a cushion underneath Meredith’s body was confirmed as belonging to Rudy Guede, a 20-year-old Italian immigrant who came originally from the Ivory Coast. In the days after the murder, he had disappeared from Perugia and, indeed, Italy.
However, he contacted a friend via Skype. Unbeknown to him, the police were monitoring these messages. He was taken into custody in Germany and quickly returned to Italy.
In his police interview, Guede said that he’d arranged to see Meredith that evening. He was waiting for her when she arrived home. In her room, they started kissing and began heavy petting; but she had not wanted to go the whole way and broke off. Dejectedly, he went to the bathroom and put on his headphones.
When, some ten or fifteen minutes later, he heard loud screams, he rushed out of the bathroom. He bumped into someone who said, in Italian, ‘He’s black, the culprit’s been found, let’s go’.
Guede saw the wounds to Meredith’s neck and vainly used towels to staunch the bleeding. He then fled himself. ‘I was scared I would get all the blame’, he explained.
He was adamant that Lumumba was not there. This was correct. The Swiss professor was found; he confirmed the alibi and Lumumba was released.
In their investigation, prosecutors made a series of blunders. The first serious mistake was their assumption that Meredith was sexually assaulted. If one takes cognisance of Guede’s account, there is no evidence of this. The second mistake then ensued from the first. Needing to explain the presence of their three suspects in connection with the supposed sexual assault – and knowing there was absolutely no evidence to link Guede with Knox and Sollecito – they concocted the absurd scenario of a sex orgy gone wrong.
These were still the early weeks of a new academic year. Perugia was full of international students. Many were away from home for the first time and relishing the opportunity to take advantage of new freedoms. Sexual opportunities were available to all; there was no need for sex orgies, let alone violence.
However, Knox, Sollecito and Guede were all charged.
On legal advice, Guede opted for a fast-track trial and a plea bargain. According to Graham Johnson’s book, Darkness Descending, he ‘was convinced his colour would go against him’.
‘I’m black’, Guede is reported as saying, ‘they would have thought I did it.’
One can imagine the stark dilemma that was put to him: firstly, your DNA has been found in intimate places on the body and, secondly, you’re black; so you’re bound to be convicted. Bearing that in mind, do you want to serve thirty years or sixteen?
Not surprisingly, he chose the latter. In October 2008, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to thirty years, reduced to sixteen on appeal. Probably his lawyers had been trying to distance him from the others, but it was a disastrous tactic.
‘He could be dumb’, one of those who knew him said, ‘but Rudy was no murderer.’
Even as he pleaded guilty, he vehemently asserted his innocence, saying, ‘I can’t talk about things I haven’t seen and that didn’t happen to me’.
Meanwhile, Knox and Sollecito, aware that the accidental presence of Guede provided them with a perfect scapegoat, pleaded not guilty.
Nevertheless, they were convicted in December 2009; but the following year, in December 2010, the Italian court sanctioned a full review of the scientific evidence on which they had been convicted. The defence was then able to attack the science and at appeal in October 2011 the convictions were overturned.
In March 2013, a retrial was ordered. This showed how perverse criminal justice systems often are; it’s almost as if they’re trying to screw it up. If there was going to be a re-evaluation of the case, then it was essential that all three convictions were quashed to allow a complete reappraisal. Yet Guede’s conviction remained. This created a wholly unsatisfactory situation in which only part of the case was re-analysed. Guede’s own witness evidence, which should also have been considered de novo alongside the other evidence, was to be ignored.
The evidence against Knox and Sollecito was not limited to their demeanour under initial questioning. The police recognised straight away the botched attempt to make it look as though there had been an intruder, with a window broken in one of the rooms. As the house lay on the hillside, that window was inaccessible from the outside; an intruder would simply have broken in through the front door.
Then there was the involvement of Lumumba, an innocent man, who had only been arrested and spent time in jail because of Knox. Why had she given his name to the authorities? Perhaps she knew – because she was there – of the presence of a black man at the house, and so named the only black man she knew in Perugia.
In her book, Knox tries to explain her inability to recall, under police questioning, what she was doing at the time of the murder. ‘I was completely preoccupied with distinguishing between real memories versus whatever I’d imagined’, she writes. ‘I was so confused that my mind made up images to correspond with the scenario the police had concocted and thrust on me. For a brief time, I was brainwashed.’
This really isn’t convincing.
Nor does one believe her allegations of ill-treatment. It is inconceivable that in 2007 a young American woman would have been subjected to police brutality in Italy. It is also difficult to understand how that could have caused her to ‘forget’ events that had only just taken place, or led her to name an innocent man as the murderer.
The murder probably happened at around 9.30pm. At about 20.21, Knox received a call from Lumumba, saying that she would not be needed for work that evening. At 20.40, a Serbian student who had asked Sollecito to collect luggage for her called at his house to say that she no longer needed his assistance.
After responding to the Lumumba text, at 8.35, Knox turned off her phone; Sollecito switched off his at 8.42.
Clearly, Knox appreciates the huge significance of this evidential point because she tries to deal with it in Waiting To Be Heard. However, her attempt is counter-productive. On page 62, she explains that, after Lumumba had told her she wasn’t needed that evening, ‘I turned off my phone, just in case he changed his mind and wanted me to come in after all’.
This was unlikely; it was going to be a quiet night, and anyway Knox was not a successful employee. However, on page 307, she then gives a different reason, explaining that she and Sollecito switched off their phones because ‘we’d wanted to watch a movie without being interrupted’.
This second reason is much more plausible (though it begs the question of why neither she nor Sollecito turned their phone back on when the film ended at about 9.15). However, it is the confusion that is important; it suggests that, in having to come up with a bogus reason, she had forgotten by page 307 that she’d already invented an alternative one on page 62.
Neither she nor Sollecito used their mobiles from 8.35/8.42pm until about 6.00am. A period of phone silence would have been remarkably unusual for either of them, let alone both of them together.
One possible explanation is that they spent those hours of joint unavailability in cleaning up and arranging the scene in the house and trying to stage a forced entry.
Meredith’s body was covered with a duvet. This otherwise odd point (murderers do not usually linger at the scene to worry about the dignity of their victim) would be explained if Knox and Sollecito had returned to the room to remove evidence of their presence.
There was also what Sherlock Holmes might well have perceived as the curious matter of Amanda’s desk lamp. What was curious is that it wasn’t in Amanda’s room; it was in Meredith’s. One might surmise that, to avoid the risk of creating any more scientific evidence than there already was, Knox took in her own desk light to illuminate the room – but forgot to take it back afterwards.
Sollecito was normally awake and on his computer until the early hours, but that evening did not use it. He turned it on again at 5.30am. Perhaps that was when they returned to his house.
All the mobile phone evidence is very important. So why were Meredith’s phones in a garden? Why would a murderer have troubled to take them away from the scene, only to discard them?
Suppose that Knox and Sollecito planned simply to shut the door to her room and feign ignorance about what had happened. But there was one huge problem. If Meredith’s phones kept ringing, as they surely would, their uninquisitive conduct would seem very suspicious. So they had to get rid of them.
Having been taken, the phones were disposed of not far away (just past Sollecito’s home, in fact); so this supports the idea that they were taken simply to remove them from the scene. But whoever took them must have been aware that Meredith had two mobile phones. Who would have known that? Knox, obviously.
(If that was indeed the plan, it was perhaps the best that could have been devised; after all, had it not been for the extraordinary alertness of Elisabetta Lana, the murder may not have been discovered for a little while. The flaw in the plan lay in simply tossing the phones away and not concealing them.)
Some have suggested that the reason the phones were taken was to prevent Meredith summoning assistance. But that doesn’t add up. Murderers do not expect their victims to survive.
Two calls from one of the phones were registered after Meredith is presumed to have been murdered. This led the prosecution, at trial, to push back the time of the crime. That was another mistake; probably the explanation is that, if the phones were snatched hurriedly and the keypads not locked, then the calls were activated by accident. So the timing of those calls provides evidence of when the phones were being removed from the scene.
Mobile phone and computer evidence have quickly become a vital part of criminal justice investigations. Exactly what we are doing during in the day, and where we are, are now matters of record. So when the opposite applies – when mobile phones and computers that are normally in use are switched off – that itself can become a key evidential point.
This evidence – or, some of it – was heard again and the convictions that had been imposed in December 2009 were reinstated in January 2014.
Guede, of course, was not heard (although he had given evidence in 2011 as part of the appeal process). His account has been consistent throughout. He was obviously aware of the ill-feeling between Meredith and Knox, and reported that Meredith thought that Knox was stealing money from her. His recollection that he had leapt up from the toilet seat the instant he heard the scream was bizarrely corroborated by the fact that there were faeces still in the pan when the police arrived. Needless to say, one officer activated the toilet, thereby flushing away important evidence.
Guede’s solitary inconsistency was this. He did comment at the outset of the investigation that ‘Amanda doesn’t have anything to do with it’. But, at that stage, perhaps he couldn’t believe that she did have. When questioned properly, he said that the fleeing man could have been Sollecito, whom he didn’t know at all; and that he had caught a glimpse of a silhouette, which may have been Knox.
If he was lying, he could not have known that they would not have an alibi; if you try to incriminate people, they may well have an inconvenient ability to establish an alibi – as Knox herself had already discovered.
If Knox and Sollecito had had eight hours to clean up, then no one could have expected the scene-of-crime evidence to be especially helpful; but, at trial, the prosecution erred in following their protocols. They tried to hang their case on the DNA while undervaluing the really significant evidence.
Yet Sir Alec Jeffreys, who pioneered DNA forensic science, has repeatedly emphasised that it should be evaluated alongside other forms of evidence and not as a substitute for them. That would resoundingly apply here.
This case reverses the normal hierarchy of evidence in a criminal investigation: the forensic science evidence is inconclusive and confused; the witness evidence is tendentious and unreliable; and the circumstantial evidence is compelling.
Circumstantial evidence is routinely deprecated. (In how many miserably poor television dramas has the line, ‘There’s no evidence, it’s all circumstantial’, been heard?) But it all depends on the circumstances; that’s the whole point. Here, such evidence was vital.
It does seem unbelievable that this murder happened at all; after all, Knox and Sollecito had only known each other for just over a week.
But they had spent virtually every moment in each other’s company; an intense relationship had clearly developed. In that brief time Knox and Sollecito may well have become so loved-up, they scarcely understood what they were doing.
The cause of the murder could have been Knox’s animosity towards Meredith. There had been several disagreements between them. The fact that Guede knew that Meredith believed that Knox was stealing money from her is important. So she had told him about it, and she had obviously told other friends.
Sollecito may well have been outraged that his new girlfriend’s honour was being impugned; and he had a weapon to hand. ’As a boy, [Sollecito] started collecting knives as a hobby’, wrote John Follain in his book, Death in Perugia, ‘he carried a knife all the time.’
Over the years, the essential points of the case have been obscured. Shoddy reporting standards are mainly responsible for this. There is an unceasing demand for ostensibly fresh material, so that what is wrong or misleading will displace what is accurate merely because it is ‘new’. The press and the criminal justice system also share similar weaknesses. They are, for example, entranced by scientific and especially DNA evidence; they fall for the drama of the single knock-out blow while failing to appreciate the accumulation of pieces of circumstantial evidence, which is often how cases can be properly resolved.
Of course, there are other factors too. The PR lobby for Knox has been tremendously effective; and the international pressures have mounted. When the convictions were finally expunged in March 2015, there was more than a little suspicion that the Italian judiciary simply wanted this case out of their system.
The denouement seems to me calamitous. Not only is the case now a miscarriage of justice on every level but the resolution is founded on racism, a galling outcome that is presumably the very last that the Kercher family would have wanted.
Guede was convicted because he is black. He remains in prison because the Ivory Coast is unable to exert international pressure. Knox and Sollecito cannot now be retried; but at least, in the interests of justice, Guede’s conviction should be quashed and he should be released.
Books about the case include:
Graham Johnson, Paul Russell & Luciano Garofano: Darkness Descending (Pocket Books 2010)
John Follain: Death in Perugia (Hodder & Stoughton 2011)
John Kercher: Meredith (Hodder & Stoughton 2012)
Amanda Knox: Waiting to Be Heard (HarperCollins 2013)