Amanda Knox returned home to Seattle Tuesday to the kind of reception normally reserved for championship sports teams. A cheering chorus of billboard-waving supporters greeted her at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport shortly after 5 pm Pacific. Local schoolchildren cheered in their classrooms when her acquittal was announced, and the message “WELCOME HOME AMANDA” was plastered on the record-store marquee in her pleasant West Seattle neighborhood. It was a sharp contrast to the scene in Italy, where a crowd gathered outside the Perugia courthouse for the overturning of her 2009 murder conviction to chant “Vergogna! Vergogna!” — meaning “shame.” That contrast in public opinion, and the lingering confusion over what actually happened in Knox’s Perugia cottage in November 2007, is agonizing. The Los Angeles Times declared that the “Reversal of Amanda Knox verdict won’t quell debate,” and even victim Meredith Kerchner’s family seemed more mystified than outraged. “If the two released yesterday were not the guilty parties,” asked brother Lyle Kercher, “we are obviously left to wonder who is the other guilty person or people?”
Something happened, and in the court of public opinion the fact that something unseemly was going on is usually evidence enough to convict. According to Italian prosecutors, Amanda Knox and her then-boyfriend Rafaelle Sollecito engaged in copious drug use and group sex, and when the dust cleared Knox’s 21-year old roommate Kercher was dead of a knife wound to the throat. Knox was placed in an Italian prison to await trial, convicted, sentenced to 26 years to Sollecito’s 25, and incarcerated for four years prior to her and Sollecito’s acquittals on appeal. Four years, between ages 20 and 24, that she will never get back.
If she is truly innocent, and African-born interloper Rudy Guede in fact carried out the crime himself, then Knox’s parents were correct, and understated, in labeling the matter a miscarriage of justice. Then again, if she is truly innocent, then what to make of her allegations against her former employer, Italian bar owner Patrick Lumumba, who was locked up for two weeks following Knox’s claim that he entered Kercher’s room prior to the murder? That was a lie, still unexplained, and enough to earn Knox a still-upheld conviction for slander.
The inevitable Lifetime movie, which premiered in February and now runs constantly on the cable network, dares not guess at what happened. Starring Hayden Panettiere as the fresh-faced Knox and Marcia Gay Harden (the De Niro to Lifetime’s Scorsese) as her mother, Amanda Knox: Murder on Trial in Italy excludes the murder scene. Screenwriter Wendy Battles (Law and Order) scripts Knox and Kercher walking down a flight of Perugia stairs whimsically talking about dashing doctor’s son Sollecito. A thin black actor meant to portray Guede smiles and waves at them as he walks up the stairs. The screen fades to black, and then picks up with the police investigation.
The movie depicts Perugia as a college-kid fantasyland, full of scenic buildings, parks, and alleyways. No mention is made of the local drug problem. The Umbria region, in which Perugia is located, sees the highest rate of drug-related deaths in all of Europe. The Umbrian drug mortality rate is three times the national average and the region boasts the most drug users per capita in Italy. Narconon reports that organized crime organizations and mafia groups have settled in, and North African immigrants like Guede form a sizable demographic. Whether this bolsters Knox’s claims of innocence (I’m reminded of the drug deal-gone-bad defense laid out by Team O.J.) or rather supports the prosecution’s accusations of rampant drug abuse, it is impossible to know.
Knox’s father raged on U.S. cable news during the trial that the Italian courts operate much differently than American ones. He was right. His daughter stood trial, twice, in an Italian court, before an Italian judge and Italian jury. Two Italian judges — tasked with “guiding” their fellow jurors — sat on the eight-member jury alongside six Italian citizens. The prosecutor, in Italian, called Knox a “satanic, diabolic, she-devil” and railed against her sex and drug use on moral grounds, in front of a jury that hails from an entirely different culture than Knox’s own. With the next quarter-century of her life hanging in the balance, Knox delivered her final statement in court in Italian. “It was said many times that I’m a different person from the way I look,” Knox slowly recited, “and that people cannot figure out who I am.” Of course people in that provincial Italian region couldn’t figure out who she was. They had no cultural reference point.
The Lifetime movie, it has been announced, will be updated to reflect the recent changes in the story. Though I can’t help but worry these updates will alter Lifetime’s original artistic vision, I’m moderately fascinated to watch the new scenes. Like the part where Panettiere comes home to adoring fanfare and presumed multi-million dollar book and interview deals while a black man of whom little is publicly known spends sixteen years behind bars. Is that part just? Again, it’s impossible to know.
When analyst Nina Burleigh told Anderson Cooper that Knox was far more educated than anyone else in her Italian prison, the class-based element of the case became clear. While Casey Anthony was attractive but still a confessed Target shopper, Knox is a bilingual daughter of privilege with a first-rate education. While so many slain young women you see on the news are 3.5 honor students and sorority presidents at some state college, Kercher was a beautiful prep school-educated London journalist’s daughter. Sollecito was a handsome young intellectual, and Guede — the media-labeled “drifter” — was not only black, he was African. The Murder on Trial screenplay was probably already sitting there on Wendy Battles’ screenwriting software as “Default Script #1.”
Here’s what we know: we know that an upper middle-class white American student went to Perugia to study abroad. We know that she met a guy, might have had a wild night, and that her roommate ended up dead. We know that an innocent Italian bar owner was subjected to the worst experience of his life. We know that angry Italians, at this precarious point in the history of America’s relationship with the rest of the world, stood outside the courthouse when Knox was acquitted and chanted “Shame!” We know that there’s a lot of shame involved, but we still don’t know exactly who should bear it. I doubt the inevitable books — like the movie — will clear up anything.
And America will move on from the “Study Abroad Killer,” and wait patiently for the next one.