Dear Blog Readers– Yesterday I was in Florence listening to detailed discussions of blood stains, a bra clasp and sperm spots during the opening hearing in the re-trial of the Meredith Kercher Murder. By now, anyone interested in the news has already gotten it, so I will give you just a bit of behind-the-scenes atmosphere.
First, for those of you who have not followed this long and complicated murder case, here is a little background.
On November 2, 2007 British student Meredith Kercher was found dead in a pool of blood, her throat slit, in the home she shared with American Amanda Knox in the Umbrian Hill town Perugia as exchange students. Meredith had been sexually assaulted.
Amanda Knox was accused, along with her then-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito and acquaintance Rudy Guede from the Ivory Coast, of sexually assaulting and murdering Meredith. Guede chose a fast-track trial and was sentenced to 30 years in prison, later reduced to 16 in appeal.
Knox and Sollecito were convicted in December 2009 of murder, during the trial prosecutors accused Amanda, Raffaele and Rudy of slicing Meredith’s throat and leaving her to bleed to death following a drug-fueled sex game gone awry.
Knox was sentenced to 26 years in prison and Sollecito got 25.
The first appeal trial lasted 10 months and overturned the conviction in 2011. During the first appeal, the defense brought in a team of independent experts to analyze the DNA. They claimed that traces of Meredith’s DNA on the presumed murder weapon, a kitchen knife, were unreliable. The knife had Amanda’s DNA on the handle and was found in the kitchen of her boyfriend Sollecito.
In a surprise twist, this past March Italy’s highest court overturned the acquittal and sent the case to the appeals court in Florence for another trial. In the motivations for the retrial, the Supreme Court was scathing in its criticism of the whole procedure used by the court in the appeal criticizing it for “inconsistencies” and “lack of logical thinking”.
The retrial is in Florence, and although Florence is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, the courthouse is an unattractive monstrosity on the outskirts of the city with, unfortunately, a cheap hotel right down the street that is very convenient for journalists. It is so cheap that the drain didn’t work in the shower and I had two inches of water on the floor after taking a shower and no towels to clean it up.
This in comparison to the cute little hotels in Perugia and the medieval courthouse situated in the middle of a lovely piazza with quaint shops and little coffee bars, handy for journalists in need of that mid-morning cappuccino.
Nevertheless there were dozens of us waiting at the back entrance for the arrival of the lawyers hours before start of the trial. To give you an idea of how totally un-glamorous my work is, a half hour before the start time, I called Amanda’s lawyer Luciano Ghirga who said he was about to arrive and would be happy to give me a comment on camera at the front door.
My colleague Paolo Santalucia told me to take the small camera and run around to the front to catch Ghirga without any of the other journalists noticing. As I came around the edge of the Palazzo di Giustizia, I could see the fluffy white head of Ghirga bobbing along the sidewalk headed for the entrance. I took off doing my middle-aged Mamma version of Usain Bolt in the 100-meter dash, and managed to grab him just as he was about to head in. He stopped and since I was huffing and puffing he told me to take a deep breathe and relax before we did the quick interview. (another example of my lack of Bella Figura).
Ghirga gave me the first hint of what we should be expecting saying that the defense wanted to have another forensic test on the knife and analysis of DNA on the pillow case found at the scene of the crime. He also said that the defense was “offended” by criticism that Amanda is giving too many interviews and perhaps trying a public relations tactic to make her case outside the court.
I finished my interview with Ghirga and turned around to see Dapper Dan, the best-looking lawyer in the Knox trials walking up the sidewalk. It was Francesco Maresca, the lawyer for the Kercher Family whose wavy brown locks and intense blue eyes send hearts throbbing among the female members of the press corps. I think he is aware of his star power and always shows up in pin-stripe suits and stares intensely towards the cameras as he delivers his views.
He told me ”We are still convinced of the presence of all three of the defendants at the scene of the crime,” and expressed the Kercher family’s displeasure at Amanda’s flurry of media appearances prior to the re-trial, “She is talking too much, and this attitude of continuously playing the victim is inappropriate.”
The courtroom could not have been further from the cozy Perugia tribunal with stone walls with frescoes on them. The Florence courtroom was a large, modern room with neat lines of tables and chairs and a simple sign above the judge’s bench “La Legge e’ Uguale Per Tutti” — The Law is Equal for All. Judge Alessandro Nencini gave off an air of seriousness and competence as he ran the show throughout the day.
A couple highlights from the courtroom. Knox lawyer Carlo Della Vedova made the case that the re-trial was unconstitutional and that Amanda could be tried “ad infinitum” since the case has no statute of limitations. The new prosecutor on the case, Alessandro Crini, later rebutted that “when you are talking about homocide… the legal process does not deserve to be closed for an artificial reason such as a statute of limitations.” The Judge later backed the prosecutor’s position.
Amanda’s other defense Lawyer Luciano Ghirga used a white magic marker with a black cap to illustrate questions about the knife that could be the murder weapon. The knife supposedly has Meredith’s DNA on the blade and Amanda’s DNA on the handle. The Judge later ordered a new forensic test on that knife.
One of the highlights of the day was watching Raffaele Sollecito’s lawyer Giulia Bongiorno make a long and dramatic request to the court on various topics. Bongiorno became famous in Italy for her successful defense of former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti on charges of Mafia association (see blog post Divine Julius, An Italian Politician.) Bongiorno introduced the courtroom to a new word electropherograms — which are some kind of peaks on the DNA tests which can be studied to determine identity. She went into great detail about the sperm spots on Meredith pillow case, insisting that in the case of a murder with sexual violence, it is unheard of that sperm spots on the pillow case would not be tested. The judge later rejected her request.
The Kercher family lawyer, Maresca, submitted a letter to the court from the family apologizing for not attending the opening and saying:
“We trust that the evidence will be reviewed and any additional testing requested to be granted so that unanswered questions can be clarified…It is a continuous struggle every single day, battling with our own emotions both happy memories and desperately sad, and the only way our pain and suffering can even begin to ease is by gaining a clearer understanding of the tragic events of November 1st, 2007.
At the end of the day, the judge announced that in addition to ordering the new forensic test on the knife, he is calling as witness Luciano Aviello, a mobster currently in prison in Florence, to testify this Friday, October 4th. Aviello has said in the past that his brother killed Meredith Kercher, but his testimony was dismissed in the earlier trials. The judge also granted a request to Sollecito’s defense lawyer to admit photos of Raffaele Sollecito’s hands in the days following the murder showing his closely bitten finger-nails. His defense argues that with fingernails bitten he couldn’t have left DNA samples on Meredith’s bra clasp.
So sperm spots will not be discussed this Friday, but blood stains, fingernails, the bra clasp and a mobster will be back.