Déjà vu. On Thursday I am heading back up to Perugia to cover the verdict in the Amanda Knox Appeals Trial. Hundreds of journalists, including lots of Americans, have gathered in this Umbrian hill town, just as they did two years ago.
The satellite trucks are packed in tightly in the small piazza in front of the Tribunal, cables have been spread from trucks and cameras down the stairwells and into the courtroom and press area.
Lawyers parade in and out and are surrounded by reporters eager to get a comment. Knox family members are courted and chased by a ravenous press corps. The center of all the attention — as it has been since the first day– is the beautiful, mysterious Amanda, the young woman some see as an Angel and others as a She-Devil. She has been the source of endless news copy, tv reports, books and even a tv movie.
Here’s some background on my experience covering this story:
One of the joys of working for a news agency is that you never know what you are going to be covering next. In Rome we do a lot of Vatican coverage, Italian political coverage, and plenty of food stories, (e.g. the making of Italian pizza, mozzarella, cappuccino), but I certainly never expected to cover a murder trial. When a young British student was murdered in the Umbrian hill town of Perugia, I thought the story would last a few days. Instead, the bizarre circumstances surrounding the murder of Meredith Kercher sucked most American and British journalists in Italy into a media circus. The center of the circus was a young, attractive American girl from Seattle named Amanda Knox. Amanda’s all-American blond hair, blue eyes, and fresh-faced, angelic looks made her the perfect protagonist for this sordid tale of murder.
Amanda Knox entered the Capanne prison in Perugia on November 6, 2007, four days after Meredith Kercher’s body was found in a pool of blood, her throat slit, in the home they shared in Perugia as exchange students. Meredith had been sexually assaulted. I was among the many journalists who travelled from Rome to Perugia to film that simple looking hillside home through the gates and down the driveway.
AP has video of the scientific police in their white jump suits crawling all over the place as they searched for evidence of the killers. Their work, and questions of sloppiness, have become central to the defense case.
My colleague, Francesco Manetti, got a shot of a dazed-looking Amanda Knox in a white skirt and navy blue pullover wandering about the driveway before being helped into a police car. Little did she or anyone know it would be one of her last moments of freedom for years.
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 declared their innocence and, over two years later, I was among the dozens of journalists who covered the opening of their trial on January 16, 2009.
The Knox-Sollecito trial was held in a courtroom two floors below ground in the center of the town of Perugia. For the hearings, we would set up outside to film the arrival of the prison vans carrying Knox and Sollecito.
I would wait in the doorway with the cameraman to catch the lawyers and family members as they walked in, then I would scurry down the two flights of stairs and grab a chair to stand on in the back of the courtroom. The cameramen would line up, standing on chairs and ladders by the door, to film police escorting Amanda and Raffaele into the courtroom.
Over and over again, I was struck by Amanda’s appearance as she walked in between two policewomen. She was small, casually dressed, with no make-up, and naturally pretty. She had a self-assurance and tenacity about her. When she took her seat, she often chatted confidently with her translator or lawyers. Her appearance and behavior were always in sharp contrast to that of her co-defendant, Raffaele Sollecito. He appeared nervous, tense, neurotic, twitchy and insecure.
I felt sorry for all the parents involved in this case. I once interviewed Amanda’s father Curt Knox outside the courthouse and his eyes watered up as he said, “Any parent can understand how painful it is. You send your child to study abroad and she ends up in prison.” The first time I asked Amanda’s mother for an interview she looked at me said, “Are you with us or against us?” I explained the AP has to stick to the facts, we are not “with” or “against” anyone. After that rough initial encounter, I found Edda Mellas to be both humble and determined to do whatever she could to free her daughter. The family’s behavior seemed naive in the first trial but by the time of the appeals trial had begun they had become pros at handling the international press and better at navigating the Italian judicial system.
On the day of the sentence in the first trial, the jury deliberated for 13 hours while journalists, lawyers and relatives anxiously wandered the streets of Perugia. The Associated Press team of journalists, producers, cameramen, and photographers gathered at a trattoria down the street from the courthouse and ate dinner while waiting for the message from the courthouse that a verdict had been reached. We were jittery and fidgety, checking our cell phones, mentally preparing our stories for guilty or non-giulty verdicts. Finally, we were beckoned to the courthouse just before midnight. The judge quickly read the sentence. Guilty. Twenty-six years for Amanda, 25 for Raffaele. Once he was done, the scene outside the courthouse became total chaos. I watched live as Amanda was taken, desperately bawling, to a police van. Journalists, cameramen and photographers pounced on lawyers and family members, eager to get a comment as they came out the door. Amanda’s father Curt was besieged by TV cameras as he tried to make his way back to his hotel with his two younger daughters.
Equally, I felt the anguish of the parents of Meredith Kercher who held a moving press conference the day after the conviction. They appeared with their three other attractive and charismatic children. Meredith’s beautiful sister Stephanie, who bears a striking resemblance to Meredith, declared that the verdict “does bring a little bit of justice, for us and for her, but life will never be the same without Mez.” And her brother John said, “Meredith’s loss still leaves a big hole in our lives.”
The lawyer for the Kercher family summed up the feelings of many when, as he emerged from the courtroom following the conviction, he said he was satisfied with the verdict but not happy, noting that four young lives were ruined in one night. How could anyone be happy about that?
My daughters, Caterina and Chiara, were intrigued by the Amanda Knox story. They had seen the pictures of her in Italian newspapers and peppered me with questions about her. They were perturbed by the sentence of 26 years; they frequently asked me if I thought she really did it.
A week after the verdict in the first trial I received an unexpected invitation to visit Amanda Knox in prison with the Italy-USA Foundation. Journalists had been clamouring for two years to get into prison to see Amanda. I had phoned the prison myself on several occasions and was turned down. When we arrived at the prison, they took away our cell phones. Then the prison director led us through a series of doors and a large courtyard to the women’s section. Once inside she gave us a tour. We saw the laundry room and the kitchen. We visited all the corridors and spoke to many prisoners through their barred doors. My previous experience in a prison was interviewing members of the Sparrows’ Communist Assassin squads in a jail in Manila, Philippines. That jail was filthy and, while the Sparrows sat in one cell quietly and respectfully, other prisoners yelled at me through their bars and reached out in an intimidating way. By contrast, the Capanne Prison in Perugia is clean and neat. There are church services and a hairdresser available once a week, and prisoners have bidets in their bathrooms.
The tour seemed endless but finally, on the third floor, I peered through the square barred opening to a cell and saw Amanda, straightening out her room. I quickly approached the door and told her who I was in English. She seemed surprised to hear an American accent and came to the door immediately. The two big women prison guards who were escorting us quickly approached the door and one of them reached down for the set of enormous keys hanging from her belt and opened the door.
Amanda stood there in her slippers, wearing a gray-and-white flecked turtleneck sweater, and black leggings. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail. I was impressed by her simple appearance, and humble attitude, which was in contrast to the Amanda I had seen in court. She seemed small and frightened. She told me she was ‘scared’ and said that she was ‘waiting and always hoping’. She described how the prison guards came into her cell and held her as she sobbed desperately the night of the verdict. She said she was missing her family and ‘stimulating conversation’. A prison official became very agitated about the two of us speaking in English and forcefully told me I was not allowed to ask her about the case or the trial. Amanda switched over to Italian to speak to the rest of the delegation.
The visit with Amanda lasted only about ten minutes, but it was a big scoop for me, and for the AP.
My daughter Caterina was the most proud. She must have told her entire school that her mamma had gone into the prison to talk to Amanda Knox. It gives me enormous satisfaction to hear my children’s occasional pride in my work. ( I was once embarrassed, but secretly thrilled, when a friend of Chiara’s said to me, “Is it true that you travel on the same airplane as the Pope?”) Of course, I always have my 15-year-old son to keep me from getting too full of myself. Recently he said, “Mamma, you haven’t done anything cool in your job since before I was born.” Well, how about that! Nico has realized that having children can limit a mother’s professional horizons.
Note: The next few posts will be from Perugia with more on the trial. The verdict is expected at the earliest on Saturday and at the latest on Monday, October third.