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‘A Death in Italy: The Definitive Account of the Amanda Knox Case,’ by John Follain

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Amanda Knox and Meredith Kercher met in September 2007 in Perugia, Italy. Both had gone there to study at the university, and they chanced to rent adjoining rooms in a cottage on the outskirts of town. Knox was 20 and from Seattle; Kercher was 21 and English. Both were attractive (friends considered Kercher more studious and Knox more impulsive), and both were soon caught up in a whirl of boys, bar-hopping and Italian classes. The fun ended abruptly on the morning of Nov. 2, when Kercher was found dead in her tiny bedroom. She had been beaten and repeatedly stabbed, and her throat had been cut. Within days, Knox and her Italian boyfriend, along with another young man, were charged with murdering and sexually assaulting her.

The British journalist John Follain has drawn upon the transcripts of Knox’s lengthy trial and hundreds of interviews to give what may be the definitive account of the case. It’s an ugly, confusing story but one he relates with clarity, compassion and a wealth of fascinating detail. Still, many readers may finish his book with profound doubts about the case. Or about whether Knox, despite her angel’s face, was in truth a she-devil, as the frenzied Italian media would have it.

On Oct. 25, two months after arriving in Italy, Knox found a new boyfriend. He was a shy, nice-looking Italian computer-science student named Raffaele Sollecito. His major quirk was a passion for knives. Knox and Sollecito spent many of their remaining days of freedom smoking hashish, making love and exploring Perugia’s bars. Knox and Kercher also met a tall, athletic 20-year-old immigrant from Ivory Coast named Rudy Guede, who boasted to friends of his sexual interest in both women.

On the morning of Nov. 2, Knox, who later claimed to have spent the night in Sollecito’s nearby apartment, returned to the cottage and, she told police, found blood, signs of robbery and Kercher’s door locked. She took a shower and returned to Sollecito’s place, and eventually they called the police, who discovered Kercher’s body. Under questioning, Knox and Sollecito told confused, conflicting stories. At one point Knox declared that she’d seen a local bar owner kill Kercher. The man was arrested, but when he proved to have a solid alibi, Knox said she’d been confused and was just relating what “could be true,” a sort of dream she’d had.

Guede admitted having been in the cottage when Kercher was killed. He claimed that she had invited him there and that they had discussed sex. He said he had gone into the bathroom, heard a scream and emerged to find a man with a knife standing over Kercher’s body. The mystery man fled, Guede said, and so did he. After a “fast-track trial,” Guede was sentenced to 30 years in prison. An appeals court reduced his sentence to 16 years, citing Guede’s youth, clean record and difficult childhood.

Knox and Sollecito were given a more leisurely trial that lasted 11 months and became an international media sensation. Her pretty face and colorful ways made her the star of the show. Offers of marriage flooded her prison cell. Soon after the murder, she had angered Kercher’s friends by declaring, “The worst thing about all this is that if I’d been home last night it could have happened to me.” During her testimony in court, she described Kercher’s death as “yucky” — not the most sensitive word she might have chosen. Her photograph appeared worldwide on Valentine’s Day after she arrived in court wearing a T-shirt that declared “All You Need Is Love” across the front.

She and Sollecito vigorously protested their innocence. Despite evidence that someone (allegedly the two defendants) had worked to clean up the crime scene, the prosecution had blood and DNA samples. Mostly on the basis of this forensic evidence, the prosecutors put forth a detailed theory of the case. They said Kercher had been home studying when Knox, Sollecito and Guede arrived, possibly high on hashish. Prosecutors said Guede had gone to Kercher’s room to demand sex; when she resisted, her two friends, rather than protecting her, joined in the attack.

A prosecutor imagined a frenzied scene in which Knox might have shouted, “You acted the goody-goody so much, now we’re going to show you.” When Kercher continued to resist, the three allegedly tore off her clothing, beat her and eventually stabbed her. The prosecution theorized that one person alone could not have subdued the athletic Kercher and inflicted her multiple bruises and wounds.

That scenario was accepted by the court, and the lovers were sentenced to 25 years in prison (for him) and 26 years (for her).

However, Italian law granted Knox and Sollecito an appeal trial, which began late in 2010 with two new judges. The judges appointed a panel of academic experts to review the forensic work that was central to the first court’s verdict. The panel’s report accused the police of sloppy techniques that produced unreliable DNA evidence. The convictions were overturned, and Knox and Sollecito were freed last October, after almost four years behind bars. Knox returned to America and reportedly received a $4 million advance for a forthcoming book.

Follain’s account of this saga is gripping but will leave many readers painfully perplexed. Something terrible happened in that cottage nearly five years ago, but thus far the truth about Meredith Kercher’s senseless death remains as elusive and mysterious as the workings of Italian justice.

Anderson reviews mysteries and thrillers regularly for Book World.

A DEATH IN ITALY The Definitive Account of the Amanda Knox Case By John Follain

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