In 2007, Amanda Knox left Seattle for Perugia, Italy, to master the language, then move to Rome for a creative-writing course at the University of Washington’s overseas program. But fate, that fickle offshoot of character, intervened. Knox’s flat-mate in Perugia, Meredith Kercher, was murdered, and Knox came under suspicion. Within days she was arrested, along with her Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, and charged with killing the British student in a drug-fueled sex game gone violently awry. In accordance with Italian law, they remained in custody pending trial.
While two years of pretrial detention must have struck them as cruelly long, it wasn’t extraordinary by Italian standards or, indeed, by U.S. standards, where murder defendants often spend years in jail before their cases are heard. The agony of Knox’s imprisonment was compounded by conflicting narratives that cropped up in three different countries. As described by the British press, she was a depraved killer whose guilt wasn’t in doubt. Italian journalists depicted her as an angel-faced seductress who had ensorcelled Sollecito into satanic debauchery. As portrayed by the American media, Knox was a waif in the clutches of a corrupt Italian judiciary whose police were spectacularly inefficient and whose prosecutors were motivated by political infighting. Some also suggested that Knox was the victim of a male-chauvinist justice system that concluded she must be guilty because she came to Perugia with a vibrator, smoked dope and slept with several men. This scenario was mainly shaped by a Seattle-based PR company hired by Knox’s family but never acknowledged in her new memoir, “Waiting to Be Heard.”
Now, four years after her conviction and sentence to 26 years in prison, and two years after this conviction was reversed on appeal (Sollecito was also convicted and subsequently exonerated), Knox weighs in with her version of events. The 13th book about the case, “Waiting to Be Heard” has the virtues of an inside account — intensity and privileged access. But its completeness and accuracy are questionable. Some troubling incidents are never addressed, others are raised and then dropped, and Knox’s explanations of her odd behavior, such as doing the splits at the police station, only repeat that she was young and naive.
Much as she might want to clarify the record, she strews the text with tantalizing contradictions. While she implies that she was previously prevented from expressing her views, she showed from the start a singularly misplaced confidence in her ability to persuade people of her innocence. Ignoring warnings from her parents to contact the U.S. Embassy and advice from lawyers to remain silent, Knox clung to the preposterous belief, she writes, that she and the cops were working together to solve the crime. This belief persisted even after a female investigator slapped her on the head, even after, she claims, she was persuaded by police that she suffered from amnesia and signed two “spontaneous declarations” in which she admitted being in the house when an African man, Patrick Lumumba, murdered Kercher.
The next day she decided to recant her statements and drafted a muddled four-page document that she imagined would resolve all difficulties. Instead — as Knox seems blissfully unaware, even in her present account — it further incriminated her, as well as Sollecito. Her alibi had been that she and her boyfriend never left his apartment the night of Kercher’s death. But her recall of events sounded evasive and undercut her previous accounts. Willy-nilly she added that at about 11 p.m. on the night of the murder, “after dinner I noticed there was blood on Raffaele’s hand, but I was under the impression that it was blood from the fish.”
During his interrogation, Sollecito said that Knox had left his apartment and asked him to lie for her. Knox couldn’t understand why he said this. But then she complained of being confused, perhaps because of the hash she’d smoked. “Things seem unreal to me, like a dream,” she wrote in her recantation, “and I am unsure if they are real things that happened or are just dreams my head has made to try to answer the questions in my head and the questions I am being asked.”
In fact, she wasn’t being asked any questions. She was volunteering evidence in a stream-of-consciousness fashion and wrote for the prosecutor, “I stand by my statements” — before repeating that “events seem more unreal to me.” When it turned out that she had falsely accused Lumumba and that a different African man, Rudy Guede, had been at the crime scene, the prosecution regarded this as proof that Knox was protecting an accomplice at the expense of an innocent man. Guede then told authorities that he had heard Knox and Sollecito commit the murder.
Under the circumstances, the decision to prosecute the case seems neither unreasonable nor excessive — which isn’t to say that Italian authorities didn’t get things wrong. They cherry-picked evidence, placed unwarranted weight on statements made under duress and mistakenly fixated on Knox’s strange deportment after the murder. They also botched the forensic investigation and produced no verifiable DNA that incriminated anyone except Guede. As a result, the conviction was overturned on appeal and Knox and Sollecito were freed. Guede was convicted, failed in his appeal and is serving a 16-year sentence.
As much as the Italian judicial system has come in for criticism, some of it richly deserved, the fact is that Knox fared far better than she would have if convicted in an American court. As Ken Burns’s recent PBS documentary about the Central Park Five demonstrated, it isn’t uncommon in this country for guilty verdicts to be based on false confessions and for defendants to remain incarcerated for decades while pursuing appeals.
Now back at the University of Washington studying creative writing, Knox, only 26, has ample time to reflect on the woes that befell her. On the evidence of “Waiting to Be Heard,” she hasn’t entirely accepted how much of the pain she suffered, as well as the pain she spread around, derived from her calamitous misreading of her predicament and her lax use of language. But since the Italian prosecutor has been granted the right to reopen the case, she might be wise from here on to be vigilant about what she writes and says.
WAITING TO BE HEARD
By Amanda Knox
Harper. 463 pp. $28.99