Tuesday, June 21, 2011

V. The Verdict in Perugia: the Case Against Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito (Part Five)

This is the fifth and last part of a series. Please read the earlier parts to understand the entire article!

V. The Appeal

Both Amanda and Raffaele have appealed against their convictions. The appeal proceedings are currently under way. Up until now, the major aspects these proceedings have dealt with are the following:

- the testimony of one of the witnesses, a man called Antonio Curatolo;
- the testimony of five prisoners;
- the re-assessment of the DNA evidence, in particular the evidence pertaining to the bra clasp and the kitchen knife.

Antonio Curatolo

I have not yet mentioned the testimony given by Anatonio Curatolo. The reason for this is simple: it seems difficult to take this evidence too seriously. Curatolo is a homeless man who has testified that he saw Amanda and Raffaele in the night of November 1st at the Piazza Grimana (at a time, therefore, when Amanda has testified that the two of them were at Raffaele’s). The court considered this testimony reliable, but it is easy to understand why the defence would raise the issue of that reliability on appeal. They’re probably right to do so.

The Prisoners' Testimony

Here, the appeal proceedings take a turn towards the farcical. At the defence’s urging, five prisoners were heard in the appeal proceedings. One of them (a man called Mario Alessi) testified that he is serving a prison sentence in the same jail as Rudy, with whom he became friends. Rudy confessed to him that Amanda and Raffaele were, in fact, innocent. When Rudy declined to publicly announce their innocence, this prisoner became irate and decided to testify himself. According to his testimony, the crime was committed by Rudy and a friend of his.

Two other prisoners, again serving in the same jail as Rudy, have testified they heard Rudy state that Amanda and Raffaele were innocent, although they offered little further elaboration. A fourth prisoner, again from the same jail, stated that he knew nothing of the matter.

Then there is the testimony of the fifth prisoner, a man called Luciano Aviello. Aviello is imprisoned in the same prison where Raffaele is currently serving his sentence. Aviello testified that the murder of Meredith was actually committed by his brother, who happened to be out looking for a painting to rob and ended up at Meredith’s apartment by mistake. There, his brother (accompanied by another man) decided to take advantage of the situation and attacked and killed Meredith.

These testimonies can and no doubt should be discarded in evaluating the case. They are interesting only in that they diverge from the central argument made by the defence in the original case, i.e. that Rudy committed the crime by himself. They raise the issue that Rudy acted with one or more, as yet unknown, accomplices. In itself, such a supposition does tackle one or two of the problems discussed above, but it immediately raises new questions. Who could these others have been? Why were they in the apartment? How had they entered? Why did one of them leave (one should recall the shoeprints leading to the front door), whilst one or more others stayed to clean themselves up in the small bathroom?

The testimony of these witnesses caused the prosecution to call up a few of there own, amongst whom was Rudy Guede. If anyone thought his testimony might actually shed some light on the facts of the crime, they were to be disappointed. Guede testified that Alessi had lied under oath; he also testified that a letter he had written in 2010 to his lawyer was truthful. In it, he had written that the murder was committed by Amanda and Raffaele, without, however, giving any details. He refused to elaborate on the events of November 1st 2007. Two other prosecution witnesses (both prisoners as well) were also heard; both testified that Aviello had lied as well.

The Re-Assessment of the DNA evidence

Arguably the most important part of the appeal proceedings so far concerns the re-assessment of the DNA evidence. It should be understood, however, that the re-examination is restricted to just two pieces of the DNA evidence: the bra clasp and the kitchen knife. In both instances, there does seem at least some reason for the re-assessment. In the case of the bra clasp, for example, one remains rather unsure how reliable this might be, given its long sojourn in Meredith’s room before being secured (and given the fact that it was somehow moved at this time). When it comes to the knife, the problems are even greater: the DNA found was minuscule, the results of the testing were possibly unreliable, and the knife may not have been as compatible with the wounds inflicted as the prosecution made out. Besides, the question remains how this particular knife could have been used in the first place.

At the time of writing this article, the experts assigned by the appeals court to re-assess the DNA evidence have not yet publicised their findings; we’ll have to wait and see. (An intriguing thing about the re-examination of the knife is that the experts may, perhaps, be allowed to examine whether any DNA can be be found “inside” the knife, that is, where the blade enters the handle. For this, the knife would have to be taken apart, something that was not done during the original examination.)

(EDIT (July 1st, 2011): the re-assessment report has been submitted to the appeal court. I will not, however, make any comments until the contents become more clear than they are now.)

VI. Some Personal Thoughts on the Verdict

I find the court’s reasoning with regard to the break-in quite convincing. It is difficult to see how this could have been an actual burglary, let alone a burglary carried out by Rudy Guede. There are, nevertheless, a number of points to be made which, to a certain extent, make the court’s findings less conclusive than one might at first think.

For example, there is the way the break-in may have been staged. The court assumes that Amanda or Raffaele broke the window of Romanelli’s room from inside that room. They had drawn the outside shutters shut first, which would explain the fact that no glass shards were found outside. However, the court had heard the testimony of Romanelli, who had stated that when she left on November 1st, she had drawn the shutters shut, but that they were old and that the wood scraped against the sill. In short, fully closing the shutters would have been hard to do. Because of this, it seems there would still be the distinct possibility of broken glass ending up on the ground outside the house.

Furthermore, is should be noted that the defence have always argued that the distribution of the glass shards in Romanelli's room is only compatible with a rock having been tossed through the window from outside. This was rejected by the court, but the fact remains that there is some doubt as to where exactly the glass shards were before Romanelli and the Postal Police had entered the room and moved things around.

These are, however, relatively minor matters. The main arguments the court makes with regard to the (staging of the) break-in remain, to my mind, sound.

As for the wounds on Meredith’s body and her state of undress, I again think the court’s reasoning is basically strong; the crime was not committed by Rudy alone.

Once more, however, there are some doubts. It does seem odd, for example, that no evidence whatsoever was found inside Meredith’s room to point to the presence of Amanda and Raffaele (with the obvious exception of the bra clasp). There was, the court finds, blood on the floor, and in the court’s reasoning, Amanda and Raffaele must have been barefoot. There must also have been quite a scuffle. Nevertheless, no DNA traces were found in Meredith's room (especially mixed blood and DNA traces) that pointed to either Amanda or Raffaele. Their footprints weren’t found either.

Then there are the alibis presented by Amanda and Raffaele (or, to an extent, the lack of them). At first glance, they appear to be quite suspect. There are a great many reasons why one’s testimony might not quite be up to scratch, and there are many reasons why one would want to keep one’s mouth shut in the first place. None of these truly seem to apply here, though; the inconsistencies (in Amanda’s account) and the silence (on the part of Raffaele) are, to my view, relevant.

My thinking in the case, however, shifts subtly when it comes to the DNA evidence available. I am not fully convinced by the court’s reasoning on this matter. At the very least, the DNA on the bra clasp and (especially) on the kitchen knife seems shaky; the DNA discovered in the small bathroom, in Romanelli’s room and in the hallway does not entirely convince me either. To be more precise, it seems clear enough Meredith’s blood was found in the small bathroom, and that these traces were left by the killer(s), but I am not convinced much can be gathered from the presence of Amanda’s DNA. l realise that, in examining the apartment, choices had to be made, and that perhaps the simple necessity of these choices led to less perfect results than one might have hoped for. In any case, though, and regardless of the reason, the results do not seem totally conclusive.

What does all this mean, in the end? Well, it might well mean that the result of the appeal hangs in the balance. If the DNA evidence with regard to the bra clasp and the kitchen knife were to be thrown out, the prosecution would have lost the most damning evidence directly linking Amanda and Raffaele to the crime. There would still be quite a bit of other evidence, to be sure, but the question arises whether this would be enough for a conviction. Remember that whilst the testimonies of the five inmates in the appeal proceedings appear to be ridiculous, they do raise, in general, a possibility that has not fully been explored: that Rudy somehow committed the crime with one or more unknown accomplices, and that Amanda and Raffaele are, indeed, innocent.

At present, given the state of affairs, that doesn’t seem very likely, but one of the central tenets of criminal law should not be forgotten here: guilt must be established without a reasonable doubt. The defence does not have to prove how the crime was committed; it does not have to prove that Amanda and Raffaele are innocent. It is enough to establish that there is doubt that Amanda and Raffaele were involved, and that that doubt is reasonable.

To my mind, the defence aren’t quite there yet; it is, however, conceivable that they may be moving closer. They may, perhaps, have made a mistake in trying to establish that Rudy was the sole perpetrator the first time round; in a somewhat roundabout manner, they may have started to make amends in the appeal proceedings.

As for the prosecution, they may well have made their own mistakes in trying to present their case as being stronger than it actually is. For example, they presented the court with a smoking gun - the kitchen knife - that now may, upon re-examination, go up in smoke. If that happens, it will be interesting to see how the case unfolds from there.

I started out by saying that the views on this matter have become increasingly polarised. I will end by stating more or less the opposite. This isn't a clear-cut case. On the basis of the verdict, one might very well believe that Amanda and Raffaele are guilty. On the other hand, it seems as if some aspects of the verdict may be flawed. Even if that were to be true, however, it doesn't mean that the verdict can simply be dismissed, and it doesn't mean that it is in any way clear that Amanda and Raffaele are innocent.

Justice isn’t represented by a pair of scales for nothing, I guess. At present, the balance has shifted in one direction; that it might yet shift in the other direction seems unlikely, but hardly impossible.

(This concludes - at least temporarily - this series.)

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