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The most unholy mess

by Cath Murphy

October 6, 2011

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Donate Nothing is going to bring back Meredith Kercher. Nothing will undo the knife wounds, the ligature round the throat, the enormous emotional pain caused her family. Nothing will grant her the years of life she should have had, the friendships, the marriage, the children. All those things are gone, vanished into the endless slip of time. Erased.

It's that realization which haunts us when someone dies young, especially when that death takes such a brutal, pointless form. It's that realization which makes us long for someone to blame, to get to the truth, to understand what happened in every detail. The sense we might be deprived of that truth enrages us. It especially enrages those who seek to provide us with that truth: the police and the prosecutors whose job it is to investigate terrible events like the murder of Meredith Kercher.

And yet it is frustratingly rare that we ever do get to the bottom of things. If life is messy, then murder takes that messiness and multiplies it to the power of ten. The investigators who arrived at the flat Kercher shared with Amanda Knox must have known that. The girl's room was trashed, the window broken. Her body had lain there for hours before Knox arrived with her boyfriend and alerted the authorities. There was blood and broken glass all over the floor, ripped clothes and overturned furniture. There were no eye witnesses — the flat and the building below it were empty that night. There appeared to be no motive. Getting to the truth wasn't going to be easy.

Can we use that frustration as an excuse for what happened next?

What happened next was this. The Italian police decided to question Kercher's flatmate Amanda Knox and her boyfriend Raffaelo Sollecito about their whereabouts on the night of the death. There was no physical evidence to connect them to the crime and no obvious motive, but other suspects were frustratingly absent. The questioning went on for hours, often beginning late at night. Three days after the death a crack appeared in the one of the stories. Sollecito said it was possible that Knox had left his apartment at some time during the night. Not that she did leave it but that it was possible. This ignited suspicions. A possibility was turned into a reality. Knox was asked to account for this discrepancy. Repeatedly. In an interview which began at 11pm and ended sometime the next day, without the presence of a lawyer, Knox eventually made a statement. She had been in the flat. She had gone there with a bar owner, Patrick Lumumba. She had stood and watched as Lumumba stabbed Kercher to death.

And so the die was cast. As soon as that statement was made, the frustrating, messy facts began to organize themselves into a tidy story. Pent up frustration unleashed, the police and prosecutors went after Knox and Sollecito and they went after them with a vengeance. Between them, they constructed a Grand Guignol of a theory, a story of which Dan Brown would have been proud, one involving satanic cults, sex games gone wrong, money stolen to pay drug debts and more besides. Knox might look like an angel, but she was a devil in disguise. Witnesses were produced, DNA evidence uncovered. Knox and Sollecito were tried, convicted and put in jail.

But sometimes the truth is much more pedestrian and frustratingly contradictory than we would like. The phenomenon of false confession is well understood and researched (except in Italy, it would seem). Repeated questioning might seem like the obvious way to get at the truth, but actually all it often produces is worthless compliance. In many countries, prosecutors understand this and will go to some lengths to make sure that this possibility is avoided — and not just because it means the evidence could be discredited in court. Some (probably most) prosecutors want the truth.

So when Knox told the Italian police that she was at the flat when Kercher died, she wasn't telling them the truth, she was telling them what they wanted to hear. She was tired, disoriented, frightened. She was thousands of miles from home in a country she didn't know well. Her flatmate was dead. Her memory of the evening had the blurry quality that significant smoking of dope can give it. She convinced herself that if Sollecito said she had left the flat, then that must have been true. She adjusted events accordingly. The police wrote it all down, believed it and from then on, like I said before, the die was cast.

Because from that point on, the investigation stopped being an investigation into uncovering the truth and became one directed at proving a truth — a truth which implicated Knox and Sollecito. Even when police caught a petty thief Rudy Guede with Kercher's laptop and discovered that Guede's DNA was all over Kercher's room, they refused to back down from the idea that Knox and Sollecito were somehow involved in the killing. They had Knox's statement after all. That was untidy, but it could be fitted into the story in some way. If Guede was questioned for long enough, perhaps he too would remember that Knox had been in the flat with him.

Is it any surprise that eventually Guede did remember exactly that? No matter that Knox's original statement included her being in the flat with Lumumba, who had a cast iron alibi for the whole night. It was much tidier to imagine that Lumumba had actually been Guede than to acknowledge that the truth is rarely as easy to get at as we would like.

So now Knox and Sollecito are finally acquitted, four years after Meredith Kercher died. The solid DNA evidence wasn't so solid after all, the witnesses unreliable or contradictory. The tidy story the police constructed to explain Knox's confession became a mess of wild claims about drug fuelled orgies and satanic cults. The harder the police and prosecutors tried to get to the truth, the further away from it they ended up. In answer to the question about frustration being an excuse, the answer is no. Their frustration, their need for someone to blame for Meredith Kercher's untimely death, turned a tragedy into a travesty.

As for those lost years - the time stolen from Meredith Kercher - none of this has brought any of it back. Her family are now further from solace than they were, not closer. And Knox and Sollecito have lost four years of their lives, their reputations and probably a significant portion of their trust in other human beings. Nothing will bring those back either.

by Cath Murphy

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