ROME —The couple gazes brightly at the camera, posing for a selfie like the thousands posted on Instagram every day. “Here we go… Wish us, ‘Buon viaggio!’” the accompanying caption reads.
Such hopes for “a good trip” would be unremarkable, were it not for two facts: First, that the woman in the picture is Amanda Knox; and second, that the image marked the start of the 31-year-old American’s return to Italy for the first time since she was twice convicted — and finally exonerated — of the murder of her British roommate, Meredith Kercher in a series of sensational and controversial court cases.
Knox is not naïve — she knows her return to Italy will trigger an avalanche of headlines.
‘I remain a controversial figure’
The Seattle native has spent the seven-plus years since her conviction was quashed attempting to turn her notoriety into an asset rather than shrink from the spotlight. Her invitation to speak at the Criminal Justice Festival in Modena on Saturday on the subject “Trial by Media,” is another step on her path to reclaiming the narrative.
“I know, despite my absolution from the court of cassation, I remain a controversial figure in the public opinion, above all especially here in Italy,” Knox told the audience Saturday.
Knox said that the mass media is the “first line of defense against authorities” and that the press covering her case could have “incentivized the police to slow down, to ask themselves questions on an investigation that was veering off course.”
Knox said in an emotional speech in which she at times struggled to hold back tears that the media instead “decided to speculate and created clickbait stories.”
“On the world scene I wasn’t a defendant, innocent until proven guilty. I was a clever psychopath, dirty and drug-addicted whore, guilty until proven innocent. It was a false and unfounded history that lit up people’s imagination because it fed fears and fantasies.”
On her return to the States in 2011, Knox said she craved a normal life and set about completing her studies at the University of Washington before getting a job as a cub reporter at the West Seattle Herald, writing her memoir “Waiting to be heard” and sharing her version of events in a Netflix documentary. As the years have passed, she has continued to try to reshape her public image by forging a career as the host of a true crime podcast as well as an activist campaigning against wrongful convictions and miscarriages of justice.
Knox said that despite the notoriety of her case, she still believed the media could be a force for good. It wasn’t until she saw Perugia prosecutor Giuliano Mignini in the Netflix documentary that she truly understood his “genuine and noble motivation” to find justice for Kercher.
“One day I’d like to meet the real Dr. Mignini, and I hope that when he comes, he will also see that I am not a monster, I simply am Amanda,” Knox said. “I have the same hope … that being brave enough to face you and meet you face to face we can get to some sort of understanding and reconciliation.
“Because the real justice happens when we see the other people with compassion, when we judge with moderation and when we come back to each other after the pain with the courage of an open heart.”
The trip is of course controversial, with criticism coming from the Kercher family’s former lawyer. But author and documentary filmmaker Jon Ronson, who became friends with Knox after she contacted him about his book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” said he was impressed by how she was reclaiming her own story.
“I’m sure she has her fair share of trauma and anxiety and so on, but she never lets it get to her. She always just keeps going. And there’s no rancor,” he told CNN, explaining that he admires Knox’s empathy.
“If you’d been falsely accused of murder and convicted and falsely imprisoned for several years, you would presumably feel some rancor towards the people who did that to you, but she doesn’t. She works really hard to feel empathy and curiosity and compassion towards everybody — including her prosecutors.”
Kercher’s slaying in the historic university city of Perugia ignited a media furore in 2007. Within days of the 21-year-old’s killing at their shared home, Knox, then 20, was detained for questioning along with her 23-year-old Italian boyfriend of a week, Raffaele Sollecito. The pair were formally charged the following summer.
In the subsequent trial prosecutors argued Kercher was murdered after refusing to participate in a drug-fueled sex game played by Knox, Sollecito and a third man, Rudy Guede. Knox and Sollecito insisted they were away from the apartment the night Kercher was killed. During her initial interrogation, Knox also falsely blamed Patrick Lumumba — the owner of the bar where she worked — in Kercher’s death. He had an alibi and sued Knox for libel, and was awarded 40,000 euros ($54,000) in damages.
Knox and Sollecito were found guilty of murder in December 2009; Knox was sentenced to 26 years in prison, and Sollecito to 25. The rulings were just the beginning of a lengthy legal saga; both convictions were overturned in 2015. Guede was convicted in October 2008 using DNA evidence found at the scene of Kercher’s murder. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison, later reduced to 16 years on appeal. His lawyer told CNN that Guede is now allowed out on day release.
Knox was asked whether she thought there had been justice for Kercher and her family. “The judicial system cannot promise anybody the ultimate and complete truth. And I’m sorry for them. The judicial system did what it could, the murderer is in jail and so for that they should be satisfied,” she said.
Trial by media?
Throughout the court proceedings, newspapers plastered Knox’s face across front pages with headlines like “Sex, lies and stabbings” and “Lovers without any inhibitions.” Journalists pounced on any developments. Reporting often zeroed in on Knox herself, from her sexual history to her fashion choices.
Nina Burleigh was one of the many US journalists who descended on Perugia for Knox’s trial, but she said her initial impressions of the case were quickly superseded by what she discovered.
“I went there thinking ‘Why did she become Charlie Manson overnight? What was going on with these young women?’ and then in the first month started to realize this is not looking the way it looked to me when I got here,” she told CNN.
Burleigh said the fact the Knox case became such a media spectacle was at least in part down to widespread misogynistic attitudes in Italy, and the country’s often frenzied coverage of crime stories.
“There is this way of covering these lurid murders, often involving women or girl children. This was one of those stories. They had a prosecutor feeding [reporters] one-sided information,” Burleigh explained. “I met rational people all over who were convinced that Amanda Knox was a killer based a lot on [how it was] depicted.
“It had everything: A lot of emotion, it had nationalism; it had misogyny … but really it comes down to young women,” Burleigh said. “Women are prey and for there to be a female involved as an alleged murderess — that was going to get a lot of attention.”
Sexism and scrutiny
Ilaria Ruzza, a feminist and LGBTQ activist based in Verona, said this normalized sexism gets to the heart of why Knox became the poster girl for the case.
“Women are not taken seriously in Italy,” she said. “It is the type of culture we have,” in which misogynistic attitudes are “rooted in our society.”
Ruzza said Italian patriarchal attitudes mean women are still expected to conform to gendered stereotypes such as the homemaker and stay-at-home mother. “We have TV in Italy always showing almost-naked women where their role is to be on the side of the host, like a beautiful stage show. We had 20 years of Berlusconi and that’s what he did. He spread this way of objectifying women and that [legacy] is very hard to die.”
Certainly, Knox’s behavior both in the immediate aftermath of Kercher’s death, and during the trial, was heavily scrutinized for clues — and deemed inappropriate by spectators.
Knox had been filmed kissing Sollecito outside the murder scene, and while at the police station, she reportedly sat on Sollecito’s lap, pulling faces.
“It’s very common for very shy people, especially attractive shy people, to be considered stuck up and conceited,” explained clinical psychiatrist Dale Archer, who added that what others perceive as a “cold exterior” is often simply a coping mechanism for the stress an individual is facing.
“When you put everything together, she was scared to death and did act inappropriately without a doubt,” he told CNN. “But I think any young person put in her shoes — in a foreign country, being interrogated in a foreign language, with a horrible murder that took place and you’re being blamed for it — you can excuse a lot of that behavior.”
‘Not looking for revenge’
When Knox announced on Twitter that she would travel back to Italy, many social media users immediately questioned why. Some suggested she use “common sense,” “think twice” and called her decision to return “ridiculous.” Others applauded the move as “brave,” “extraordinary” and “strong.” Knox declined CNN’s request for an interview.
Francesco Maresca, the former lawyer for the Kercher family, told CNN the trip seemed “inappropriate.”
“She comes to speak about judicial errors, but it was not her case. You can talk of judicial errors when a trial doesn’t stand up from the beginning. In her trial, there were as many as three convictions if we also consider the first sentence of the high court. To call it a judicial error is excessive,” he said.
Italy’s high court first ruled in 2013 that Knox and Sollecito should stand trial for a second time before overturning Knox and Sollecito’s second convictions in 2015.
Maresca added that Knox has used the media coverage of her trial “to her convenience, to become famous, to be able to write the book, to be able to make the film… she exploited it to the full.”
Knox’s friend Jon Ronson said that like many other people he has met who have been publicly pilloried, she is not looking for revenge, or to bring people down, but instead wants to do good.
“It’s an incredible strength, the fact that she’s using all of this to highlight miscarriages of justice,” he said, adding: “She just lives her life in an unapologetic way because why should she be apologetic when she’s innocent?”
He continued, “At the beginning of the documentary about her, she basically said ‘I’m either the world’s greatest psychopath or I’m normal and I’m innocent,’ and I can tell you having been with Amanda many, many times and having written a book about psychopaths, she’s not a psychopath.”