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Amanda Knox, Meredith Kercher and the media | Nina Burleigh October 4, 2011

As an American journalist covering the Knox case for 10 months in Italy, I was surprised by a number of things. I arrived assuming Knox was guilty, but within a month realised that most of what I’d been reading about – how she and her boyfriend were holding a mop and bucket at the door when the cops arrived, how her boyfriend googled “bleach”, how her footprints were in blood, how her blood was “mixed” with Meredith’s in the bathroom they shared, and how the authorities had proof that a break-in had been “staged” – had no basis in fact. Not only was it not in the record, authorities couldn’t confirm it either.

What I found most surprising, though, was the way the journalists I worked with seemed hardly bothered by the problems with the case. And while everyone was focused on Amanda Knox, the “star” of the horrid murder theory, no one was doing journalistic due diligence into the background and criminal history of Rudy Guede. He had been picked up in Milan the weekend before the murder having broken into a nursery school, and was found carrying items stolen from a Perugia law office that had been burgled the weekend before that. I interviewed the cops who arrested him, the nursery school owner who walked in on him in her office, his adoptive sister, his teachers, his father, his aunt and uncle and a party buddy who had spent night after night with him during the summer before the crime. The picture I was able to pull together, which I describe in my book, is one of a deeply troubled young man whose life story could have been written by Charles Dickens, crossed maybe with a little Stephen King.

Yet, the pack of reporters on this story chose never to do the moderate work it took to understand the nature of the man who has never denied being in the room while Meredith Kercher bled to death. But I learned that journalists in Italy work differently than we do in the US.

Perhaps the greatest single systemic inhibition on the Italian press – and on any journalist operating in Italy – has been the pervasiveness of the mafia in economic and political life. Any journalist working in Italy was aware of the fate of an intrepid young writer named Roberto Saviano, who wrote a scathing and revealing memoir of life among the Camorra clans in Naples. The gangsters issued a mafia version of a fatwa on Saviano. In 2009, he was hiding out in safe houses under constant police guard, in fear for his life. His girlfriend had dumped him, and he couldn’t practice his craft, let alone go out dancing in Rome or eat at a restaurant. Though he was only in his early thirties, his existence as a free young man was effectively over.

Foreign journalists posted to Rome have even less incentive to get too nosy. The Roman beat is luxurious and amusing – too much fun to risk by violating the national journalistic norm. When Meredith Kercher was murdered, there was little incentive for middle-class, middle-aged professional journalists enjoying Italy’s lifestyle charms to shine too much light into dark corners. Those who might have, like Saviano, knew they could find themselves hiding behind armed men, exiled back to their cold countries of origin, or getting plastic surgery and new names.

The result? Investigative journalism as practised in countries like the United Kingdom and United States simply does not exist in Italy. That function is left to the judiciary, although after decades of assassinations, failed trials and slow alterations to the constitution, it has become less, not more, transparent.

In the Kercher case, a powerful deterrent example was already in place. Giuliano Mignini, the Perugia prosecutor who led the investigation and original prosecution of the Kercher case, had recently plucked Mario Spezi, a Florentine newspaper crime reporter, out of his house and thrown him into solitary confinement for weeks after Spezi’s investigation into the Monster of Florence case seemed to be deviating from the prosecutorial line. Mignini had also threatened an American novelist, Douglas Preston, in the same case, causing him to flee Italy, never to return. In the months after Meredith Kercher’s murder, Perugia police also hauled in a local reporter, Il Giornale dell’Umbria’s Francesca Bene, after she found witnesses with stories that cast doubt on the official theory in the Kercher case. Mignini also ordered a house search on a female Rome-based reporter for Mediaset, who had raised questions about the Kercher case early on. She never covered the case again.

The police narrative was challenged by the defence during the original trial. Lawyers for Knox made clear that there were problems with the DNA evidence, and that the witnesses – a homeless drug addict who claimed he saw Knox and her boyfriend hovering near the house around the time of the murder, and an elderly woman with mental health problems who said she heard screams – were untrustworthy. But only during the appeal did the judge bring in independent scientists to confirm that the material evidence was contaminated and useless. And only then was the untrustworthiness of those witness given serious consideration. The second, closer look at the police case proved it to be built of straw, and it fell apart. But if the Italian media had been doing a better job and, instead of being compliant and cowed, had questioned Mignini’s narrative, Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito might never have been convicted in the first place.

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