Are we all guilty of feasting on Amanda Knox's story, asks Andrew Gumbel
The tabloids, naturally, had a field day with reports of an orgy gone wrong, of satanic rituals, and of what the judge in Knox's first murder trial ended up labelling "extreme evil". But the story struck a deeper chord, too, not least because of the peculiarly twisted version Knox presented of that old archetype, the prim young English-speaking woman who allows herself to be seduced by Italy's bounties: the food, the sunshine, the idyllic landscapes, the abundance of great art and of Mediterranean men.
Tina Brown, thinking of her own university-aged daughter, called the story a "chilling eye-opener" and all but urged her readers to lock up their daughters before another could fall victim to the same depravity. The story was eye-catching and deepy troublesome. But, we later discovered, it was also completely wrong.
Knox and her boyfriend at the time, Raffaele Sollecito (whose book, Honor Bound, I co-wrote), had been locked up before a scrap of hard evidence was found against them. The forensic evidence the police eventually brought forward could not withstand the scrutiny of independent experts. Neither the prosecutors nor the first trial judge could agree on a motive that made sense of their involvement.
It was an awful murder, but, from an investigative standpoint, it was not a complicated one. The man whose DNA was found all over the murder scene, who had a history of breaking into buildings and wielding a knife much like the one that inflicted the fatal wounds, was a troubled drifter of Ivorian origin named Rudy Guede. He was arrested in Germany three weeks after the crime, extradited, tried and found guilty.
It would have made good sense at that point for the police to admit they had made a mistake and release Knox and Sollecito. But by then their over-hasty conclusions had ignited an international firestorm, so the narrative took an abrupt U-turn. No longer an eye-catching scandal about sex, drugs and murder, it was now a monstrous miscarriage of justice. The prosecutorial frenzy fed the media frenzy, creating ghoulish public images of Knox and Sollecito that were increasingly at variance with the known facts. It took two trials and four years for the Italian court system to set them free.
It is this story – though a less sensationalist, more depressing, version – that Knox tells in her memoir, Waiting To Be Heard, a book just published in the States, but not, as things stand, to be brought out in the UK, because of our libel laws. It is, as she herself writes, about setting the record straight, about correcting the thousands of times she has been talked about – in news stories, on talkshows, in books and documentaries, and in one particularly shameful made-for-TV movie – by people "who do not know me, or who have no knowledge of the facts".
It is still the story of an innocent abroad, one who saw her year in Italy as a way to "meet maturity head-on" and discover her sexuality. Knox describes how she self-consciously experimented with casual sex and tried to become sophisticated about smoking pot. (One of her Italian roommates looked on sympathetically as she spent whole evenings struggling to roll a joint.) But she is no longer the conniving she-devil depicted in the tabloids.
She fully admits being naive, quirky, young for her age and ill-attuned to the social expectations of another culture. When she and Sollecito stumbled on the murder scene, she had no good idea of how to handle herself other than to make multiple calls to her mother in Seattle, where it was the middle of the night. Her Italian was not good enough to understand what was going on at first, and her over-trusting faith in the police led her to talk too loosely without the benefit of a translator, or a lawyer. She and Sollecito were incautious precisely because they thought they had nothing to hide. "By assuming I didn't need safeguards," she writes, "I became vulnerable."