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Friday, December 4, 2009

Amanda Knox verdict vindicates prosecutor who thought the unthinkable

Case closed.” They are the words that almost came back to haunt the prosecution. Now they carry some truth.

The conviction of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito is a vindication of the strategy of Giuliano Mignini, the chief prosecutor, who battled doubts about his reconstruction of the crime as they mounted during the 11-month trial.

Mr Mignini’s supporters in Perugia said that he immediately saw beyond the obvious solution of a single killer and “thought the unthinkable”. His critics say that he constructed a case far too hastily, almost as soon as Knox and Sollecito were arrested, proclaiming that it was “case closed” — a sentiment echoed by Edgardo Giobbi, the chief police investigator, who declared at the start: “We were able to establish guilt by closely observing the suspects’ psychological and behavioural reactions during the interrogations.”

A main thrust of the prosecution case was the DNA testing carried out by Patrizia Stefanoni, a police scientist. They had to overcome defence claims that the DNA found was too contaminated or too insignificant to be usable — in particular traces on a kitchen knife found at Sollecito’s flat, which the prosecution said had Knox’s DNA near the handle and Ms Kercher’s at the tip.
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In the tests the DNA was amplified and analysed using electrophoresis, a graph consisting of a series of peaks creating a DNA “fingerprint”. The prosecution said that DNA taken from the knife blade produced a series of peaks that matched Ms Kercher’s DNA, while DNA from the handle produced peaks that matched Knox’s.

However, the defence replied that those peaks needed to be above a certain threshold to be reliable — a minimum of 150 relative fluorescence units (RFUs), as it is described. Most of the peaks on the knife DNA were below 50 RFUs — and that meant they were untrustworthy.

Then there was the bra drama. Doubts also arose over a clasp from Ms Kercher’s bra which, the prosecution claimed, had Sollecito’s DNA on it. The court was treated to the sight of Manuela Comodi, the deputy prosecutor, bringing in her own bra to show how it could have been ripped off in the assault. But the bra fragment, the defence argued, was found only in a police search in December, by which time it had been hopelessly contaminated.

All along the defence tried to claim that the murder was the act of one man: Rudy Guede, an Ivory Coast immigrant who fled to Germany but was arrested and extradited back to Italy. Last year Guede was given a 30-year sentence under fast-track procedures.

Neither Sollecito’s nor Knox’s DNA was found on the rest of the bra, or on Ms Kercher’s body — unlike Guede’s DNA. But the prosecution claimed that bare footprints found at the crime scene were theirs, that Ms Kercher’s blood was mixed with Knox’s in a basin and on a tap, and that Knox and Sollecito had smashed a window to simulate a break-in.

To the claim that there was a lack of an obvious motive, Mr Mignini replied that Knox had acted out of “hatred and revenge” after falling out with Ms Kercher over drugs, missing cash, hygiene issues, and the “strange men” Knox brought home.

He said that what started as an act of petty payback escalated into a bloody scene which could only be covered up by silencing Ms Kercher for good. But even Miss Comodi was forced to observe in her closing remarks: “We live in an era of violence without motive.”

Knox’s lawyers said Guede had acted alone — even though he claimed he had been in the bathroom of the cottage with his iPod on during the killing and on emerging had seen a man resembling Sollecito standing over the body with a knife and the “outline” of Knox fleeing the scene.

In the end, however, the judges and jury were convinced by the prosecution’s reconstruction and by a host of testimony concerning Knox’s strange behaviour after the murder — her boasting that she had “found” the body, her knowledge of the details of the crime scene, her lifestyle in Perugia, the fact that she and Sollecito turned off their mobile phones that night, her tendency to change her story, and Sollecito’s inability to remember whether Knox had been with him all night at his flat — as she claimed — because they were smoking hashish.

Above all, the jurors may have been swayed by Miss Comodi, who said as the trial neared its end that “beyond reasonable doubt” did not mean “absolute truth”, which was the preserve of God alone. Rather, it meant that the jurors had to be convinced by the “force of logic” of the prosecution case, which had been accepted by investigating magistrates, the pre-trial judge and the judge in the Guede trial. In the end, that logic prevailed.

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