After a year-long investigation that at times has felt more like a Perry Mason plot than a real murder investigation, the Italian courts have made their first formal ruling in the murder of Meredith Kercher last year in Perugia, Italy. Today Judge Paolo Micheli ruled that there is enough credible evidence to formally charge Amanda Knox, the 21-year-old Seattle native, and her former lover, 24-year-old Rafaelle Sollecito, with the murder of Knox's former roommate. The trial is set to start Dec. 4; the judge said he would rule within 5 days on whether or not Knox would have to stay in prison or be held in house arrest. At the same time, Judge Micheli found 21-year-old Rudy Hermann Guede guilty of murder and sexual assault and sentenced him to 30 years in prison. Guede chose a fast-track plea-bargain trial out of fear that Knox and Sollecito were planning to frame him for Kercher's murder. Testimony he gave in his closed-door trial will be used against Knox and Sollecito in their criminal trial, which is expected to last for around a year. The two will be tried in front of a jury consisting of two judges and six ordinary citizens.
Knox's parents Edda Mellas and Curt Knox did not attend the hearings, but instead spent two tearful days wandering around Perugia and standing on a terrace high above the courthouse looking down on the media frenzy. Giuliano Mignini, the lead prosecutor in the case, tried to convince the judge one last time that their daughter was instrumental in Kercher's death the night of Nov. 1, 2007.
Mignini believes Kercher was the victim of a satanic-ritual-inspired orgy that went terribly wrong, for which Sollecito came up with the sadistic idea after reading Japanese manga comics. He maintains that Sollecito held Kercher's arms behind her back as Guede sexually assaulted her. Mignini believes that Knox first lightly danced a kitchen knife over her neck before fatally slicing her throat.
Whatever the outcome, it's clear that the overzealous freelance defense team in the United States, which has taken up Knox's cause with fervor, have not helped the defendant—and might even have hurt her standing in the Italian courts. The Friends of Amanda campaign, led by Seattle lawyer Anne Bremner, has infuriated prosecuting and defense attorneys alike by helping focus extensive coverage by major American news networks on the alleged ineptitude of the Italian investigators and antiquated Italian legal system.
Bremner infuriated Perugian prosecutor Mignini by taking swipes at the work of Italian police on NBC, enumerating ways in which prosecutors may have inadvertently contaminated DNA evidence. Lawyers for both sides of the case quickly pointed out, however, that Bremner was basing her comments on video footage of an apartment below the crime scene, not the actual crime scene itself. Further alienating the Italians, Seattle judge Michael Heavey wrote a damning letter to Italy's justice minister about the potential for injustice against Knox, prompting one lawyer to warn that the Americans would have to send the military to get Amanda out of Italy. "We are being condemned by a group over nine-thousand kilometers away, without knowing the intricacies of the case or the complexities of Italian judicial terminology," prosecutor Mignini told reporters outside the Perugian courthouse last week. "I am shocked and scandalized by this attitude. It is the first time I have come across such presumption and superficiality."
Bremner's comments, like those made earlier in the investigation by New York attorney Joseph Tacopina, have tended to contradict the strategy of Knox's lawyers and have even put Knox's lead attorney Luciano Ghirga on the defensive. "American lawyers do not represent anyone here," said Ghirga outside the courthouse in Perugia, "and have never represented anyone here." The interference has also angered Knox's family, who have publicly distanced themselves from those in Seattle. "I have faith in my Italian lawyers," says Curt Knox. "And I dissociate myself from other initiatives on behalf of my daughter."
Still, the Friends of Amanda freelance efforts seem to have had little effect on Judge Micheli. During his fast-track trial, Guede never denied having sex with Kercher or being at the crime scene the night she died, and he testified that Knox was there, too. He also said that an Italian man wearing glasses who looked like Sollecito was also present, though he couldn't positively identify him. Prosecutors allege that a kitchen knife found in Sollecito's apartment is the murder weapon—it has Knox's DNA on the handle and what could be Kercher's in a groove on the blade. And Sollecito's DNA was found on the clasp of the bra that Kercher was wearing when she was murdered. The bra was cut from her body after her death. Defense teams for both Knox and Sollecito blame cross-contamination for these incriminating pieces of evidence.
With Guede already convicted for his part in the bizarre sex murder, one-third of the mystery has been solved. Defense teams for Knox and Sollecito face a formidable challenge in trying to make sure their clients don't complete the puzzle.