There should be a basic set of rules when on trial for murder: Don't antagonize the prosecutor and judge. Dress appropriately in court. Don't let your family pose for photos in front of the crime scene. These basic tenets have somehow escaped Amanda Knox, the 22-year-old Seattle native whose trial for sexually assaulting and murdering her British roommate resumes on Friday.
Over the weekend, Knox's mother, Edda Mellas, and her two younger sisters, Deanna, 20, and Ashley, 14, were featured in the Italian women's magazine Gente. The women, in Perugia to support Knox (who turned 22 on July 9 in Capanne Prison), posed somberly in front of the courthouse and leaned on a perch overlooking the Umbrian hillside. One photo showed Knox's younger sisters in short-shorts standing in front of the house that Knox and her murdered roommate, Meredith Kercher, once shared. Understandably, the Kercher family's attorney described the photo as "macabre," but Mellas blamed the photojournalist: "The photos were the photographer's idea, showing Amanda's sisters near the house where Amanda lived," Mellas told NEWSWEEK. "No disrespect to Meredith or her family was ever meant."
The photos have caused yet another uproar here in Italy, where everything Knox and her supporters have done for the past 20 months has been closely scrutinized. And the jury in Perugia, like the rest of this country, is paying attention. During court breaks, jurists have lunch and coffee at the same cafés as lawyers and journalists. In fact, while jurors cannot be quoted in the press, they are still allowed to discuss the case and follow the press coverage.
They're probably horrified by what's happened in the courtroom, too. Two weeks ago, Ashley Knox defied the prohibition on minors attending sex-related hearings and had to be removed from the proceedings. Then Deanna Knox showed up in a red, white, and blue ensemble, complete with hotpants, on July 4. "The jury pays attention to much more than the testimony," says Alessandra Batassa, a Rome-based criminal lawyer who has defended a number of murder suspects. Ideally, "the lawyers should take control of the client's complete image—including who attends court with her—not just the client's personal behavior."
Image is important in this trial, something at which neither the prosecution nor the defense has excelled. The prosecution took five months to make its case, which relied heavily on circumstantial evidence, including Knox's lack of alibi, her behavior after the murder, and contradictory statements she and her co-defendant, Rafaelle Sollecito, made during questioning. The prosecution's forensic evidence cites locations in the house the girls shared where Kercher's blood was found intermingled with Knox's DNA. Prosecutors also offered a knife that has Knox's DNA on the handle and, they claim, Kercher's on the blade. Still, says Batassa, Italian courts have handed down guilty verdicts on less evidence than this.
It is not uncommon in Italy to give equal weight to circumstantial evidence, especially in cases where the defendants have been caught making false statements. Knox, during an interrogation days after the murder, admitted to being in the house when Kercher was killed, and then accused Patrick Lumumba, her former boss, of the murder (he was later cleared). Sollecito at first said he didn't remember if Knox was with him that night and then said he was at home downloading cartoons, even though his computer and Internet records said otherwise. Confronted with records showing that the cell phones of both suspects were turned off at the same moment the night before the murder and then turned on again the next morning about 6—Knox and Sollecito told police that they slept until after 10 a.m.—the two changed their story. They also said that Sollecito called the police the morning after the murder, though phone records show the call was made after the police had already arrived at the at the scene of the murder. "Lies can discredit the suspects as much as hard evidence," said a Perugian judge who preferred to remain unnamed.
The Knox-Sollecito defense team plans to wrap up their case this weekend even though they have presented only a handful of witnesses. Knox's original witness list contained 35 names but defense lawyers have retracted 23. Sollecito's chief forensic consultant walked away from the case (and stuck lawyers with a 50,000 euro bill) in May because he disagreed with the defense strategy. The witnesses who actually testified for the defense caused even more confusion: two forensic scientists placed on the stand contradicted each other. (Sollecito's expert told the jury that Kercher was killed by a single assailant from behind; Knox's said Kercher was killed from the front.) Among the lawyers, chaos reigns: Sollecito's lead attorney, a parliamentarian in Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's party, has not been in court for weeks, and his other two attorneys have dismantled their joint practice during the course of this case.
Knox's lawyers have had a few important triumphs. Their forensic scientist was convincing two weeks ago in suggesting the knife with Knox's DNA couldn't have caused all of Kercher's mortal wounds. But they have left other evidence uncontested: nobody has testified about Knox and Sollecito's whereabouts that night. Nor has the defense broached the topic of the mixed DNA in the bathroom the girls shared. Legal experts who follow this case have suggested that blood evidence cannot be dated and therefore could have been left weeks before the murder. But when Knox testified in her own defense in June, she conceded that there was no blood in the bathroom the day before the murder, effectively dating those blood stains to that night.
Even if the defense satisfies every unanswered question this Friday and Saturday, it's hard to say what it will mean to the jury. After this weekend, the next court date is Sept. 14, nearly two months away. When the trial reconvenes, jurors will hear closing arguments, which are expected to last at least a month. A verdict is expected by the end of October, around the two-year anniversary of Kercher's murder. But even that won't mean the end to this case. Both the prosecution and the defense have said they will appeal if things don't go their way. Hopefully, by then, Knox's retinue will be on their best behavior.