Murder suspect Amanda Knox has a lot of explaining to do. But what she says may not be as important as how she says it.
For five months, the 21-year-old Seattle honor student has spent Fridays and Saturdays in a Perugia, Italy, courtroom under harsh lights and watchful eyes, standing trial for the murder of her British roommate Meredith Kercher. She has heard witnesses describe her hygiene, sexual habits and inappropriate gymnastic displays. She has watched bloody crime-scene footage of the house she shared with Kercher, who was violently tortured and killed in November 2007. She has also seen explicit video of Kercher's battered body in a pool of blood on her bedroom floor, eyes open, with multiple knife wounds to her neck. Knox has listened while the jury has heard from forensic experts who identified her and Kercher's mixed DNA and blood in five areas in the house, including a footprint outside the crime scene. (Article continued below...)
On Friday, Knox will finally get her day in court, taking the stand as a "communal" witness for the prosecution, civil plaintiffs and her own defense. Her testimony is expected to last at least one day. "She's ready," says her Roman lawyer Carlo Dalla Vedova. "She wants to talk."
Witness-jury interaction is one of the most critical aspects of a criminal trial, especially for the prime suspects. Not talking often implies the suspect has something to hide. But taking the stand can be far riskier. "The biggest risk is that she doesn't follow the advice of her lawyers," says Alessandra Batassa, a criminal-defense lawyer in Rome who has served on defense teams in similar crimes. "The court will be absolutely influenced by nonjudicial factors like her demeanor. Her image has been painted in a very bad light in the trial so far, so she has to portray that she has normal sexual relationships and that she is just a normal girl. She has to be very convincing."
In the past, Knox has not always proved herself a competent speaker—especially under pressure. As heard in audiotapes obtained by NEWSWEEK from a January 2008 prosecutorial interrogation, she speaks in a steady, low voice that is calm and confident, but she makes basic mistakes. When asked about specifics of the morning after the murder, she clearly stammers and stutters, undoubtedly damaging her case in the eyes of the prosecutor. At times she is indignant, answering questions with her own questions. On the tape she is either serious or arrogant, even laughing at the prosecutor's line of questioning. When she has addressed the court in spontaneous declarations, she has waffled between confidence and calamity. She has spoken about her vibrator and about being interrogated by police and about being disappointed by what Kercher's friends have said about her. She will almost surely be less cavalier this time, as her lawyers prepare her for what will be a grueling day. The jury will be listening attentively, but more important, they will be watching her every move.
Knox's actions already overshadow anything she has said in court. On Valentine's Day, she wore a T shirt with the Beatles’ mantra “All You Need Is Love," and she and her codefendant, Rafaelle Sollecito, frequently exchange flirtations in full view of the jury. This is a young woman who was accused of performing cartwheels in the police station while waiting to be questioned for the murder of her roommate. And who, on her first chance to speak, chose the delicate topic of her sex toy rather than focusing on her involvement in the murder. "It exists," she told the court last February after proclaiming her innocence. "It was a joke. It's a little pink rabbit and it was given to me by a friend."
This time Knox will have to address much more than circumstantial evidence. She will be questioned by the prosecutor about specific elements of the case, including why her DNA and Kercher's blood were found around the house, especially in a back bedroom where police believe she and Sollecito staged a break-in. Other questions will include why her DNA was discovered on the handle of a knife that had Kercher's DNA on the blade. She will likely have to provide a believable alibi for the night of the murder, something that she and Sollecito have yet to do. And she has to be careful not to accidentally blame Sollecito, who is waiving his right to testify. "The biggest mistake she can make is to accuse or unload the responsibility on the other suspect," says Batassa. "And she should not accuse or blame the court or those deciding this case."
She will also be questioned by civil attorneys for Patrick Lumumba, her former boss at a nightclub where she worked as a barmaid. In the days after the crime, Knox accused Lumumba of murdering Kercher, which led to his arrest and incarceration. He was released when another man, Rudy Guede, confessed to being at the crime scene. Guede was convicted of his part in Kercher's murder last October and is serving a 30-year sentence. His appeal will begin Nov. 18. "Accusing an innocent person is always a big defensive error and one that has put her in a bad light," says Batassa. "But explaining and apologizing, even this late, will be seen as a favorable element for her."
How Knox physically interacts with the jury could play an even bigger role in how they perceive her. Body-language experts agree that nonverbal communication affects a listener even more than words. Very erect and even stiff posture or the sudden crossing of the arms or legs often indicates that a person is uncomfortable with what he is saying. When people lie, gesticulation will also slow down—those covering something up tend to overcompensate by trying not to draw attention to themselves. Some go to the extreme, even putting their hands in their pockets, sitting on them or trying to keep them from moving. Experts agree that touching the mouth or face—especially scratching the nose, touching the ear or the chin—is the most obvious body-language lie detector.
Finally, none of what Knox says may really matter. In Italy, defendants in criminal trials do not have to take an oath before testifying. "The suspect is the only one in a criminal trial who can tell 'their truth' without being accused of false testimony," says Batassa. Those judging the case will have to decide if hers is the real truth.