Italy Gears Up for Amanda Knox Trial Frenzy

Amanda Knox just spent her second Christmas in Italy's Capanne prison, where officials say she attended a coed mass, sang Italian holiday songs, took dance lessons from the nuns and watched the hit animated movie "Kung Fu Panda." Knox reportedly asked her parents for thermal underwear, flannel sheets, warm socks and a sweater this year.

Why do we know such mundane details about Knox's life? Because the 21-year-old, blue-eyed Seattle native remains a national obsession in Italy, 14 months since Meredith Kercher, a British student in the Erasmus exchange program, was sexually assaulted and brutally murdered in a small rented villa in Perugia. Knox was Kercher's roommate, and she, along with two others, is formally accused of the murder. Her trial, scheduled to begin on Jan. 16, is sure to ignite another orgy of "Foxy Knoxy" coverage in the Italian press and beyond.

Italy is not exactly devoid of newsworthy events. In the past 12 months this country has had a national election, a major garbage crisis and devastating floods. Yet Knox was named one of the top newsmakers of 2008 by countless Italian news organizations, alongside U.S. President-elect Barack Obama and anti-mafia muckraker Roberto Saviano. Important parliamentarians have visited her in prison. Two Italian-language books about Kercher's murder have focused on Knox as the protagonist, one with her angelic face on the cover. The paddy wagon that carries her to the Perugia courthouse for hearings is a magnet for the paparazzi hoping to get a shot through the blackened windows. Salacious details about her life behind bars—whether true or not—fill the tabloid press in both Italy and Britain.

Even her five-minute appearance in a prison art movie, during which she recited the "To be or not to be" speech from Shakespeare's "Hamlet," became the center of a major political row that eventually blocked the film's release. "I am amazed and disappointed at this," says center-right parliamentarian Laura Allegrini, who successfully protested the release of the prison movie. "Amanda Knox has been made out to be some sort of star instead of what she is—a woman accused of a horrendous crime."

Judge Giancarlo Massei will begin to hear evidence on Jan. 16, when Knox and 24-year-old Italian Rafaelle Sollecito go on trial. Another suspect, 21-year-old Rudy Guede, has already been convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison at a fast-track nonjury trial in October for his part in Kercher's murder. Chief prosecutor Giuliano Mignini believes Knox and Sollecito are just as guilty. Both maintain their innocence.

Mignini will present a 10,000-page dossier of evidence about the events of Nov. 1, 2007, when Kercher was murdered. He believes the crime was a satanic-inspired sexual attack in which Sollecito held back Kercher's arms, Guede sexually assaulted her and Knox danced the blade of a knife against Kercher's throat before stabbing her. Among the admissible forensic evidence are Sollecito's DNA on the clasp of her bra, Guede's DNA on her body, the autopsy report showing bruises on Kercher's elbows, and Knox's DNA on the handle of a knife. The same knife, which was found in Sollecito's apartment, has what could be Kercher's DNA on the blade.

During preliminary hearings, defense attorneys failed to get any of these elements thrown out of the body of evidence against the two young students. "This is all a mix of genetic traces resulting from contamination," says Giulia Bongiorno, one of Sollecito's attorneys. "It should not be admitted as evidence in court."

But this DNA evidence, along with numerous fingerprints, bloody Nike sneaker footprints and mixed blood droplets on a bathroom faucet Kercher shared with Knox, will form the basis of the prosecutor's case. Counterevidence about alleged sloppy police work, cross-contamination of forensic samples both at the crime scene and at the lab, and records that supposedly show that Sollecito was downloading a cartoon from the Internet at the time of the murder will be presented by the defense. The prosecutor will also focus on contradictory statements made by the suspects themselves. Neither Knox nor Sollecito has been able to provide a consistent alibi for their whereabouts on the night of the murder. They both admit to smoking hashish all day, and neither has a clear recollection of the timing of their exact whereabouts. Both deny involvement in the slaying.

Testimony from more than 200 witnesses will be heard. Prosecution witnesses include several people who only recently came forward with recollections against the two accused. One witness claims to have seen Knox in the detergent section of a small grocery store near the crime scene the morning after the murder. Another claims to have seen the three main suspects together with Kercher two nights before her death. "We will fight against the accusations," says Carlo Dalla Vedova, Knox's Rome-based attorney. "We know that Amanda has nothing to do with the murder of her friend Meredith."

The trial promises to be nothing short of an Umbrian version of an O. J. Simpson–style media circus. Hearings will be held only once or twice a week, and the process could take up to a year with the usual delays and postponements that are a common rite in the Italian judicial system. A six-person jury (three men, three women, ranging in age from 35 to 57) has already been chosen from a pool of 50 qualified Perugia residents. One of the women is a secretary at a primary school. One is a housewife. One of the male jurors is a criminal lawyer. They will be paid between $35 and $100 per hearing for their service. Two professional judges will guide the jury's deliberations as it sorts through the complicated case, which includes allegations of forensic contamination, staging a crime scene and false accusation against Patrick Lumumba, a Congolese bar owner whom Knox originally accused of Kercher's murder. All those in the pool of potential jurors had heard of the murder. In fact, the intricate details and subplots of the 14-month investigation are well known to Italians, who have been inundated with news stories of the case and who follow it like a soap opera.

Knox's Italian lawyers plan to call about 60 witnesses, many from Seattle, who will fly to Perugia to testify on her behalf. Knox's mother, Edda Mellas, has been the chief defender of her daughter's innocence, insisting that the prosecutor has it wrong. "She has lost a year of her life and deserves a beautiful future," Mellas told the Italian women's magazine Oggi, before comparing her family's situation to that of the Kerchers. "It's hard to say if our situation is worse or not than theirs. They have lost a child; we still have ours."

Whatever the outcome of the criminal trial, it's clear that the focus on the real victim has already been lost in the lead-up to Italy's trial of the admittedly young century. Knox's infamy will only continue to grow as details from the trial make titillating headlines for the next year or longer. And Meredith Kercher will likely be only a small detail among those stories.

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