Knox Trial Turns From Theatrics to Forensics

For three months, the jurors in the Meredith Kercher murder trial in Perugia, Italy, have heard about sex toys, G-strings and cartwheels. Witnesses have included an Albanian drug dealer, a homeless man and an elderly woman who described her problems with constipation. Outside the courtroom talking heads and armchair investigators have analyzed the crime scene, criticized the way evidence was collected and debated the differences between the American and Italian legal systems and whether the Seattle defendant Amanda Knox would be better off were she tried at home. (Article continued below...)

Now, 17 months after Kercher's brutal murder, the theatrics are over. The two judges and six jurors are finally getting to the meat of the trial: the scientific evidence. Experts say it will make all the difference in this case against 21-year-old Amanda Knox and 25-year-old Raffaele Sollecito, who stand accused of sexual assault and murder. In November 2007, Kercher was stabbed in the neck three times and left to bleed to death on the floor of her bedroom in the villa she shared with Knox and two Italian women. Both Knox and Sollecito maintain their innocence. Rudy Guede, an Ivory Coast native and local drifter, was convicted in a fast-track trial last October for sexual assault and murder and is serving a 30-year sentence, which is under appeal. He will testify for the prosecution on April 4. Francesco Maresca, the attorney representing the Kercher family, equates the prosecution's case so far to preparing a fine meal. "Up to this point, we have seen the equivalent of the side dishes," Maresca told NEWSWEEK in his office in Florence. "From this point we will start to see the real substance."

In fact, on Friday morning journalists were kicked out of the courtroom while the jury watched graphic autopsy photos of Kercher after the crime. Testimony by the chief medical examiner Luca Lalli focused on whether or not Kercher had been sexually assaulted before her neck was slashed. Journalists were banned from the courtroom, but lawyers relayed much of the testimony afterward. They said that Lalli described cuts on her hands, indicating that he felt they were made as Kercher defended herself. He told the jury that there were 23 cuts, bruises and lesions on Kercher's body. Those inside the courtroom say he testified that while there was evidence of sexual activity, sexual assault was inconclusive. But he also testified that the bruises on her body implied that sexual intercourse was forced and violent. When asked, he also said that he believes that more than one person was involved in Kercher's murder, though on cross-examination admitted that it could have also been done by one assailant.

With the theatrics now out of the way, this scientific evidence will finally bring the circumstances of this murder into better focus. The prosecution has always maintained that Knox, Sollecito and Guede tried to initiate a sex game that went awry. Maresca says that while he is sure the accused did not go into Kercher's room with the intent to kill her, there is ample evidence proving that what started as a game ended in her tragic murder. "Kids this age are all into quick thrills," he told NEWSWEEK. "What started as a threat or a game to scare Mez escalated to violence and ended in murder."

Paul Ciolino, a Chicago private investigator and an investigative consultant for CBS News's "48 Hours," has visited Perugia and studied the evidence in the Kercher murder case. He believes the crime scene was so badly compromised and that any hard evidence should not stand up in court. "I have seen crime scenes and investigations that were just as bad as the Perugia one. The problem is that the police then compound these issues and start lying about the evidence," which he alleges is what is happening in Perugia. "When a prosecutor blesses these actions, this is where wrongful convictions happen."

Much has also been made of Italy's slow judicial process, though in reality the case is moving along much faster than most murder trials. The verdict is likely to come by the second anniversary of Kercher's murder. There has also been criticism from abroad about the structure of this trial, which is held twice a week. But in Italy, that is the norm, since attorneys tend to follow multiple cases at time instead of focusing on just one. Had the crime been committed in America, the jury would have likely been sequestered or at least remanded not to watch television or read news accounts on the case. Instead, co-prosecutors Giuliano Mignini and Manuela Commodi often chat with reporters, answering questions and clarifying certain points along the way. These reports are published across the country and likely many are read by the jurors. Ciolino believes that these logistics will work against the suspects. "I have been involved in murder trials that have taken six or seven years from time of arrest to trial," he told NEWSWEEK. "But I have never seen a trial that was tried two days a week and the jury goes home and reads all the newspaper, magazine and TV accounts for the other five days of the week. There is not a prayer that these two can get a fair trial under those circumstances."

Even if Kercher had been murdered in Philadelphia instead of Perugia, in reality little would likely turn out differently. The evidence may even get more scrutiny in Italy. So far, 10 judges have reviewed the prosecution's case over the last year. All 10 have agreed that there is enough credible evidence to keep moving forward based solely on the merit of the forensics.

Neither suspect has a credible alibi for the night of the murder, and both told a variety of lies about that night. No one has confessed to the murder, and Guede's testimony this weekend is not expected to shed any light on what really happened. Still, the prosecution maintains that it has enough to convict both Knox and Sollecito. Among the most damning evidence against Sollecito is his DNA on the metal clasp of the bra that was cut from Kercher after she died. Maresca also points out that credible witnesses have shattered Sollecito's alibi for the night of the murder. Sollecito says he was home that night working on his computer, but specialists have testified that his computer was dormant for an eight-hour period the night of Kercher's murder. Sollecito's attorneys contend that their client lied out of confusion and fear.

Key forensic evidence against Knox includes her footprint in blood in the hallway outside Kercher's room. There are also mixed traces of Knox's DNA and Kercher's blood on the fixtures in the bathroom the girls shared. And a knife was found in Sollecito's apartment with Knox's DNA on the handle and what the prosecution believes is Kercher's DNA in a groove on the blade. None of these pieces have been thrown out of the 10,000-page dossier of evidence against the two. All will be presented to the jury for their consideration. Defense attorneys for Knox, who at one time admitted to being at home when the murder took place, dismiss the forensic evidence as unreliable.

Whatever he makes of the CSI efforts, Ciolino does have a prediction. "As it stands today, I believe that the likelihood of Amanda being convicted is very high," he says, blaming the media for poisoning the jury. "I think that Sollecito will probably be found not guilty."

Still, no one really knows what the jury thinks about what they've seen and heard so far. Unlike Guede, who opted for a fast-track trial in exchange for a lighter sentence, Knox and Sollecito face life in prison if convicted. Their fate won't be known for months to come. How this trial will end is still as much a mystery as what really happened the night Kercher was murdered.

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