As a high-profile criminal attorney in New York, Joseph Tacopina commands $750 an hour to represent clients in high-profile cases. He is the defense lawyer for Dutch teen Joran van der Sloot in the disappearance of Natalee Holloway in Aruba, and he has been part of the defense teams of Michael Jackson, New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik and Diana Bianchi, the young woman at the center of Christie Brinkley's divorce suit. Now Tacopina is acting as an unpaid consultant for Amanda Knox, the Seattle student arrested in Italy after the notorious "extreme sex" murder of Knox's British roommate, Meredith Kercher.
Kercher was found last Nov. 1 with her throat slashed in the bedroom of the Perugia villa she shared with Knox. Also held are Knox's Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, and Rudy Guede, an immigrant from Ivory Coast said by Italian police to have a record for selling drugs. The suspects can be held up to a year before charges are filed. Tacopina, who practices criminal law in the United States and Italy, sat with Barbie Nadeau in his offices at the Villa Brasini in Rome to discuss the case. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: The Italian press has called you the Perry Mason of the Perugia case. What is your exact role here?
Joseph Tacopina: I am consulting [Knox's family] in an informal way. Her parents have phoned me, and we got to know each other when I spent some time in Perugia. I am not their lawyer, but I formed an opinion based on the bulk of evidence I have seen from both prosecutors and the defense.
How is her state of mind?
She's doing well for someone in her circumstances. She's in jail in a foreign country for a crime she claims she didn't commit. And she's not, I'm sure, having fun. But I think she's trying to adjust and take it day by day and try to get through it. Her parents are there day by day; they rotate.
The press has been given unprecedented access to the investigators and prosecutors in this case. Do you think that has hurt her in any way?
The presumption of innocence does not have the same meaning in Italy as it does in the United States. For instance, there is no scenario in the world where you could be held for up to a year in the United States and not be charged with a crime.
Initially Knox named her boss at a Perugia pub, Congolese Patrick Lumumba, as a suspect. He was arrested and held in jail for six weeks and released for lack of evidence. Why did she name him?
I don't think she named Lumumba in the sense that she said, "I know he was there" or "I know he was guilty." There is a real phenomenon called false confessions. And I think she fell prey to that. But it wasn't even a confession. The investigators, in Italian, aggressively began to tell her she's never getting out of here unless she tells the truth and that they were sure that Lumumba was involved, and if she didn't come clean she was going to be in a lot of trouble. Here's a girl being yelled at and threatened and she's being told that the police know that Lumumba is involved without question. So she breaks eventually. She doesn't say, "I saw him murder her." What she says is very different. She says, "I had a vision" and she starts covering her ears. She says, "I have a vision that he was there and I was with him and he went into the room and then I heard some horrible screaming … and Meredith was struggling and then I put my hands against my ears." But she's relaying a vision. She's literally making up a story she thinks the police want to hear. She didn't make up a false story. She made up a false premonition. There's a big difference.
So it wasn't that she changed her story [as police said]?
Listen, just cut away from all that stuff, and if you look to the evidence in this case, it's not there. There's the evidence against Rudy Guede, which is overwhelming. His bloody handprint is under [the victim's] pillow. His DNA is inside of her. His DNA is outside of her. His DNA is on a table far away. That crime scene is larded with the DNA of Rudy Guede. It's empty when it comes to probative evidence against Raffaele or against Amanda.
But there was a report that Sollecito's fingerprint was on Meredith's bra strap?
That's partially true. But again, as someone who has prosecuted homicide cases and defended them, I can tell you that it's not that powerful a piece of evidence. Why? Because it wasn't on the bra that they took with them to the morgue that day. It was on the metal clasp on the back of the bra. That was apparently part of the clasp that the slayer cut off of Meredith, so they think they have a smoking gun. The problem with that is they didn't find that until the fourth search of the apartment.
You were a prosecutor in New York. If you were the prosecutor in this case, what would you do?
Stop talking to the press. Better control my investigators. They are running around with wild stories.
What is Amanda's best defense?
Her best defense, I think, is probably going to be the truth. Am I saying she didn't make mistakes? No. And do I know for a fact that she's innocent? Of course not.
You believe Guede will be the primary suspect. Do you predict that he will eventually be the only suspect?
Yes, I think it's going to shake out that way eventually. Look at the type of evidence against Rudy compared to the type of evidence against Amanda and Raffaele. Even that knife that was found in Raffaele's apartment.
About the knife: you believe that the DNA on the "alleged murder weapon" has only a 20 percent DNA match to Meredith?
There is no chance that that's the murder weapon. First of all, they held on to it because Amanda's DNA is on the handle and Meredith's DNA is on the blade. That statement standing alone is pretty bad for Amanda Knox. Amanda's DNA is on the handle because she was in Raffaele's apartment many times over the course of a month, and her DNA was on many of the utensils in that apartment. She cooked there.
So why was Meredith's DNA on it?
Meredith's DNA on the blade of that knife would be a huge problem if that knife were in Raffaele's apartment, since there is no evidence that Meredith had ever been to that apartment. So it looked like they took the knife to the crime scene and took it back. But there is only a 20 percent chance that it's Meredith's DNA, and that's not enough to take into a courtroom. And it's not [from] blood. I don't know whose DNA it is on the knife, but there is one thing that would be certain: if that were the murder weapon given this bloody murder, there would be blood on that knife. You can't get that much blood off a knife.
From what you've seen, what are the chances of a conviction against any of the suspects?
I think the chances of a conviction against Rudy are very high … The evidence puts him at that scene before and after the murder. Clearly, he's got some problems.
Both Amanda and Raffaele have admitted to being users of marijuana. What role does admitted drug use play in the Italian legal system? Is admitting drug use part of a strategy for the defense?
It's relevant and it's certainly something that's going to come into the trial if there is a trial. It could chop away at the premeditation aspect of a case. I think what they are trying to do is explain away some inconsistencies in their stories, in their recollections. So instead of saying, "He lied," it's a little easier to rely on "He was high" and that's why he doesn't really recall. But the drugs really don't give you an answer to what happened. You could have been stoned and did what you did, or alert and did what you did, as far as a murder is concerned. It may go to the voluntariness or to the premeditation.
What about the release of these prison diaries from Amanda and Raffaele. Is that part of some strategy?
Any case like this is permeated by leaks. This is a perfect storm of a case for the media. You have sex, you have drugs, you have attractive young women. You have a gruesome murder in a setting that no one would expect to find. So you have really a frenzy to try to get the story, to get something new, to try to get something first.
Where does the case stand now? Do you think they will be remanded in custody?
[On] April 1 they go back to court to determine whether the appellate court will release or hold the suspects. Yes, the bar is pretty low, so sure, they'll keep them. I think that the prosecution and the defense are trying to work something out as far as Amanda is concerned. There has been some talk about a house-arrest scenario.