Proceedings Start in Perugia Sex Murder Case

Faded red and white crime tape is still draped across the door of  "la casa degli orrori" or "the house of horrors" on Via della Pergola in the historic hilltop village of Perugia, Italy, where British student Meredith Kercher was stabbed to death late in the evening of Nov. 1, 2007.

Less than a mile away, Kercher's parents and sister spent nearly eight hours in a courtroom on Tuesday, in the first of many preliminary trials facing two of Kercher's accused killers: her American roommate, Amanda Knox, and local drifter Rudy Guede, originally from the Ivory Coast. Knox's on-again, off-again Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, declined his right to attend the trials to "avoid being part of a media circus," according to his lawyers, who briefly addressed the press before the hearing. Also in attendance was Congolese bartender Patrick Lumumba, who today formally requested the right to pursue civil charges against Knox for financial damages he suffered after she accused him of killing Kercher. (Lumumba was initially detained by the police but has since been released for lack of evidence.)

Sollecito called it right—it was a media circus of the sort this town is now very accustomed to. But despite the pageantry, despite the commentary on Knox's attire and appearance (not to mention the fact that she was allowed to enter the courtroom without handcuffs while Guede was shackled to a prison guard), there was significant news. The defining event of the day was the presence of the so-called "super witness," Albanian native Hekuran Kokomani, who is the only material witness in the case so far and who says he saw the three suspects outside the house on Via della Pergola late on the night Kercher was murdered. Over the weekend, Kokomani told Italian TV station Canale 5 that he would testify that while parking his car nearby, he heard horrific screams and then encountered the trio now charged with the crime.

"We started arguing, and then all of a sudden the girl pulled out a knife. She was shouting at me and pointing it at me," he said in the interview. "I am certain it was Amanda Knox; with her was Raffaele Sollecito. Then out of the darkness emerged another man. It was Rudy, the three of them were together."

However, the fact that Kokomani waited two months to come forward raises questions about his credibility. He has explained the delay by saying that someone had offered him a bribe to return to Albania, adding that he was scared that no one would believe him. Still, both the prosecutor and the judge seem to believe there is at least something to his story—the prosecution called him "an important discovery" and had planned, before his television appearance, to use him as a surprise witness. Kokomani was in court on behalf of Guede, who today was granted the Italian form of a plea bargain, a separate "fast-track" trial, in exchange for a partial admittance of guilt and testimony against his co-defendants. Guede's lawyers announced last month that he would seek such a trial "to avoid being framed." He is the only suspect who has admitted to being with Kercher the night of the murder (he says they had sex), and his is the most damning of the forensic evidence—his feces was found in the toilet and his DNA was discovered on the victim's body. Kokomani's testimony is intended to support the argument that, whatever happened, Guede wasn't solely responsible.

During the marathon hearing today, presiding Judge Paolo Micheli heard argument on more than 100 legal housekeeping issues; in addition to separate requests to initiate civil lawsuits by Lumumba against Knox, by the owners of the house where Kercher was murdered--who are prohibited from renting the student dwelling until the court case against the accused trio is over--and by Kercher's family against all three defendants. In a move that recalls the O.J. Simpson legal saga, the family appears to want to ensure that even if criminal prosecution fails to convict the three of murder, a civil court of law might find otherwise.

But after what must have been a grueling eight hours for the family of the victim, who had to hear gruesome accusations about what happened to their daughter, the main decision made today was the granting of Guede's request for a separate trial. Nothing further will happen until today's preliminary hearing reconvenes on Sept. 26, at which time, Judge Micheli will likely set Guede's trial date and grant the civil suits against the suspects. As for the actual criminal trial, lawyers on both sides believe no date will be set until November or December. With Guede's trial now a separate affair, attention will be increasingly focused on Knox and Sollecito, who will have a lot of explaining to do about just what happened in the house of horrors.