Italy: New 'Sex Murder' Riddle

In fictional murder mysteries, readers tend to get all the riddles resolved. But in the notorious Perugia killing of 21-year-old British student Meredith Kercher, increasingly the more that is learned the less that is clear. Until this weekend the facts of the case seemed fairly well established. Authorities believed that Kercher, an exchange student in the medieval Italian city, was stabbed and left to choke to death on her own blood following a bout of extreme sex last November. Police promptly arrested her roommate, American student Amanda Knox, Knox's Italian boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito and, later, Ivory Coast national Rudy Hermann Guede on suspicion of the crime. Now, however, new postmortem reports have raised doubts about exactly when Kercher died and whether she was raped. "There are signs and indications about what may have happened," says court-appointed analyst Giancarlo Umani Ronchi. "But there just isn't irrefutable certainty in any of it."

The latest revelations emerged during a seven-hour closed hearing by investigating judge Claudia Matteini on April 19. Reports leaked to the media suggest that sloppy police work may have compromised the case.

The autopsy report presented during the Saturday hearing concludes that it is impossible to determine exactly what time Kercher died—reports now put it "sometime between 8.30pm and 00.50 on 2 November 2007"—mainly because the autopsy was conducted too long after the murder. Mishandling of the blood sample also raises doubt about whether the alcohol in Kercher's system was there because she had been drinking or whether it was just the natural process of decomposition of the body. The autopsy report also indicates that it is impossible to determine if Kercher had been sexually assaulted—only that she had sex shortly before she was killed. American criminal lawyer Joseph Tacopina, who attended Saturday's hearing on behalf of Knox, says that some of these questions arose because the sanctity of the crime scene was destroyed. Not only was the mattress from Kercher's bed moved, her body, which was wrapped in a bloodied duvet, was initially relocated and put back in place before proper measurements were taken. "They collected evidence, then they went back and collected more evidence," Tacopina told NEWSWEEK. "They moved her bed into the other room. They moved clothes. Once that happens it's over from an evidentiary standpoint."

The timing question is important because the alibi of one of the initial suspects in the case, barman Patrick Lumumba, is based on cashier receipts showing he was elsewhere when the killing was first thought to have occurred. Lumumba is the only one of the four arrested in connection with the case to be freed, but he is still under investigation in connection with the case. Italian authorities, meanwhile, insist that the other three suspects must remain in jail. Italy's top criminal court, the Court of Cassation, today issued a written explanation of its April 1 decision to keep the trio incarcerated by saying that Knox had a "negative personality" and was a flight risk because she was a foreigner. The explanation also cited a similar risk of flight for Sollecito. All three have denied any wrongdoing. Knox and Sollecito have explained their confused recollections and conflicting statements by saying they smoked hashish the night of the killing, according to court documents and prison diaries. Guede is the only suspect who has confessed that he was even at the house the night of the murder. He claims that he and Kercher were "making out" when he fell ill and had to use the bathroom. He originally told investigators that he came out of the bathroom to find an unknown Italian man and Kercher's bleeding body. He has since told investigators that Knox was also at the apartment that night.

For Italians, though, an issue of broader concern may be the apparent bumbling of a police force in a nation with sophisticated CSI divisions and a relatively low murder rate. Two recent cases suggest botched investigations: in Garlasco police allowed Alberto Stasi, the boyfriend of 20-year-old murder victim Chiara Poggi to remove his personal belongings from the dead woman's room early on in the investigation. Shortly afterward Stasi became a suspect when police found DNA evidence, including Poggi's blood on a tissue, in Stasi's house and on his bicycle. The murder remains unsolved. And in the small town of Gravina in Puglia, Filippo Pappalardi last month had to be released from jail after he was incarcerated for murdering two sons who disappeared in 2006. Pappalardi's innocence emerged when the decomposed bodies of the boys, aged 13 and 11, were discovered at the bottom of a cistern they had evidently fallen into accidentally. Investigators had never checked the cistern, even though it was just a few hundred yards from the family home, and found the bodies only when another child accidentally fell at the same spot.

The Kercher case is somewhat unusual in that it is being handled by the Italian State Police criminal division known as ERT (Esperti Ricerca Tracce) rather than the Italian Carabinieri criminal division known as RIS (Reparti Investigazioni Scientifiche), which generally handles the more serious criminal investigations, like Mafia-related murders. Both agencies are well equipped, but the ERT—called to the scene after tracing the address of a mobile phone found in a garden nearby—usually focuses more on evidence analysis than collection. While there is no indication that the RIS investigators would have done a better job, there's no question that RIS does have more experience with Italy's bloodier crimes. "I don't want to chalk it up to inexperience," says Tacopina. "But certainly it is not common in Perugia to see a slaughter like you saw there on the Umbrian hillside."

Even if the crime scene had been better secured, coincidences and inconsistencies mean this would still be a hard murder to crack. Key evidence, including the kitchen knife investigators believe to be consistent with the murder weapon, was found in Sollecito's apartment and not at the crime scene. Footprints collected at the crime scene match both Sollecito's and Guede's foot size—and they both wore the same style sneakers. DNA traces from Knox and Sollecito in the victim's house are hardly surprising given that Knox lived in the house too. Another mystery: Kercher withdrew 250 euros ($398) the morning before she was murdered, but that money was never found and there is no evidence that she spent it. Knox had more than 200 euros in her handbag when she was arrested four days after the murder, and Guede had used cash to flee to Germany, but investigators say there is no way to prove either took Kercher's money. "There are so many elements that just don't add up," says Giacinto Profazio, who heads the team of investigators. Profazio says that his team has done the best it can with a complex case. "This crime may only be solved with a confession." Given the circumstances, even that may not be enough to wrap it up as neatly as a novel.