Sunday, January 10, 2010
Ominous Parallels: Comparing the Duke lacrosse case to the Knox/Sollecito case
Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito were convicted of murdering Meredith Kercher, Amanda’s flatmate in Perugia, Italy, in 2009. Both Ms. Kercher and Ms. Knox were studying abroad. Ms. Kercher was from Great Britain, Ms. Knox is from Seattle, Washington; Mr. Sollecito is an Italian student. A third suspect, Rudy Guede, was convicted in 2008. To some students of the Duke lacrosse (DL) case, the Amanda Knox/Raffaelo Sollecito (KS) case is playing like a sequel they did not wish to see.
In the Duke lacrosse case the only DNA that even might have been from one of the three indicted players was on a fake fingernail found in a trashcan in one of the bathrooms. The DNA was a weak match to David Evans; however, the most likely explanation was that it arose from transfer from items of his in the trashcan, such as dental floss or facial tissue. In the Perugia murder case there are two pieces of evidence, the kitchen knife discussed in part I of this series, and the bra clasp, which will be treated in a future post. The kitchen knife is alleged to have DNA from Ms. Knox on the handle and a trace of DNA from Ms. Kercher on the blade (http://viewfromwilmington.blogspot.com/2010/01/amanda-knox-and-raffaele-sollecito-and.html). The bra clasp is said to have DNA from Ms. Kercher, Mr. Sollecito and possibly three other individuals. Its value as evidence is disputed.
DA Michael Nifong not only withheld exculpatory DNA information, but also made inflammatory statements to the press. His conduct was so egregious that a new verb, to Nifong, has entered the English language. Giuliano Mignini has the distinction of having had a book written about his conduct during a murder investigation, The Monster of Florence, by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi (http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/10/an-innocent-abroad/?ref=opinion). Mr. Mignini was indicted in 2006 based upon his actions in the Monster of Florence murder case (http://www.cbsnews.com/blogs/2009/12/07/crimesider/entry5928444.shtml). Mr. Mignini denied any wrongdoing (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7883286.stm).
After Reade Seligmann’s attorneys released evidence of the younger Mr. Seligmann’s whereabouts at the time of the alleged rape, Mr. Nifong implied that he had a different timeline, a transparent attempt to get around an unimpeachable alibi. In December of 2006, the alleged victim said that she was no longer sure that she had been penetrated by a penis. Many students of the DL case saw this as an attempt to explain away the lack of players’ DNA even in the presence of DNA from other individuals in the AV’s body.
The KS case has been through more changes in storyline than a movie script handled by a dozen writers. Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Timothy Egan wrote in the summer of 2009, “‘Case closed,’ the Italian authorities said in those first days of November, 2007, even though they had yet to arrest the only man [Rudy Guede] who has ever been found guilty of the murder.” At one point the possibility that the murder was related to a Halloween ritual was floated; at the close of the trial this was not mentioned. In both the DL and RS cases the only constant was that the defendants must be guilty.
Presumption of Innocence
A prominent southern writer, Alan Gurganous, wrote an article for the New York Times titled, “Blue Devils Made Them Do It.” Mr. Gurganous said (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/09/opinion/09gurganus.html?ex=1302235200&en=97bf0167bd611343&ei=5088&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss), “From north of here, this story must seem like yet another involving Southern frat boys run wild.” Mr. Gurganous does no more than to pay lip service to the principle that a defendant is innocent unless proven guilty. If anyone doubts that many leading figures in Durham and elsewhere trod the presumption of innocence into the ground in this case (in other words, if one doubts that Mr. Gurganous’ view was representative), Taylor and Johnson’s book Until Proven Innocent will disabuse him or her of this notion.
With respect to the KS case “Judge Paolo Michelli, during the pretrial, took the conspiracy for granted. He boasted that he began his reasoning with all three suspects in the murder room. So much for innocent until proven guilty (http://blog.seattlepi.com/dempsey/archives/179047.asp).”
Nifong gave about seventy interviews in the first weeks of the DL case. Among his many false assertions was that the players were stonewalling the investigation. The Durham police aided and abetted him.
One of the criticisms leveled against Ms. Knox is that she failed to act appropriately after the murder. Attorney Scott Greenfield posted an essay on the judicial weakness of such an argument (http://blog.simplejustice.us/2009/06/11/how-is-she-supposed-to-act.aspx). Greenfield also wrote (http://blog.simplejustice.us/2009/12/05/a-trial-without-evidence.aspx), “During the summation, the prosecutor told the jury about the things Amanda Knox might have said to Meredith Kercher before the alleged drug-induced orgy that ended with her throat being slashed. ‘You are always behaving like a little saint. Now we will show you. Now we will make you have sex.’ This would be a horrible thing to say, except that it never happened. No one says that such a statement was ever made. But summations in Perugia aren't limited to evidence, as they are here. Rather, this is a permissible indulgence into fantasy, a made up dramatization of what the prosecutors contend might have happened.” Indeed, many of the incidents that have been used to paint Ms. Knox in an unfavorable light are either untrue or misleadingly portrayed, and may be the subject of separate posts.
Irrelevant or false leaked information
Unindicted sophomore Ryan McFayden made an ill-judged allusion to the book and movie “American Psycho” in a private email. Virtually everything written about the hard-to-stomach contents of this email had to do with the character and mental health of its author (I have firsthand knowledge, however, that Ryan McFayden is a polite, thoughtful, and intelligent young man). Too few people have pointed out that the email had nothing to do with the case and that the authorities were wrong to release it.
Amanda Knox’s journal, which was written during her pretrial incarceration, was leaked to the press. Apparently, it had been translated into Italian then back-translated into English. Along the way the meaning changed in ways that were unfavorable to her (http://www.sciencespheres.com/2009/11/crucible-of-perugia.html). Moreover, upon being informed that she was HIV-positive (which was not true), she wrote about her sexual partners in her journal. This information has contributed to her public image as a person of low sexual morals. However, the ethics of leaking her journal have received scant attention. Some of the leaks in the K/S case, such as the claim of receipts for bleach (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article2894139.ece), were not presented at the trial and are probably false (http://www.friendsofamanda.org/cleanup.html).
Among the pundits who got the Duke lacrosse case wrong, Wendy Murphy ranks close to the top (http://durhamwonderland.blogspot.com/2006/12/wendy-murphy-file.html). She made numerous factual errors, and speculated wildly and with an unchecked anti-player bias. Her defense of DA Michael Nifong was bizarre (http://liestoppers.blogspot.com/2006/12/wendy-murphy-strikes-again.html).
Students of the DL case might expect similar behaviors with respect to the Knox/Sollecito (KS), and Ms. Murphy does not disappoint (http://www.patriotledger.com/opinions/x1682953943/WENDY-J-MURPHY-Is-Foxy-Knoxy-an-innocent-coed-or-manipulative-murderer). She wrote,” DNA on the handle of the knife that killed the victim matched Knox - and blood on blade matched the victim…Pro-Amanda forces also forget to note that the knife was found hidden in a shoebox, far back inside a closet at Sollecito's apartment - and that the knife had been scrubbed clean with bleach and an abrasive substance - like a Brillo Pad. The defense claimed the sample of Knox's DNA was too small to matter, but ANY DNA is damning evidence - especially on a knife that's been intentionally cleaned and hidden away deceptively in a shoe box, tucked deep inside the closet of a suspect's home.”
Let us focus only on her factual errors about the knife, the subject of Part I of this series (http://viewfromwilmington.blogspot.com/2010/01/amanda-knox-and-raffaele-sollecito-and.html). There was no blood on the blade, and this is one of the main reasons to doubt that DNA signals arising from when the knife was swabbed did not really originate with the blade at all (http://www.sciencespheres.com/2009/10/lcn-dna-profiling-part-ii-watch-where.html). The knife was found in a kitchen drawer with other knives. The police stored it in a shoebox. Ms. Murphy does not explain how she divined that Ms. Knox and Mr. Sollecito used bleach to clean the knife, nor does she bother to tell us that bleach is so effective at destroying DNA that it is routinely used in DNA labs for that very reason. If bleach and a brillo pad were used to clean the knife, it is very difficult to see how any DNA could remain. Finally, the amount of DNA observed was so small that to say it matched Ms. Kercher’s profile is a stretch; calling it a partial match is a better description, and it is quite possible that it originated from Ms. Kercher’s DNA in the laboratory itself.
In Until Proven Innocent Taylor and Johnson wrote (p. 180) about Collin Finnerty facing a wall of photographers while awaiting his first appearance before a judge: “He tried to remain expressionless. In that atmosphere, if he had smiled the media would have called it a smirk; if he had frowned they would have called it an angry glare.” Nevertheless one sportswriter wasn’t sure if the younger Mr. Finnerty’s expression was one of shock and fear or or smugness (http://www.usatoday.com/sports/columnist/saraceno/2006-04-18-duke_x.htm).
Frank Sfarzo wrote (http://perugia-shock.blogspot.com/2009/11/migninis-rage-against-knox-and.html) wrote of Amanda Knox, “If she smiles it's wrong, if she cries it's wrong, if she moves it's wrong, if she's still it's wrong, if she watches it's wrong, if she doesn't watch it's wrong."
The role of the blogosphere
In the Duke lacrosse case the blogosphere was able to go into issues in greater depth than the mainstream media and correct a number of important errors. Here is a partial honor roll: Bill Anderson, CrystalMess, Durham in Wonderland, John In Carolina, LaShawn Barber, Liestoppers, and TalkLeft. In the Amanda Knox case, Dr. Mark Waterbury (http://www.sciencespheres.com/2009/10/seven-deadly-sins-of-knoxsollecito.html) and Candace Dempsey (http://blog.seattlepi.com/dempsey/archives/129925.asp) have been covering forensics and general aspects of the case, respectively. Ms. Dempsey may have been the first to point out the similarities between the DL and RS cases.
This post is intended as an overview of some of the problems in the Knox/Sollecito case. Any one of these points could easily be expanded into its own post. We will try to explore some of them in the coming months, especially those involving forensics.
Part II in a series.
Update (22 January 2010)
Seattle, WA (USA), near where Amanda Knox's family lives, and Perugia, Italy are sister cities. Maybe Durham, NC should be Perugia's sister city, instead.