By: Nina Burleigh, Journalist, Author
On the night after Halloween, 2007, in Perugia, Italy, someone murdered British exchange student Meredith Kercher in her bedroom. Four days later, the Perugia authorities announced they had solved the case, accusing Kercher’s American roommate, Amanda Knox and two young men.Knox spent the next four years in prison, before being acquitted, in a highly controversial case that has attracted a legion of online CSI amateurs, and confounded everyone else who has paid less attention to the case. The Italian judiciary recently re-convicted her, so, even if she doesn’t return to Italy, which she has said she will not do, her legal nightmare is far from over.
I spent a year in Perugia covering the sensational trial, and another year interviewing everyone involved, from the prosecutor to the cops who would talk, and the family members of the accused, as well as corresponding with Knox and a co-defendant.
I came to the conclusion that Knox was not guilty, and that a combination of bad police work, cultural misunderstanding and media misbehavior had created the perfect crime story storm.
Knox’s case has much to teach any American student planning to live abroad, because while she was not guilty as charged, she made a series of mistakes that got her deeper into the great briar patch of the Italian legal system.
The key tips are these:
Know the culture, and respect the differences. American students often assume that because everyone is nice to them in a foreign country, and parties and listens to the same music as they do in the dorm back at home, that their home-style behavior is acceptable. Usually, it is not. In Italy, for example, where “la bella figura” a standard of public decorum – is in force, Amanda Knox’s hippie-chick style seemed bizarre and, in highly conservative Perugia, even offensive. The police decided she was suspicious based on her penchant for public yoga moves, her bursting into song, moving around alone after dark, picking up different guys and generally being overly friendly and carefree. A small amount of homework about what young women in Italy do and do not do in public could have saved Amanda Knox a world of grief.
Do not assume you have the same legal rights you have at home. Because you probably don’t. Try not to break the law, but if you must interact with law enforcement, be prepared to deal with a system that does not resemble the American. After police found Kercher’s body, they immediately summoned every one of her three roommates, and the boys who lived downstairs in another apartment, to the police station. Not one of the other young people showed up at the police station without a lawyer or an adult – a parent, a teacher – in tow. Italians are very leery of their police force, which is highly bureaucratic and which operates without the Bill of Rights restrictions that apply to American cops. Even the most minor of legal proceedings can drag on for years, and Italians tend to avoid the court system if they can. Amanda Knox arrived at the police station alone, and when police called her back for further questioning on three successive days, she still came alone.
Know your consulate. Before you go into a country, register your arrival and whereabouts with the local consulate. Keep its phone number on your person at all times and use it if you are confused or in legal trouble, use it. If possible, go to the consulate and ask for assistance. Amanda Knox didn’t contact the nearest consulate in Florence, a short train ride away, even after her worried relatives suggested she do so. When Perugia police, wiretapping her cellphone, found out that her mother was on the way to Perugia from Seattle, they moved quickly to arrest her. Had Amanda Knox contacted her consulate immediately after Kercher’s murder, as did Kercher’s British friends, she would very likely never have been tried, because she wouldn’t have been questioned without a lawyer or adult assistance, if she was questioned at all.
The Knox family’s legal and travel bills are now well into the multi-millions. When traveling abroad, an ounce of prevention is definitely worth a pound of cure. Before you leave, buy and read my book, The Fatal Gift of Beauty. It is a good true yarn, people can’t put it down, and you will come away with an understanding of just how this celebrated crime’s true story was “lost in translation.”
Nina Burleigh is a journalist and writer. She is the author of five books including Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land.
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