Tabloid Gold: Crime and the Lure of Amanda Knox

Criminal trials, notably notorious ones, play themselves out beyond court rooms. Often, the court room is a tragic amphitheatre, featuring battles which involve loss and gain. The discussion about rights outside the courtroom becomes secondary to the discussion about fortune, favour and good, plain mannered prejudice.

The response to the interminably long Amanda Knox saga is one such case. Forget the lawyers there, those mere puppets of a system – they are merely background information to a press war, puffed by a good deal of vox pops, over whether Knox, along, with ex-boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, were guilty of the murder of Meredith Kercher.

The legal process in Italy is known for its bureaucratic snail’s pace, which is not to say it does not function. It grinds its inmates and it keeps those on trial in long suspense. Knox herself had been in prison in Italy prior to her release in October 2011. The latest decision by the Florence appeals court reinstates the guilty verdict against Sollecito and her for the murder of her British roommate.

Various cultural and gendered assumptions have strewn the trial, some of which are the product less of evidence than fancy. Knox’s fiendishly good looks are never far away from some of them. This was the grand sexed killing, and sexed trial. Casey Greenfield in the Huffington Post makes the point that “if Knox were homely, or modest, or male, she’d probably never have been charged to begin with.” Greenfield hardly knows that, but is happy to speculate about the fate of an “American woman” in a “foreign” legal system. What she ignores is that the blade of good looks cuts both ways.

Such is the precarious nature of beauty – it is either forgiven at the expense of substance; or it demands punishment and savage retribution. Anything that induces a loss of control is bound to be wicked, or at the very least forbiddingly delicious, to the social order.

The appearance, demeanour, and overall manner of the accused in trials is everything. Murder trials can be big business – especially in television ratings. The US has led the way with this celluloid invasion, making murder a viewer’s and by virtue of that a judge’s, experience. There is much to suggest that the judge, and even the appointed jury in the case, has become redundant before the armchair viewer.

Even as the Knox case was trudging along in Italy in 2011, another trial became a tabloid infatuation. The Hollywood Reporter (June 28, 2011) found the rich pickings offered by Casey Anthony’s murder trial, making the cable network operators drool with excitement. It “propelled HLN to its highest-rated month ever, topping MSNBC in primetime and total day for the month of June”. Not even those purveyors of fiction at Fox News could compete.

The Knox saga has its defenders and detractors. Knox has a staunch defender in novelist Nathaniel Rich, which goes to show that the law need not necessarily intrude in the realm of speculation. For Rich, writing in Rolling Stone in June 2011, Knox was that “naïve kid from Seattle… coerced into confessing to a brutal murder” which landed her with a 26 year sentence in an Italian jail. The killer is discussed in detail, and ticked off for doing a bad job. Whoever killed Kercher “didn’t know how to use a knife.”

Rich is absolutely right to spot the promise of cultural obsession in the story. The murdered woman was attractive and from a privileged British family. One of the suspects was an attractive woman from a privileged American family. The events took place in Italy. The case simmered with frisson. The alchemical properties of the story produced the richest “tabloid gold”.

For Rich, there was always an alternative idea, and it obviously did not involve Knox, who was a high concept heroine, unjustly detained and imprisoned. Kercher had been assaulted and killed by Rudy Guede, probably in a fit of panic (Rich’s version). That was, “The missing scene.” Guede himself, convicted in a separate trial for murdering Kercher, proved a nightmarish witness, changing his story with dazed frequency. Nor was Rich impressed by the Italian legal system he was witnessing – debates on one hearing were not about vital “forensic evidence” but dates pompous “country” lawyers could not attend. Then there was the presiding judge – had she lost weight? Knox, if one reads Rich correctly, was the victim of a vast conspiratorial joke.

Others bat with a mix of aggression and conviction for Knox. Nina Burleigh does so in The Fatal Gift of Beauty. Nick Richardson in the London Review of Books (Oct 24, 2013), suggests that “nothing fits” – everything in the case has been disputed, the couple could not have committed the crime, the dates don’t fit, and yet “there’s still enough weirdness around her and Sollecito to cast doubt on their innocence.”

Indeed, Richardson has tended to be the most sober commentator on the subject. “Passionate desires for one verdict or the other were stoked by deep-seated resentments and prejudices” (Guardian, Jan 30). The Knox defenders have argued that anti-Americanism has been rife. They see the Perugia public prosecutor, Giuliano Mignini, “as a senile fuddy-duddy.”

When the grounds of dispute stick to forensic evidence, it seems that a conviction would not be safe. That said, the views of the Kercher family – for in the end, we are in a furious battle of views – have not been given quite as much coverage. They don’t have the glamour, let alone the idiosyncrasies, to be either hated or loved. No visual industry has formed around them.

The victim’s father, John Kercher, has suggested in his book Meredith, that there were discrepancies in Knox and Sollecito’s alibis (Guardian, Jan 30). The prosecution team had solid witnesses and the Italian police may well have been right to argue that the break-in at the villa where the murder took place had been staged.

There was never anything simple about the Knox trial. That is set to continue, with an appeal to Italy’s highest court in the offing. Attorney Luca Maori is emphatic: “There isn’t a shred of proof.” The narrative of impossibility and lack of truth persists, though total certainty is already evident for Knox’s lawyer, Carlo Dalla Vedova. He goes so far as to be “serene” about it. “The penal code does not foresee probability. It foresees certainly.”

Even if the law might be an ass, that ass may well have unruly drivers that undermine its purpose. The search for fables, fallen figures and saviours is bound to happen when those grains of “truth” prove elusive. Kercher’s family admits to having stumbled into a postmodern void, where certainty may never be found. They “are still on a journey to the truth.” Instead, they may have to settle for the empty wheels of legal procedure. Into the void of certainty rushes a false pathos. Often, such pathos is merely enchantment for tabloid gold.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.