Book review: A Death in Italy, by John Follain
London Times journalist John Follain was on the scene early in Perugia, Italy in November 2007 (ten years ago this month) when one of the country’s most infamous cases in recent memory started unfolding. In 2012, after the eventual acquittal of accused American student Amanda Knox and her former Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, he published this “definitive account” of the murder of fellow student Meredith Kercher and the pair’s trial, including the international media hoopla and scandal and controversy surrounding the story.
When I finally read the basics of this story, it was already 2011, shortly before the second trial’s end and her release. From Wikipedia and a few mainstream newspaper articles, I couldn’t believe her imprisonment had even happened. It seemed so cut and dry – a bizarre, frenzied media, investigative and judicial circus combined with one man’s DNA found in and around Meredith’s body and his halfway-confession.
That man, Rudy Guede, fled Italy shortly after the murder, later admitting that he’d been there that night, but a murderer broke in and killed her while he was in the bathroom. He says he was covered in her blood because he tried to stop her bleeding before fleeing the house; he’d overheard the murderer say a black man was there so he’d be suspected. Guede said no one would believe him.
Despite witnessing this traumatic event, he went out dancing all night, was later seen washing bloody clothes and shoes at a laundromat, and fled the country before being apprehended in Germany for riding trains without tickets. In his story, he also sets up the fact that Meredith’s wallet was missing by saying that when he was with her that evening, she’d complained that her money was missing. It’s such a big bag of bullshit I can’t believe that, regardless of her pressured statements, Knox was ever even considered.
Amanda got nailed by police and prosecutors thanks in part to her odd behavior after the crime. She allegedly came home after spending the night at Sollecito’s and took a shower despite their front door being ajar and spotting drops of blood in the bathroom. When police investigated the crime scene, she was observed and filmed kissing and cuddling with Sollecito, at odds with the seriousness of the situation.
Later, in the police station, she famously did stretches and cartwheels, and in a later late-night interrogation, broke down during intense police questioning and accusations (and allegedly being struck in the head by detectives) and fuzzily recalled her employer, bar owner Patrick Lumumba, being at the house and potentially the culprit. This idea of their meeting was planted after police found texts between them, canceling her work that evening with a “see you later” message. Law enforcement ran with it despite having the telltale signs of coerced confession.
Amanda, as she’s depicted especially at the book’s beginning in Seattle, traveling Europe, and finally in Perugia before the murder, comes across as incredibly annoying. In the documentary, she describes herself as having been “quirky”, but it seems like she was finding and expressing herself in that loud, over-the-top, attention-seeking way so many 20-year-olds do. Her more reserved, worldly, sophisticated British friends were obviously rubbed the wrong way. Just think of encountering certain types of Americans abroad, drunk, yelling, insisting on butchering a foreign language despite everyone in the group speaking English, and arrogantly over-explaining everything. Her behavior was like that.
What I found fascinating about this case is how it’s perceived in the US versus Europe. In the US, I think public sentiment swings towards her innocence. The botched investigation, mishandled DNA samples, lack of corroborative evidence for prosecutorial theories, and a prosecutor, Giuliano Mignini, hellbent on finding a satanic sex game motive (his favorite explanation for murder) all seemed overwhelmingly indicative to me. Not to mention the guy with a cockamamie story about how he’d been there but didn’t do it, had reasons for his DNA being there and for being covered in her blood, and in this initial admission swore Amanda wasn’t there. He changed that story when he saw the media frenzy that had blown up around her.
But in Europe, more people seem convinced of her guilt. While discussing the case once in a course I taught, everyone was firm on her guilt. Why, I asked, considering contaminated evidence and a much more viable suspect who’d admitted involvement? Her eyes, they said. Just as Amanda herself relates in last year’s Netflix documentary, so this must’ve been a popular news line. They said you could see evil in her eyes. Speechless. I think even the Salem witch trials convicted on more evidence than that.
Follain’s reporting and the book’s content is supported by Meredith’s friends, three young British girls who she’d become close to in her short time in Perugia. These three give deep personal insight into Meredith and her life, and their impressions of Amanda and Meredith’s friendship. Their insight is interesting, if biased by their conviction of Amanda’s involvement.
He also interviewed Meredith’s family, for whom I feel terribly. Meredith has been pushed aside so often in favor of salacious stories about Amanda. He lets them tell in their own words the frustrations they’ve felt in the criminal justice system, and it’s easy to see why they want to trust the police and what they’ve uncovered. That feels like the quickest, clearest way to the truth from their side.
Follain didn’t have too much access to Amanda, this is more based on the friends’ stories, journalists’ impressions, and case files. For her word, there’s her memoir. I debated reading it after this, but this story is draining and very sad all around. I needed a break.
The writing is straightforward – there’s sometimes a nice narrative quality, otherwise it’s just the facts but not dry. It’s riveting and page-turning despite not being a literary masterpiece. I think it’s a good starting point for getting an overview of the case if, like me, you only know the basics. I also didn’t think that it was slanted one way or another, it seems merely fact-based.
I did question some anecdotes at times, like in the aforementioned reporters’ impressions. One British journalist told Follain that after encountering and interviewing Sollecito, she “noticed that Raffaele kept using the word ‘normal’. Raffaele and Amanda’s actions had been ‘normal’, it was ‘normal’ that the police should want to speak to him.”
I think every non-native English speaker I’ve met in Europe latches onto “normal”. It’s often similar in their native language, and when searching for words, ones that transcend linguistic boundaries tend to get used ad nauseum. German-speakers use “normal” to describe all kinds of things I would never use it for, having a wealth of better options readily available. Yet here it’s viewed suspiciously. That’s bad reporting. So I have to wonder what else here that I don’t have any background knowledge about was also unreliable or irrelevant.
And translations from Italian are terrible. Describing a weird incident of a drug addict heard nonsensically screaming obscenities on the street and that he’d kill someone, he’s quoted as shouting, “In any case, I’ll kill you!” I don’t know what that was translated from, but I highly doubt he said, “in any case.” Other expressions, even spoken by Americans, are so British-slangy. I know that’s a weird criticism, and maybe British readers hate when things are too American-slangy in books and I never notice. But sometimes it seemed like the quotes had been changed. So the writing is compelling, but more in connection to the story itself, the fast pace, and frequent revelations.
The Kerchers’ attorney closes his argument in appeals court quoting Isaac Newton, “Truth is ever to be found in simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.”
Did he listen to the prosecution’s argument at all? It’s very much exactly the multiplicity and confusion of things, whereas the Occam’s razor of this whole thing, circumstantially and evidentially, is that Rudy Guede acted alone, probably breaking in looking for Amanda (he was strongly attracted to her) and finding Meredith alone instead, assaulted then killed her in a rush of fear and adrenalin. “Why does that room speak only of Rudy?” Raffaele’s lawyer, Giulia Bongiorno, asks of the crime scene.
Have you read this, Amanda’s memoir, or any other books on this case, or watched the documentary? I’m interested in others’ thoughts.
My rating: 3.5/5
A Death in Italy: The Definitive Account of the Amanda Knox Case
also published as “Death in Perugia”
by John Follain
published August 21, 2012 by St. Martin’s Press
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