Friends of Amanda Knox video: final thoughts

Scene from Friends of Amanda Knox video

Having watched two and a half hours of The Case for Innocence, I get the impression of a campaign that is no longer clear what its narrative is or should be or, apart from the obvious, what its objective is. Historically, it has focussed on shaping public opinion in the US, but some have said this has been at the expense of irritating people in Italy, whose opinion counts much more for Amanda Knox in her current situation.

Around the time of Knox’s conviction in December 2009, Friends of Amanda Knox, together with the PR firm hired by the Knox family, held sway to an impressive degree over coverage of the Meredith Kercher case in the US media. They worked hard at it, and they provided an angle on a story which key media outlets, having no-one to report from Perugia, might otherwise have struggled to cover beyond reporting the verdict.

In that context, little more was required of them than outrage and generalised criticism of the case against Knox. But the Italian justice system is notorious for moving at a snail’s pace and the passage of time has changed things. There have been books, websites and a TV movie. English versions of key court documents are now in the public domain. Knox’s supporters are no longer the sole custodians of her story.

Which puts the Friends in a new position where they can’t simply obfuscate and they really need instead to convincingly explain what is wrong with the case against her. A key difficulty for them is a lack of clarity about this.

Supporters of Knox may be reading this with incredulity. When you break it down, there are literally hundreds of things wrong with the case. Right? The prosecutors were warped and the judges must have been on another planet. How much more clarity is needed about this exactly?

This is the main problem with what I have been watching. Most people who count understand by now, at the very least, that there are two sides to this case and that important areas of contention, assuming there are any, must be narrow. We feel we know from experience that cases like this tend to turn on competing interpretations of key pieces of evidence. The idea that the prosecution was so inept that it is wrong on virtually every single detail and the court, for some reason, failed to notice this in every instance lacks plausibility. There’s a real need, in my view, to hone in on the arguments that are most likely to convince.

Or, to put it in public relations language, the campaign lacks key messages. At one time “Italy is backwards, there’s no evidence and just take a look at Amanda” served this purpose. Quite correctly, that approach has been dropped, for the most part. But something is needed to fill its place.

At one extreme, we have Paul Ciolino. Most of what he says is nonsense on a purely factual level, and its easily refuted. Most of what’s then left is just ridiculous. The prosecution case is based on claims made by an aristocratic medium who communed with the spirit of a dead priest? America can solve this by breaking off diplomatic ties with Italy and imposing a trade embargo? Who’s going to be bold enough to tell me that doesn’t sound nuts? And no, it isn’t sensible to dismiss apparently damning prosecution evidence as “fantasy” and imagine that will do.

Steve Moore seems to have come in for quite a bit of flack on the Internet – understandably, I might add – for his performance in the video. But I actually think he is nearer the mark than Ciolino, in some respects, in terms of communicating his message. His actual message is, for me, unconvincing. His theory that footprints said by the court to be in blood might actually be in bleach rests on too many assumptions (besides which, how does bleach come to contain DNA?). I don’t think there’s anything like enough convincing evidence of Rudy Guede being such a bad boy that we can discount evidence against anyone else.

I don’t feel he knows what he’s talking about, and it seems like quite a few people, with different perspectives, who are familiar with the case, agree. But Moore’s FBI background, sensibly or not, lends him credibility. If he can focus just a little more and avoid mangling what he is saying, then I think he is still an asset.

Just as an aside, I think I’ve spotted a pattern in Moore’s gaffe-making. He not only gets things wrong, but he manages each time to end up saying exactly what would be said by someone who thinks Knox is guilty. In attempting to explain away the “glass-on-top-of-clothes” element of why investigators concluded Knox and Sollecito had staged a burglary at the crime scene, he ends up giving a sort of garbled endorsement of the prosecution case. He tells us “defence lawyers are gonna throw a million things on the wall and hope that one thing sticks”. “When is a murder weapon not a murder weapon?” he asks. Isn’t that a line you would use if you were trying to mock the defence case? Maybe I’m reading a lot into it, but I wonder if Moore has himself lost faith and his brain is just getting exhausted trying to keep up the façade for an extended period.

Mark Waterbury‘s presentation is a lot better. Next to Moore and Ciolino, he seems the picture of measured rationality. More to the point, he actually gives the impression of having researched and thought through what he is saying. I can’t help wondering whether the whole video might have been a lot more powerful if he had also handled Moore and Ciolino’s respective briefs for them. I don’t think he lands much of a punch in his own presentation, because his whole argument basically boils down to “if the DNA testing was done wrongly, then the DNA results are not valid”. This stands to reason, but the unanswered question is whether the DNA testing was actually done wrongly. However, since the DNA evidence is currently being reviewed, we may well soon have an answer to that. If it goes the way Waterburg would like, then Friends of Amanda Knox may well end up with a very serviceable argument and a skilled advocate to make it.

I wonder how Mike Heavey‘s claim of “22 lies” told to the public by the police or prosecutors during the investigation might be developed. He lists three of them, but I don’t think these can really be called “lies”. One of them, though, was a claim that Knox was caught on CCTV, which turned out to be a probably doubtful interpretation of the footage. This seems to me to be validly criticisable. If very many of the 19 lies he did not disclose are similar to this, I think that could give a lot of people pause. Enough examples would be needed to suggest a pattern, and they would need to robust in the face of counter-claims. Crucially, on-record statements are needed, rather than rumours of unknown provenance. If you want to accuse people of lying, then be sure that the contents of your accusations are accurate, or it may bite you on the bum.

In complete honesty, I didn’t expect to actually become more convinced of the guilt of Knox and Sollecito after watching these presentations, but that’s what happened. Perhaps Friends of Amanda Knox might think about whether I am an unusual case in this respect. Assuming they are not about to quit any time soon, I think their message needs some urgent work. My advice to them is free of charge.

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7 Responses to Friends of Amanda Knox video: final thoughts

  1. Maundy Gregory,
    I do not think that Moore said that the footprints were from bleach. If you believe that they are blood, then why did they not have Meredith’s DNA? Why did they test negative with TMB? It is also worth reiterating that luminol is merely a presumptive test for blood, not a confirmatory test. There is no evidence that confirmatory testing was done. Finally, what have the footprints (which are all right feet in the hallway) got to do with the crime?

    • Harry Rag says:

      @Chris,

      You wrote:

      “If you believe that they are blood, then why did they not have Meredith’s DNA?”

      Amanda Knox’s DNA and Meredith’s DNA was found mixed together in the luminol footprint in the hallway and in the luminol trace in Filomena’s room:

      “…indicate that Amanda (with her feet stained with Meredith’s blood for having been present in Meredith’s room when she was killed) had gone into Romanelli’s room and into her own [room] leaving traces which were highlighted by Luminol, some of which were mixed, that is, constituted of a biological trace attributable to [both] Meredith and Amanda…” (The Massei report, page 380).

      Luminol is the most sensitive blood detection technique commonly used by forensic investigators. Luminol was has been found to be five times more sensitive than TMB (Tetramethylbenzidine). This explains why the TMB tests yielded negative results.

      Furthermore, forensic investigators who regularly work on crime scene can easily distinguish between the bright blue glow of a blood trace and the much fainter glow of other reactive substances.

      It should also be noted that reactive substances also produce different colour spectrums. For example, it is straightforward to distinguish between blood and bleach. The luminol couldn’t have been reacting to bleach anyway because bleach dissipates after a couple of days and there will be no trace left. The luminol tests at the cottage were carried out on 18 December 2007.

  2. Harry Rag,

    IIRC there is a study which indicated that TMB could detect blood diluted to 1 part in 100,000 and luminol to 1 part in 500,000. So your claim is that for each instance in which luminol is positive and TMB is negative rests upon the sample’s falling into this narrow window. On the other hand, TMB is sometimes used to exclude the false positives that luminol can produce (Sarah Gino’s testimony is helpful in this regard), and I think that false positives are a better explanation for the negative TMB results. If the blood were so dilute that TMB could not detect it, the intensity of the chemiluminescence would be considerably decreased.

    For many luminol-positive substances, the wavelength of maximum intensity is within experimental error of that produced by blood. Moreover, your comments about experienced investigators being able to identify blood based on luminol ignores the forensic literature (see for example a review article by Barni et al.,), which indicates that it is a presumptive blood test, not a confirmatory test. Another good resource is a review article by K. Virkler and I. Lednev (Forensic Science International
    Volume 188, Issues 1-3, 1 July 2009, Pages 1-17)

    I think that you mean shoe print, not footprint, with respect to the hallway. There are all sorts of problems with the shoeprint and the footprints as clear evidence, not the least of which is that Amanda, like any occupant of the house, would have deposited DNA in many locations at many times. The fact that the luminol data were taken in mid-December renders some of the results less, not more, meaningful. The regular (not forensic) police had already tossed Meredith’s room and could have tracked biological traces around the apartment with them.

    • maundy says:

      Hi Chris.

      With regard to luminol being a presumptive test, yes that’s perfectly true. TMB is also a presumptive test. But Sarah Gino’s testimony does not, I think, support the idea of TMB being used to check for false positives in luminol tests. Rather, it would seem that a failed TMB test is usually taken as a reason to disregard the TMB test, not the luminol test. She says that about half of secondary TMB tests simply fail.

      Why that is I don’t entirely know. But I would guess that one possibility is that analysts would usually assume that the first test has basically spent the testable material, so there is little or nothing left when the second test is performed.

  3. BillyBob says:

    Luminol is the most sensitive blood detection technique commonly used by forensic investigators. Luminol was has been found to be five times more sensitive than TMB (Tetramethylbenzidine). This explains why the TMB tests yielded negative results.

    But bright, clear luminol traces should test positive with TMB because so much biological material is present. They should also contain DNA. Assuming they were actually blood, that is.

    Every luminol trace found should have contained Meredith’s DNA and tested positive with TMB.

    If a cleanup of the crime scene occurred, why were these footprints still there?

  4. Given that reference footprints were not taken from Laura, Filomena or Meredith, I think attributing a footprint to Amanda is on shaky ground. Evidence item 183 (also known as L8, IIUC) is a shoe print, and it has a mixed DNA profile of Meredith and Amanda in it. ILE’s execrable record with respect to the attribution of shoe prints is well known; therefore, it may be just as well that it has not been attributed to any individual. Evidence items 181, 182, and 184 are footprints, and they did not yield a DNA profile. Depending on the formulation, luminol should only have a modest effect on the amount of DNA that is recovered (see the review article on luminol by Barni et al. and also the article by Gross et al., in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, 1999, p. 837)

    Dr. Gino (Massei, p. 258, PMF translation) mentions that TMB gives a positive result about 50% of the time on a luminol-positive area, but I don’t see anything to the effect that this is necessarily a false negative. I asked a former FBI agent about this, and he said that one uses TMB to avoid overloading the lab with too many samples that are false positives. I would emphasize that both tests are presumptive, not confirmatory. DNA testing is not classed as a confirmatory blood test; however, when it is negative, it is suggestive that either the substance is not blood, or the DNA polymerase reaction was inhibited for some reason.

  5. RoseMontague says:

    Harry Rag said:

    Luminol is the most sensitive blood detection technique commonly used by forensic investigators. Luminol was has been found to be five times more sensitive than TMB (Tetramethylbenzidine). This explains why the TMB tests yielded negative results.

    Furthermore, forensic investigators who regularly work on crime scene can easily distinguish between the bright blue glow of a blood trace and the much fainter glow of other reactive substances.

    The problem I have with the theory that the TMB test was negative due to the scarcity of material is this. Luminol reaction intensity decreases as the dilution of blood increases. At the point that the sensitivity of TMB is exceeded the Luminol intensity is only about 20% as bright as the less diluted sample. If as you say this was a very intense reaction but as the court and Stefanoni claim the TMB test was negative because of the high dilution then something is not right with this logic. Here is a study with a chart showing this reduction in intensity of reaction (see chart).

    Luminol Dilution Reaction Intensity Chart

    Stefanoni testified that the TMB test does not give false negatives when discussing the testing on the knife blade. Gino’s comments simply indicate that 50% of the positive Luminol hits she gets are not blood.

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