Before yesterday’s CNN special on Amanda Knox had been broadcast, the True Justice website and various commenters on the CNN website had made up their minds on the basis of advance publicity. What was on offer was basically an advertorial for the Knox family, who never agree to speak to anyone unless an agreement to throw balance out of the window is arrived at in advance.
Having seen CBS’s 2009 documentary American Girl, Italian Nightmare, in which Knox’s family also participated, I have to admit to sharing this misgiving. Examining and criticising the evidence against Knox is one thing but it should be acknowledged that there is actually a case against her, which wasn’t thrown together by chimpanzees and which led to her conviction after a lengthy trial. Once you go into denial in that regard, what you are doing is possibly something other than journalism.
Our CNN host is Drew Griffin, a sort of boil-in-the bag Patrick Swayze with a talent for imbuing even the most mundane sentences with a sense of drama and intrigue. Wherever he is obliged to mention courtroom evidence, though, he slows down a little and raises his pitch so as to indicate self-evident preposterousness. Fairly early on, he puts to rest any hopes I might have had of a serious analysis. “For the next hour,” he requests, “forget everything you know”.
Drew’s first task is a summary of the case. And what could be more objective than to tell this using a montage of archive footage and interviews with her family?
Then we move on to the period immediately following the murder. The most interesting moment here for me is a comment by Knox’s father Curt regarding her interrogation. A key claim made by Knox’s supporters has consistently been that the false account she gave, which led to her arrest, came at the end of a marathon interviewing session during which she was systematically brutalised and trapped. Curt told the Times in 2008 that this had lasted nine hours, with no interpreter, during which time she was struck and denied food and water (as I mentioned previously, this can’t have been more than two and a quarter hours).
Here, though, Curt claims something different. He says that Amanda had been questioned for 52 hours in total in the three and a half days leading up to her arrest. I doubt that, but let’s go along with it for argument’s sake.
I think it causes a problem for CNN’s version of the story. The way they are telling it, the police tricked Amanda in that last interrogation essentially by asking her to make up a story and then falsely representing that as a partial confession. She is quoted as saying in her statement: “I am very confused, I imagine what could have happened”. Here is the statement. Although it does contain the words “confused” and “imagined” (note CNN’s subtle change of tense), Knox seems quite certain that she went to flat with her boss, Partrick Lumumba, he and Meredith went into her room and Meredith started screaming. She seems to only be confused with regard to what happened after that.
Here’s the problem for CNN, though. We know the final interview was at Amanda’s request. On Curt’s account, this means that, having already been interviewed for nearly 50 hours, there was some reason Amanda wanted to be questioned further. But what could be left to say that hadn’t already been covered? Could it possibly be that Knox went into the interview room already knowing what she was going to say? I’m pretty sure that at least one of either the “52 hours” story or the “sneaky police” story has to be wrong.
Next, Knox’s parents and sister talk about her upbringing as various photos of her as a kid appear on the screen. It turns out she was normal and studious before she went to Italy. She even played football and took extra English classes at school.
So, having forgotten everything I knew, I’m left with the dreadful sense of an improbable juxtaposition. How can a nice young woman from an ordinary family have possibly committed such an awful crime?
Exclusivity is, perhaps, a fair enough excuse for this content, but there’s so much of it and the only sop to balance here is two blink-and-you-miss-it soundbites from Francesco Maresca, lawyer for the Kercher family. And I think this demonstrates a serious problem with what I’m watching. There is nothing wrong per se with allowing the Knoxes to advocate for Amanda. But it does seem to me to be wrong to marginalise – indeed, forget about – the contrasting view held by people who represent the victim of the crime.
We are, however, provided with an interview with the chief prosecutor in the Kercher case, Giuliano Mignini. Griffin tells us: “It was an interview he later appeared to regret”. I wonder if this began to happen as he noticed that, every time he spoke, a disembodied voiceover would interject to explain why his answer made him sinister.
The voiceover tells us that Mignini “admitted even without evidence he knew almost the moment he arrived and laid eyes on Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito, they were involved in the murder”. But if you are sharp enough to listen to what Mignini actually says, you’ll notice the difference: “After the first few weeks we were convinced…”.
Later, we are informed by the voiceover that a homeless man called Antonio Curatolo had admitted to being “under investigation by Mignini’s office for heroin dealing at the exact moment he became one of Mignini’s star witnesses”. This seems to be to be a fair summary if by “Mignini’s office” you mean “the police” and by “exact moment” you mean 18 months later. But Mignini is not able to answer the claims of the voiceover, only the question put to him live, unaware of how it would be distorted. Was Curatolo induced to testify? No, says Mignini.
I think it would have been slightly more honest of CNN just to have gone ahead and given Mignini a CGI tail and horns.
There is also some comment from Greg Hampikian, a scientific advisor to the Knox family. We could have done with hearing more from him, I think. He says that he is “appalled” by the scientific evidence in the case, but he is not really given the onscreen time to explain why. He says a couple of thing that are probably edited out context and are a bit confusing. Firstly, he says that none of the DNA evidence matched either Knox or Sollecito, but Griffin has already told us about the DNA on the knife and the bra clasp. Hampikian then goes on to talk about the bra clasp (so clearly he does know about it) suggesting that it’s “all there is”. Again that’s just a bit confusing. What can he mean?
I’m constantly frustrated by how pro-Knox coverage shies away from the detail of the scientific evidence. I guess they think it is too complicated and boring for people, but I think the popularity of CSI shows that this is wrong. For me, the science is where the real talking-points are. If this documentary had allowed itself to go there, then maybe it could have avoided having to distort and misrepresent so much.
(Another obvious question to ask is: why didn’t CNN think to interview any experts not employed by the Knoxes?)
The last segment, just so we can be absolutely sure this is a propaganda piece, is given over to Simon Wiesenthal wanabee Douglas Preston, who talks about an interrogation he once suffered at the hands of Mignini. How long this lasted seems to be disputed, but Preston claims it could have been as long as two hours. Without an intermission, it seems. How Mignini sleeps at night after such brutal treatment is not discussed.
This gives rise to Mignini being given the chance to answer a question without being voiceovered, and he notes an obvious flaw in the Preston-Knox thesis. The idea seems to be that, because Mignini was able to charge Preston with a crime he didn’t commit (although it’s actually far from clear that he didn’t – and in actual fact the documentary skirts round the question of what Preston stood accused of), we can surely see how he might have pulled the same trick on Knox. But Mignini points out that he was not present at the interrogation that led to Knox’s arrest.
Final thoughts are given over to Curt Knox, who talks poignantly about the empty chair at family occasions. Maybe someday, Curt, you’ll get a chance to swap stories about that with the Kercher family.
There’s obviously journalistic value in being able to talk to the Knox family. I can understand why they wouldn’t want to be involved in anything that explores both sides of the case and I can understand the human interest in their perspective. But there’s a really offensive dishonesty to the film CNN have put together.