Rudy Guede’s testimony today

June 27, 2011
Rudy Guede at Knox/Sollecito appeal

Rudy Guede in court today. Photo: AP

Rudy Guede, the least famous person to have been convicted of the murder of Meredith Kercher, testified today in the appeal of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito. Naturally, there had been great interest in what he might have to say, and an outside change that his testimony could have provided a turning-point in the case. But, in the event, Guede doesn’t seem to have been keen to steal the show, and he offered nothing new. I think the court will be minded to put what he had to say into a mental box, along with the rest of the witness evidence from the two most recent hearings in the appeal, and forget about it.

In a nutshell, Guede’s story is that, on the night of the murder, he had been engaged in some heavy petting with Kercher at her flat. He went to the toilet and returned to find Kercher with her throat slit and two people making their getaway. He saw a figure which he believes to have been Sollecito and heard a voice which he believes to have been Knox’s. This is similar to the story Guede told at his original trial, but the voice he heard is a feature that had developed somewhere along the way. In fact, he didn’t mention his belief that Knox and Sollecito were present at his original trial, although it is consistent with a letter he sent to the NewsMediaset agency last March.

As I suggested in my last post, this is not the type of story that the court will find easy to accept. It fails to acknowledge Guede’s role in the crime, so to do so would be to go against a settled verdict which is supported by the highest criminal court in Italy. So it by no means places Knox and Sollecito on a spike, unless the court find it so convincing that they are simply bound to accept it.

Is that likely? Well, the story does sort of fit the physical evidence. But that doesn’t necessarily make it true. The idea of a romantic liaison between Guede and Kercher would be convenient. However, Guede initially claimed to have gotten to know at a Halloween house party. He had, presumably, seen pictures of Kercher in Halloween dress in the media. But these were not taken at a house party – she had spent Halloween in a nightclub.

Perhaps a bigger problem is that Guede story necessitates Knox and Sollectio arriving at the flat and committing the murder within a very short timeframe. This seems implausible unless the crime was pre-planned, which is not a version of events supported by any other evidence.

In any event, Guede was not called as a witness to the crime, but specifically to answer an accusation, made by his fellow prisoner Mario Alessi, that Guede had confided in him to having committed the murder with an unnamed accomplice and without the involvement of Knox or Sollecito. Guede denied that such a conversation had ever taken place. So, one convicted murderer’s word against another. Given that Alessi is being investigated for volunteering false testimony in another case, it would seem not unlikely that the court may just ignore the whole thing.

They may, though, be asking themselves what has motivated Guede to accuse Knox and Sollecito, even if they can’t accept his story wholesale. What explanation could there be for that other than that he really believes (or knows) that they were involved?

The court also heard today from two cellmates of Luciano Aviello. He appeared last week to claim that his brother, a Mafioso fugitive, had been responsible for the murder. Today’s witnesses claimed to have been told by Aviello that Sollecito’s father had promised him a large amount of money (perhaps €70,000, perhaps €150,000) in order to pay for a sex change operation, in return for giving evidence that would “muddy the water” in his son’s case.

This is a pretty much superfluous additional reason to doubt a story that never seemed plausible in the first place. It shouldn’t, however, be taken as proving corruption on the part of Sollecito senior, since it could alternatively be the case that Aviello is a fantasist (or, I suppose, it could be that the prosecution have paid Aviello’s cellmates, but let’s not overcomplicate things). On the other hand, I don’t think the defence have covered themselves with glory by embarking on this fairly pointless succession of prisoner witnesses. In so doing, they have allowed a situation where an allegation that witnesses have been paid is not surprising. If it is something the court takes even slightly seriously, this may affect the credibility of almost anyone testifying for the defence, including anyone who testified in the first trial.

And that’s pretty much the story of these last two sessions, I think. Unmitigated bad news for the defence. But, as they lick their self-inflicted wounds, they may be consoling themselves with the thought that it could have been worse. If, for example, Guede had given a more compelling version of events. As it is, with regards to the main issues of the case, we are more or less where we were just over a week ago.

In other words, we are waiting for the results of the expert review of the DNA evidence in the case. The deadline for that is this Thursday, but it won’t be public until the next hearing on 25 July. So, only a few weeks of leaks and conjecture to go.

Who is Rudy Guede?

June 25, 2011
Rudy Guede

Photo from La Stampa

On Monday, the appeal court in Perugia will hear the testimony of Rudy Guede, who is, along with Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito, currently serving a prison sentence for the murder of Meredith Kercher in 2007.

Guede’s appearance follows claims made last Saturday by defence witness Mario Alessi. Alessi is serving a life sentence for kidnap and murder in the same wing of Viterbo prison as Guede where, he says, Guede confessed to him that he killed Kercher with an unnamed accomplice and that Knox and Sollecito are innocent of the crime. Guede has dismissed Alessi’s story as “the ramblings of a sick and twisted mind“, and his attendance has been requested by the defence so that he can give his account of what he did and didn’t say to Alessi.

Undoubtedly, Monday will see some cat-and-mouse between the lawyers and the bench as to how far from this narrow issue questioning is permitted to stray. But, even if the presiding judge keeps the upper hand, Guede’s appearance could have a sizeable impact. And, although a sting in the tail for the prosecution is not impossible, it looks like it is the defence who have most to lose, assuming they are not privy to some dramatic inside information about Guede’s private thoughts.

For one thing, the simple fact of Guede standing up in the courtroom and speaking, regardless of what he says, will be undermining for the defence. Their line is that Guede committed the murder without the involvement of Knox and Sollecito. In the original Knox/Sollecito trial, they painted Guede as a career criminal, stressing how little he had in common with the other two defendants. A criminal alliance between the three of them was just implausible, they argued.

Although it shouldn’t be, Guede’s race is a significant aid to this line of reasoning. Any Perugia news stand tells you why this should be so: immigration and the petty crimes of African and Eastern European migrants are a key concern of the local media. This is not a society at ease with its cosmopolitan side. Although he has lived in Italy since the age of 5, Guede is Ivorian by birth. He is, therefore, a natural candidate for stereotyping. But less so once you hear him speak: this is no dark-skinned savage. He is articulate and intelligent and delivers his words in a well-spoken local accent. In fact, although his birth certificate might suggest otherwise, he will come across as being as Italian as anyone else in the room.

Guede’s physique will also not go unnoticed. He’s was briefly a semi-professional basketball player and, as you’d expect, he’s got an athletic build. But he’s far from a hulk of a man. If he were, then maybe – just maybe – he could be thought of as a lone assailant, in spite of the opinion of forensic experts that multiple attackers must have been involved in the crime. The fact is though, that Guede is not the character that the defence would like him to be.

There is another side to him, though. When he was sixteen, his father returned to the Ivory Coast and he was adopted by the family of a businessman who sponsored the basketball team he was playing for at the time. It seems that Guede’s relationship with the family suffered because of their disappointment over his truanting from school. Gradually, he drifted into a life focussed on drugs and clubbing.

Although the defence portrait of him as a career burglar is pretty flimsy, it does at least confirm that he is not entirely clean-cut. A few months prior to the murder, Guede was caught by police in Milan in possession of a laptop and phone which had been stolen from a lawyers’ offices. Guede’s story was that he had bought these items from a stranger at Milan’s Central Station. On first glance, this might seem too convenient a story to be taken seriously. But a lawyer working for the firm, Paolo Brocchi, testified that Guede had turned up at the offices, uninvited, to apologise and tell him exactly the same tale, to the lawyer’s understandable confusion. This doesn’t seem like the behaviour of a hardened criminal, more like that of someone with some form of moral code.

Guede also either broke into or, according to his version of events, paid someone to give him access to, a disused Milan nursery where he slept overnight. But he didn’t actually burgle the nursery. Its owner testified that she thought he had taken a few coins from a cash-box, which maybe he stole for bus-fare. Hardly grand larceny, and the fact that he appears to have taken what he needed rather than fill his pockets again suggests, to my mind anyway, that Guede maintained some sort of concept of the difference between right and wrong.

But these incidents also show that Guede’s existence intersected to some extent with what we might think of as the low life. If you’re buying computer equipment from strangers at train stations and paying to sleep in buildings that don’t have a “hotel” sign on them, then clearly all is not entirely well. That’s important in terms of understanding Guede, but I don’t think it tells us that he is such a bad boy that we can reasonably lay the blame at his door and ignore the evidence against Knox and Sollecito. That’s a thesis that just doesn’t stack up.

I’m not, of course, defending Guede. His DNA was on the victim and his prints were found all over the crime scene. His decision to flee to Germany just doesn’t tally with the idea that he might be innocent. And, as with Knox, the version of events he constructed for police following the murder – essentially that he was chatting to Kercher, then found her dying after having visited the toilet – simply isn’t plausible. He must be involved in the murder, and he has no avenue of appeal left.

Which provides an obstacle for the court. It is unlikely that it will feel able to accept Mario Alessi’s testimony because, apart from the fact that it doesn’t seem to fit all of the physical evidence, Alessi faces trial for false testimony in another case. Guede’s rebuttal is likely to include his insistence on his innocence. But the highest criminal court in Italy says he is guilty, so the chances of any such story being taken into account by the court are practically zero.

If, on the other hand, Guede’s testimony dramatically incorporates a confession, then the court will be obliged to sit up and listen. That seems unlikely because he has not so far wavered from proclaiming his innocence. His testimony on Monday will not be the voluntary act of someone who has finally decided to tell the truth (whatever truth that happens to be) because, as a prisoner with no remaining appeals, his attendance is compulsory under Italian law.

It should be noted, though, that Guede has not been heard from in over a year. Maybe he has had time to think. Maybe being called to attend last week has caused him to make a momentous decision. If we do get a confession on Monday, that would be easily the biggest event so far in this appeal. And it could take a number of forms. Most obviously, he could do a u-turn and confirm Alessi’s story, or he could tell a story along the lines of the prosecution case, implicating himself alongside Knox and Sollecito. A boost for either the defence or the prosecution, respectively, which could have enough force to be decisive.

That’s not what I expect to happen, but Guede does have that degree of power right now if he chooses to exercise it.

Also on Monday a further hearing is scheduled in the trial of members of the Sollecito family and jounrnalists from the local TV station Telenorba, who are accused of conspiring to illegally leak material related to the trial, including footage of Meredith Kercher’s corpse.

The last hearing was adjourned because of objections that the alleged offences, if they took place, took place in Bari, and so the Perugia courts, it was argued, have no jurisdiction. This hearing will probably be taken up by arguments about that and, perhaps, a decision.

Although I have no information to suggest that it is so, I would guess that there is a possibility that the clash between to two court dates may lead to a postponement of the Sollecito/Telenorba hearing if it is argued that members of the Sollecito family are entitled to attend the Knox/Sollectio hearing. Just a hunch.

Lying criminals conundrum for Knox/Sollecito defence

June 19, 2011

Tommaso Onofri

Tommaso Onofri, murdered by Mario Alessi in 2006

The Meredith Kercher case is not one without its head-scratching aspects. But reports from yesterday’s hearing in the Amanda Knox/Raffaele Sollecito trial are particularly perplexing. Certain things happened, and it’s possible to say what they were. But why they happened and what they might mean is another matter.

One thing that took place is that Mario Alessi, serving life for the 2006 kidnapping and murder of a toddler, was called to give evidence, at the request of the defence. Alessi met Rudy Guede, convicted of Meredith Kercher’s murder in a separate trial to Knox and Sollecito, in Viterbo prison, north of Rome. His story is that Guede confided in him that Knox and Sollecito are completely innocent of the crime. Guede and an unidentified accomplice went to Kercher’s flat, having met her a few days previously, and proposed a threesome. She asked them to leave. Guede went to use the bathroom and returned to find his accomplice assaulting her. Guede duly assisted and, in the struggle that followed, Kercher received a cut to the neck. The accomplice then took the decision that it would be necessary to finish the job and, although this part is not quite clear from what I can make out, it seems as if it was Guede who then inflicted to fatal injury. Both then fled.

This is somewhat more believable than the story Guede told in court – that he had been on the toilet when an intruder broke into the flat, and emerged to find Kercher bleeding to death (the toilet part of the story is an understandable constant, because it had still not been flushed when police arrived at the flat the next day, so samples of Guede’s faeces presumably remain in a bag somewhere in Perugia). According to reporter Barbie Nadeau, the story was very convincing in court. Not having been there myself, I’m going to take her word for it. And Sollecito’s lawyer Giulia Bongiorno seemed to think that this was a “turning point” in the case. But we seem to hear that after every court date.

I don’t expect the judges and juror-judges to take the view that the case now turns on the question of which murderer’s story is least implausible. Their thought process is likely to start with the question of whether there is an reason to doubt what had been put to them.

Apart from the fact that, in Italy, Alessi’s notoriety very much precedes him, the prosecution wasted no time in informing the court that he is currently facing legal proceedings for volunteering false testimony in another case. That in itself would seem to oblige the court to ignore anything he has to say.

There were three additional prisoners brought in as witnesses to corroborate the story, but they don’t seem to have done that. One of them appears to have simply testified that his Italian isn’t good enough to have understood anything he heard in prison. The other two confirmed that Alessi had previously told them the same story, with one adding that he had also heard Guede say that Knox and Sollecito were innocent. But that’s just consistent with Guede’s official version, so it doesn’t really help the defence.

I think the court will also be wondering how Alessi’s version fits with the physical evidence. For example, if Guede and his accomplice entered the the flat as guests and fled immediately after the crime, how did it come to be that the flat had the appearance of having been broken into when the police arrived the following day?

What seems even worse for the defence is that yesterday they also called Luciano Aviello, a gangster also currently serving prison time. He claimed that his brother Antonio, a fugitive whose whereabouts are unknown, killed Kercher during a burglary. Antonio and his Romanian accomplice were supposed to burgle another house, but got the address wrong. Luciano subsequently got rid of the murder weapon and Kercher’s keys in order to help his brother out.

Aviello and Alessi can’t both be telling the truth. Their stories seem to be mutually undermining and the day may well just have been a waste of everyone’s time. So what are the defence playing at?

Well, I really can’t say I know. But one possibility is that this can be traced back to a lack of communication between the two defence teams and a lack of forward thinking by either of them. The attendance of Aviello and Alessi was asked for separately in the appeal applications of Knox and Sollecito respectively. And because Italy has vestiges of an investigative criminal justice system, calling them becomes the business of the court, not just the defence from that point. In the UK or US, the defence could just have dropped either witness without explanation but, in Italy, they possibly would have needed to justify that to the judge. And so maybe what happened is that they failed to come up with a surefire argument for discriminating between the two stories. Which is what they would have needed, because it would have made no sense questioning witnesses speaking for your own case having just lost an argument as to why they should not be called.

I’m speculating, and I’ll concede that a little knowledge of the Italian criminal justice system may be a dangerous thing.

The seemingly inevitable consequence of Alessi’s testimony is that the prosecution have now had their request for Rudy Guede to testify granted, and he will appear next Monday. This surely can’t be a consequence that the defence would have wanted, unless they seriously believe it likely that he will suddenly change his story at the last minute. And, although the prosecution will not get a free hand to ask Guede whatever they want, there must surely be a risk that they will find a way of questioning him that will end with him saying something that seems to incriminate Knox and Sollecito. Why didn’t their lawyers see this coming?

Of course, I could be mistaken and maybe there is some grand strategy at play here that I have failed to spot. But I rather suspect that what we saw yesterday is mainly some bad defending coming home to roost.

Wikipedia: Murder of Meredith Kercher

June 1, 2011

Wikipedia article "Murder of Meredith Kercher"

What do Barry Manilow, Jigglypuff and the complex socio-psychological dynamics of toilet roll orientation have in common? Yes, the clue is in the inline links. Each is the subject of an article on Wikipedia.

I’m a fan. Wikipedia is not perfect, and sometimes it can facilitate ignorance and confusion. But, much more often, it dispels the same. It is the only online initiative anyone has come up with, so far, that is capable of attempting to make some sort of sense of the morass of information that assaults us via the World Wide Web on anything like the scale that the task requires.

But, once you’ve read everything there is to know about anything ever, what else does Wikipedia have to offer? Well, it also provides an impressive dataset regarding its own evolution. Not only can you find the answer to the question that has been itching your brain, but you can also trace the history of how the answer came to be available. Every edit to Wikipedia is archived, alongside every discussion held between Wikipedians about whether that edit was good, bad or indifferent.

Which brings us to the Wikipedia article on the murder of Meredith Kercher. One area of difficulty that Wikipedia faces is in documenting current events, where the facts may not yet all be in, there is conflicting information in the press reports that are available and the Internet is invariably occupied in weaving what is available into something nearly, but not quite, as bad as a Dan Brown novel. Since Wikipedia is part of the Internet and since the case we are talking about involves the progress of the Italian legal system (a bit like watching paint dry, if we imagine what that process would be like if it took anything up to a decade), it is perhaps not surprising that the MoMK article, as it is known on Wikipedia, has long been a problem child of the project.

Sorting fact from nonsense is one obvious and ongoing challenge. Wikipedia does have a sensible rule of thumb in this regard, the doctrine of the “reliable source”. In a nutshell: if a any such source, for example a reputable newspaper, says something, then normally Wikipedia can say it too. Things do gets slightly complicated in a case such as this one, though, when there are literally millions of “reliably sourced” words available which say often contradictory and doubtful things. How is the wheat sorted from the bullshit?

And what is to be done if Wikipedia editors cannot agree as to what is a sensible narrative for the article? The Wikipedia tradition, again quite sensibly, seems to be that editors who are deemed too confrontational, irrational and generally annoying get banned, so that what is left is editors who are at least willing to talk to each other sensibly, however long it takes to translate that into a consensus about how the article should be constructed. This is a process that has been applied fairly liberally but, from what I can see, reasonably sensibly in the case of MoMK, most commonly against advocates for the innocence and purity of Amanda Knox.

So, what happens when one of these banned editors seeks his revenge by creating a blog post bemoaning the bias of the MoMK article? What if Wikipedia supremo Jimmy Wales happens to be a Knox sympathiser and the post catches his eye?

Well, it’s taken a while, but the article does seem to be progressively, if modestly, moving to a a slightly more Knoxish position, and some of the demands in the Friends of Amanda Knox communique have been met – although the shift is not as radical as might have been expected given the grave concerns initially raised by Mr Wales. One of the key areas of concern originally expressed by the Friends was that the views of a list of writers (essentially, themselves) were not represented in the article. To a small extend, this seems to have been achieved, but it looks to be very much at the expense of making a special case and lowering the bar with regards to what is noteworthy media coverage. So, notable Friend Steve Shay on the website (current frontpage deals with the hardhitting story of a swimming pool re-opening for another season) counts as a “reliable source” for the Frank Sfarzo affair and, bizarrely, blogger Candace Dempsey is cited as a source for criticism of coverage of the case. And Idaho local cable news is considered a reliable source for Knox’s innocence as stated by Greg Hampikian, now given two paragraphs in the article without mentioning that he is a consultant to Knox’s parents.

I wouldn’t grumble about all this, but why does Wikipedia not consider the Sunday Times a reliable source for “Knox’s lesbian trauma” or Sky News a reliable source for one of her various statements that she “was there“? Are these not local enough?

In fairness, you’re an idiot if you expect Wikipedia to give you an unbiased view of anything where bias is possible. Which is not meant as a broadside. I suspect many of the most active Wikipedia editors recognise that it has that particular weakness. A question that they may want to ask, though, is: how should their figurehead act in apparently contentious cases?

Jimmy Wales’ shtick is basically that he’s just acting as a regular Wikipedia editor. Which, on the face of it, may seem fair enough. He isn’t breaking any rules. He’s just raising his concerns, as anyone in the world with an Internet connection is entitled to do. And there’s no lawful reason he shouldn’t campaign on Wikipedia.Then again, there’s no lawful reason why the Queen shouldn’t participate in X Factor. But she probably just doesn’t want to look ridiculous.

For Wikipedia, I think the story is a relatively positive one, showing both the strengths and the limitations of the way it operates. It turns out that you can’t turn up en masse at a Wikipedia article – at least, one where other people are active – and just change it to your liking. What’s shown by the discussion page archives is a lot of effort expended on rather weird discussions. A lot of discussion about whether the “jurors” in the case are best described as such (jurors is a good cultural translation which most of the media use, but they are termed “citizen judges” in Italy). Something I didn’t even finish reading through about fruit juice. An attempt to construct a timeline for the evening of the murder, and consternation about why it isn’t okay to just make up times for what happened when. Arguments about whether a floorplan of the murder scene was need in the article, whether or not it should be to scale and what the correct abbreviation of “fridge” is.

In short, Friends of Amanda Knox are not getting a good return proportionate to their investment. But they are also not getting nothing. Now, it might be argued that this shows their initial complaints to be well-founded. But I don’t think so. There don’t seem to have been any significant factual changes to the article, but a slight dip in standards, so that if something has been published somewhere and the Friends like the story, it finds its way into the article. It doesn’t have to be a major news source, just a story they like.

It will be interesting to see how the article develops in future. Either this new material will eventually be confirmed as part of the “true” version of events, or else it will need to be removed at some point. But what is it that triggers that? Once Wikipedia has decided that something is controversial, what changes its mind?

If you know the answer and have contact with a minor local news website, send me an email and maybe we can organise some pressure for it to be included in the Wikipedia article on Wikipedia.