According to one media report, Amanda Knox literally danced for joy last week on hearing of the conclusions of the independent review of DNA evidence which helped to convict her and Raffaele Sollecito of the 2007 murder of Meredith Kercher. There’s always reason to be cautious when you encounter an image like that in newspaper report. After all, in all probability, it’s been transcribed during a phonecall with Knox’s PR people. But, in this case, if it isn’t true then it might as well be, I think. It’s hard to imagine that Knox has received better news lately.
Knox and Sollecito’s appeal hasn’t been great for them so far. Nothing so far heard in court seems likely to have swayed the judges and juror-judges in their favour. Witness testimony and courtroom discussions have been so tangential to the central thread of evidence in the case that you might be forgiven for wondering if the defence actually set out with a plan to emphasise their lack of anything significant to bring to proceedings.
But the DNA review is different. Stefano Conti and Carla Vecchiotti of the Sapienza University of Rome were asked by the court to look at the DNA evidence relating to two trial exhibits of particular importance. The first was a knife, alleged by prosecutors to have been used by Amanda Knox to stab Meredith Kercher. Second was the clasp of Kercher’s bra, on which prosecutors allege Sollecito left his DNA as he removed the bra following the murder.
In fairly clear terms, Conti and Vecchitotti raise concerns about the reliability of DNA evidence relating to both of these exhibits. Over the next few posts, I’m planning to do my best to explain what those concerns are and what, if anything, the prosecution might be able to say in response.
Before I do that, though, a few things to bear in mind if you are not familiar with the workings of the case. There can be little doubt that the results of the review are as good as could have realistically been hoped for by the defence. However, the review is not definitive. It is a report prepared for the court to consider. They can’t very well ignore it, but they don’t have to accept it at face value. Given that it is favourable to the defence, the thing that will really determine its impact is the strength of the counter-arguments that prosecutors and the lawyer for the Kercher family will inevitably put during the next hearing on 25 July, and how convincingly those counter-arguments come across.
Another thing to understand is that, although a less favourable review may well have spelled the end for the defence case, the converse it not true. The prosecution case is made up of a number of evidentiary planks. The review threatens one of these, but nothing so far in the appeal has very seriously undermined the others. If the judges accept the findings of the review, then the question is: will they fell able to step on the remaining planks and cross the floor?
For the sake of ensuring the firm foundations of their eventual decision, they will probably want to simply accept or reject each element in the review and act accordingly by either accepting or rejecting the relevant DNA evidence. However, prosecutors are likely to want to encourage them down an alternative path. So long as they don’t allow their decision to hang by evidence that is questioned in the review, they could reasonably decide instead to attempt to quantify the degree if unreliability of each piece of evidence. Is it unreliable to the extent of being meaningless? Or does it have value as circumstantial evidence as being reliable on a balance of probabilities? In that case, we might be dealing with a plank that is not absent, but one which you wouldn’t want to step on too hard.
So, all that said, the question is whether the review makes it likely that Amanda Knox will be dancing a freedom waltz come the autumn. Well, the review is fairly linear in its approach, with the authors giving their opinion on what the court asked them to look at, and not really fully nailing-down the issues by considering different perspectives. They probably don’t take that to be their job. Francesco Maresca, lawyer for thee Kercher family, seems to disagree with that, wondering how such an unequivocal report can be appropriate. You can understand him frustration. Surely it is not too much to expect that the counter-arguments put by the prosecution in the original trial might have been considered, even if only for the purpose of explaining why they are wrong. But maybe Maresca can see a potential silver lining to this. At least it should give him and his colleagues space to focus on these counter-arguments at the all-important 25 July hearing. This could have been all about what is wrong with the DNA evidence, but they have the opportunity to make it as much about what is wrong with the review.
But, make no mistake, it isn’t going to be a cakewalk for them. In my next post, I’m going to try to give an idea of the kind of footwork they’ll need to master in order to deal with what the review has to say about the alleged murder-weapon in the case, a knife recovered by police at the Raffale’s Sollecuto’s flat.