What makes Amanda Knox dance?

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.

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8 Responses to What makes Amanda Knox dance?

  1. RoseMontague says:

    Sure, the prosecution can argue that the judge picked some real idiots as experts. LOL. Good luck.

    The only potential silver lining I can see is that this case may already be over. The main witness and the most important two pieces of evidence as selected by the judge for review turn out to be
    totally worthless.

    • maundy says:

      Except it’s not really a case of arguing that anyone’s an idiot is it? That would, indeed, be an unrealistic angle to take.

      But I also think it would be unrealistic to suppose that the court is going to take a view that, having a received a technical report, it doesn’t need to consider anything else.

  2. Flossy says:

    Hi Maundy.

    I think you’re right to say that the scientists report won’t be definitive. I does all depend on how strong the arguments of either side are in court.

    But why should the prosecution put up a fight? It’s just two bits of evidence out of a whole load. Knox and Sollecito will still be found guilty. Maybe they’d be better off making a grand gesture and letting it go. That would underline to the jury how strong their case is.

  3. Bruce Fisher says:

    “Knox and Sollecito’s appeal hasn’t been great for them so far”

    Really? Are you following the same case as the rest of us? I know from your previous posts that you are biased but you now seem to be completely ignoring reality.

  4. katody says:

    I think Hellmann chose in good faith to reexamine the elements that he himself considered cornerstones of the case – the superwitness and the main ( and the only really incriminating) DNA traces.

    It’s not hard to imagine what he thinks about Curatolo’s veracity now. It’s hard to think his stance against his own experts could be the same as Massei’s against defence’s, though.

    Considering that Conti and Vecchiotti confirmed every objection that the defence had raised in the first trial (and added some of their own) it’s hard to imagine Stafanoni defending her work successfully. She didn’t put up much of a defence the first time, and Massei’s excuses for her were rather pathetic.

    • maundy says:

      Hi Katody.

      I don’t think that it will be so much about Stefanoni defending her work. It would be a mistake for either the defence or the prosecution to allow things to get personalised in that way, because it may then tend to be just about which scientist comes across as more trustworthy, and the result of that may be unpredictable. The focus is likely to be purely and simply on the evidence. How reasonable or unreasonable is it to suppose that Kercher’s DNA was on the knife and Sollecito’s DNA was on the bra-clasp?

      I think you are right that the view of Conti and Vecchiotti will carry more weight than did that of the defence experts in the original trial. But I don’t think it is easy to predict exactly how much more. The arguments were broadly the same then and they weren’t accepted. There’s no reason to suppose the result has to be the same this time round, of course. But I also don’t think it’s blindingly obvious that it can’t be.

  5. katody says:

    Well, the scientists were explicitly asked to repeat and/or review Patrizia’s work. It will get as personal as personally she takes criticisms.

    You’re right that It will be all about the evidence and the experts took a look not only at Stefanoni’s work, but also stressed the serious problems with handling the crime scene in general.

    How much will the judge lean towards the experts’ opinion? In the first trial the defence consultants argued that the results are not valid because of substantial probability of contamination. If you recall, Massei overruled these objections in a rather heavy handed way.
    Yet court rulings about scientific matters are rather risky and Hellmann understands it. I think that’s why he explicitly asked the experts to opine about that particular matter – likelihood of contamination and it’s impact on reliability of the results. Conti and Vecchiotti’s answer effectively states that Massei was completely wrong and the defence was right.

    In that situation It’s not possible for Hellmann to simply rubberstamp Massei’s view about it. I don’t think this was his intent, either.
    To (hypothetically) discard the scientists’ report anyway he would need some brand new and strong argumentation from Stefanoni and the prosecution, but this is most improbable.

    What is problematic for Stefanoni is that a pattern emerges from her actions during the investigation and the trial – she proceeded with testing samples in an arbitrary way ( TOO LOW), she testified falsely in the preliminaries (about quantification), she withheld data from the court and falsely testified about the TMB tests she did, she falsely testified about changing gloves and shoe covers ( which is clear from the video documentation), she withheld data from the independent experts to the last moment (some of it she never provided, as they point out in their report). In that way Stefanoni set up herself as a very convenient scape goat – but that’s another story..

    • maundy says:

      You’re right that the review goes against Massei, but it doesn’t invalidate Massei, in the sense that scientific reports don’t invalidate court judgments. Only the appeal decision can do that. There’s no obvious reason why Hellmann can’t just rubberstamp Massei on this issue, although I’m not saying that’s what will happen.

      I think an important thing to understand that this is a critical review. Its job is to pick holes. The court’s job is to weigh the review. It will only do that in the light of the prosecution response, so it’s premature to assume that the bench will blithely follow its lead.

      On Stefanoni, it really isn’t clear that she’s lied at all or withheld information at all. That’s the kind of thing you can believe if you’re predisposed to. She’s given a lot of testimony about a complex investigation, and I would agree that there are one or two inaccuracies. But it would be surprising if that wasn’t the case. Pursuing that is a but redundant, I think, because if you’re that sensitive to inaccuracies in what people have said, then presumably Knox and Sollecito are guilty a hundred times over(?)

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