Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito back in court on Monday 5th

September 2, 2011

Amanda Knox

Amanda Knox during her last court appearance on 30 July

After a five-week break, the appeal of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito against their conviction for the 2007 murder of Meredith Kercher will resume on Monday.

We pick up where we left off, in the middle of discussions about the reliability or otherwise of DNA evidence taken from a knife, alleged by prosecutors to have been used by Knox in the murder, and from the clasp of the victim’s bra, said to have been removed from her body by Sollecito after she died.

That’s a debate that took some dramatic twists and turns before the court went on its holidays, and it may be that we have not yet reached the end of that twisty-turny phase.

At the end of June, two court-appointed scientific experts submitted a report re-examining the conclusions of the forensic work originally performed on these two highly important pieces of evidence. The report presented a clear argument that the results seen could plausibly have been the result of contamination, either in the laboratory or during the collection and handling of the evidence. During that collection and handling, they said, procedures fell below that which ought to be expected. Furthermore, not enough was known about procedures in the lab to be sure that contamination could not have occurred there, particularly in the case of the knife, because the amount of the victim’s DNA apparently found on the blade was so tiny that even a very small slip in procedure could have caused it to be present due to cross-contamination from samples of the same DNA previously run in the lab. They recommended that DNA from neither the knife nor the clasp should be considered reliable.

That hasn’t been the end of the matter, though. The prosecution, finding themselves suddenly playing the defence in a sort of play-within-a-trial, began their fightback in the last session before the summer break. Most significantly, lead prosecutor Manuela Comodi was able to get Carla Vecchiotti to agree that the amount of time that had passed between the testing of the knife and clasp samples and any prior testing related to the Kercher case had been sufficient so that it was unrealistic that any potentially contaminating DNA might have still been present in the lab. That seems to add up to a pretty impressive turnaround on the part prosecutors, since it may make questions about the standards applied in the lab irrelevant. Whatever they were like, it’s not possible to contaminate a sample with DNA which isn’t there.

It’s particularly significant in the case of the knife, because it was recovered from Sollecito’s flat and it is well-established that Kercher had never been there. It therefore seems unlikely that her DNA could have got onto the blade by any means in that location. If it can’t have been contaminated there and it can’t have been contaminated in the lab, then it remains reliable evidence. Not long ago, the knife seemed all but destined for the evidentiary trashbin. Not any more. But the defence may not yet have said all they have to say about that.

The situation is different with the bra-clasp, because that was recovered from the flat where Sollecito’s girlfriend, Knox, lived and he had been there numerous times. The prosecution are insistent that the chances of his DNA being on the clasp by contamination are too slim to be taken seriously, even if there were lapses in protocol at the crime scene. But the court has been shown a DVD of forensic work that went on there, which the defence hope will have demonstrated that this is not a safe assumption. I’ve only seen a few short extracts from that DVD, but I guess the big question is what the judges and juror-judges will have made of it. Will it have looked to them like a standard crime scene, perhaps with one or two forgiveable lapses of concentration on the part of investigators? Or will they have struggled to keep the Benny Hill theme tune from playing in their heads as they watched?

On Monday, further cross-examination of Carla Vecchiotti and her colleague Stefano Conti is scheduled, this time by Francesco Maresca, counsel for the Kercher family. He has expressed to the media in no uncertain terms his exasperation at the DNA report. For him, it was one-sided and incomplete. No doubt that’s something he’ll be repeating. He’ll also want to get his questionees to repeat the thing about contamination in the lab. But will he have anything up his sleeve that can do the same for the clasp as has apparently been done for the knife?

We can expect that questioning to be thorough, so there may not be time for much else. But, if there is, the court may here from personnel involved in the original forensic work. There may also be mention of Luciano Aviello, a Mafioso who previously testified that his brother had murdered Kercher, but has since said he was offered money for this testimony and he was lying. Aviello was never really a credible witness, so I don’t think this will have any impact on the appeal, but the court will want to get his retraction on record at some point.

There was a good article about the case in yesterday’s New York Times. The first thing that struck me about it was the title: “Mother’s Long Vigil for Seattle Woman Jailed in Murder”. I’m sure that must be the first headline about the case in nearly four years not to feature the word “Knox”, which may be a sign of how far out of the public consciousness the story has slipped. The second thing was a quote from Manuela Comodi apparently agreeing with me that the second most important element to the prosecution case, after the knife and clasp, is the evidence of a staged break-in at the crime scene.


Knox/Sollecito: update on today’s court proceedings

July 30, 2011

Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito

Photo by Franco Origlia

The prediction I made at the end of my last post that today’s hearing in the appeal of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito would be “the most enlightening and important session” in the process turned out a little wide of the mark, mainly because the meat of the prosecution response to the recent DNA review in the case didn’t happen. We will have to wait until after the court’s summer recess for that, when police scientist Patrizia Stefanoni will give evidence explaining why, in spite of the criticisms in the review, the DNA analysis she undertook in relation to two key pieces of evidence in the case is reliable.

That will be the most enlightening and important session in the process. Mark my words.

Today’s hearing began with the presentation in court of a letter from Stefanoni’s boss, Piero Angeloni, taking issue with the DNA review and affirming his confidence in the work of his people. It might be said that this tells us little we didn’t expect – after all, it already seemed clear that the police were not going to put up a white flag. Apart from support for Stefanoni, though, I think the real purpose of the letter to highlight how unusual the DNA review undertaken in the case is, in the view of the police. It is unprecedented, says Angeloni, for the police to be subjected to this type of criticism in court.

I wonder if this is a foretaste of a public policy argument the prosecution may seek to hang their hat on. The authors of the review, Stefano Conti and Carla Vecchiotti, start from a position of feeling they need to trawl through academic literature in order to piece together the standards by which they feel Stefanoni should have operated. But, it might be argued, this constitutes them assuming the role of a two-person regulatory body. Even if their recommendations are sound, it is the accepted regulatory framework that matters. The courts cannot permit the police to be subjected to creative criticism that goes beyond this framework because, in that case, the streets would quickly fill with acquitted murderers.

At least, I think that’s where we may be going, and it is also something that is reflected in what Stefanoni recently said to the Observer: “We followed the guidelines of the ENFSI, theirs is just a collage of different international opinions”.

Given what is said the review though, the question that immediately raises itself is how closely the ENFSI or any other guidelines have been followed. I don’t know what the standards required would have been on the relevant date, but it is likely that Stefanoni will need to convince the court that, for example, negative control tests were appropriately carried out on the samples taken from the alleged murder weapon. Arguing that you only need to follow certain agreed standards and then going on to argue that you don’t even need to follow those may be a step too far.

Meanwhile, each side seems to have scored a point in their cross-examination of the experts regarding that alleged murder weapon, a knife recovered by police from Raffaele Sollecito’s flat. The defence were able to elicit an opinion that the blade of the knife had been subjected only to a fairly ordinary wash prior to its discovery by the police. The judges will no doubt be wondering how likely it is that Knox and Sollecito dealt with their murder weapon by giving it only a general clean.

The prosecution, for their part, secured an agreement from Carla Vecchiotti that a six-day gap between the testing of the knife and any prior testing of items containing the DNA of Meredith Kercher would be sufficient to guard against contamination. This may be very helpful to prosecutors, since their main task is to show that the theoretical risks of contamination outlined in the DNA review could not have given rise to any actual contamination.

With respect to the other piece of evidence under consideration, the clasp from Kercher’s bra, said by prosecutors to bear Sollecito’s DNA, the most important answer may turn out to be one that wasn’t given. According to one report, when asked by prosecutor Manuela Comodi how it was possible that Sollecito’s DNA on the clasp could be the result of contamination, the two experts were not able to give any clearer explanation than “anything is possible”. That answer could well turn out to be an Achilles heal for the defence case.

Knox/Sollecito appeal hearing on 30th July

July 29, 2011

Barring delays, overruns or surprises, tomorrow should see the last hearing in the appeal of Amanda Knox and Raffale Sollecito before the court goes into summer recess.

On Monday, the court heard scientists Stefano Conti and Carla Vecchiotti give a rundown of their review of some of the DNA evidence in the case. They did this with the aid of a DVD containing crime scene footage, designed to illustrate flaws in police procedure in the collection and handling of evidence, but without being questioned by the prosecution or defence lawyers. This means that the likely points of contention in relation to the review have still not been gone into and, for information about that, I refer you to my previous posts here and here.

There have, however, been two developments reported in the Italian press which may stand some sort of chance of having some sort of impact on proceedings.

The Umbrialeft website is reporting that the above-mentioned DVD played to the court by Conti and Vecchiotti on Monday has since been subjected to a court order effectively stating that it forms part of the proceedings. The report is less than clear, though, as to why this event is newsworthy. My best attempt at inter-linear decoding says that what has gone on is that the prosecution have asked for a copy of the DVD and presiding judge Hellmann has then issued the order so that they might be entitled to a copy. This would just be an administrative tidying-up in relation to something that should really have been done during the court session.

However, I appreciate that this version is irritatingly probable and mundane, so here’s a different take. Francesco Maresca, lawyer for the family of Meredith Kercher, has recently been complaining to reporters that the DNA review does not appear to have been written from a disinterested standpoint. And, in last Sunday’s Observer, an unnamed police source went further, suggesting that the experts were being “fed information” by the defence.

Now, it’s all very well for lawyers and police officers to have suspicions about the integrity of the experts, but it’s not much use to the court without evidence. So, suppose that someone paying attention to DVD presentation on Monday noticed that it contained material which did not seem to have been supplied to the experts by the court. That might be prima facie evidence of undisclosed communication between the experts and the defence, or someone close to the defence. If those circumstances were to arise, the bench may well feel obliged to disregard the DNA review.

But let’s not get carried away. The simplest explanations are usually the best and, let’s face it, were the experts crooked they would surely not make such a basic error. Still, you never know…

Meanwhile, there has been a surprise twist regarding the evidence of Luciano Aviello, the gender-nonconformist Mafioso who testified a few weeks ago that the killer of Meredith Kercher was in fact his fugitive brother. At the time, this was more or less as obvious a lie as it is possible to imagine, particularly given Aviello’s record of eight separate convictions for criminal defamation and the fact that the court heard another witness claiming that Aviello had been offered a large some of money by the defence in return for his false testimony.

So, in the face of a police investigation into this claim, Aviello now says that he was offered €30,000 (which he intended to spend on a sex change operation) by the Sollecito family and with the knowledge of defence lawyers. Quite a price-tag for the worthless garbage they got in return, but maybe the Sollecitos have better money than judgement. What is more, Aviello now claims that Sollecito confided to him in prison that Knox, but not he, was responsible for the murder.

The main reason this is unlikely to have a major impact on the appeal is that, in the absence of corroborating evidence, Aviello is clearly no more reliable as a witness than he was a couple of weeks ago. The court will need to take account that his original tale, obviously and plainly false in any case, has now progressed to being plainly and obviously false. Prosecutors will need to decide whether it is worth pressing for him to testify again. Given that there exist more credible allegations as to the dirty hands of the Sollecito family, they may wish to add pressure on the bench to wonder if there might be an iceberg below. On the other hand, they may feel that the judges and juror-judges already have the information they need, and that it would be a mistake to draw attention away from the much more important matter of their rebuttal to the DNA review.

As a side-note, something that seems clear from the reporting of this story is that Aviello and Sollecito associated with each other in prison, at least according to Aviello. But, as far as I can tell, this rather material bit of information was not mentioned in court when Aviello testified on 18 June. Surely this is something that must have been known to the defence?

Regardless of whether any of these side-stories make it into the courtroom tomorrow, it promises to be the most enlightening and important session in the whole appeal. It won’t be possible to tell immediately whether it has been decisive but, for the prosecution, a lot hangs on how convincing or unconvincing their response to the DNA review turns out to be.

Knox and Sollecito trial: 40-day delay requested

May 5, 2011

Further to the possible delay to proceedings I posted about last week, Umbria24 is reporting that Stefano Conti and Carla Vecchiotti, the experts reviewing DNA evidence in the case of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito, have asked for a 40 day extension because they wish to look at certain documents which are not part of the official record and to which they do not currently have access.

What these documents may be isn’t stated. It could be that they are asking to look at preliminary notes or computer records produced by Patrizia Stefanoni, the scientist who originally conducted the DNA tests, if there are any of these they don’t have available. Alternatively, it could be that they are asking to see documents somehow relating to the gathering of evidence at the crime scene. As always, I am speculating. It could also be anything that may be relevant but isn’t amongst material filed with the court.

A decision about whether to grant an extension will be taken by the court at the hearing already scheduled for 21 May. According to Umbria24, if the extension is granted, then the trial may continue into the autumn as a consequence.