Amanda Knox: The Innocent Villain

Last Friday, Netflix released Amanda Knox, a documentary about the American college student who was accused of the 2007 murder of her British roommate Meredith Kercher in Perugia, Italy. Told through actual crime scene footage, press coverage, and almost uncomfortably intimate interviews with the individuals at the center of the trial and subsequent appeals, the documentary provides an elegant account of a complex story. While ultimately acquitted due to lack of evidence, Knox spent almost four years in prison and was subjected to a years-long media campaign that serves as an allegory for the power of slut shaming.

Knox lived with Kercher in a ground-floor apartment in Perugia, a small city in central Italy where Knox and Kercher were studying abroad (Knox from the United States; Kercher from the United Kingdom). On November 1, 2007, the day before Meredith’s body was discovered, Knox spent the evening with her boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito. Knox returned to the apartment around midday on November 2 and found the front door open, blood on the sink and bath mat, and unflushed feces in the toilet. She became concerned when she knocked on Kercher’s locked door to no avail. Eventually authorities were alerted to the scene, who broke down Kercher’s door and found her body.

The Netflix documentary shows footage of the crime scene as they found it, which leaves the viewer with little doubt as to the violence of Kercher’s death. Knox and Sollecito quickly became suspects partly based on behavior at the scene of the crime that was seen as odd by authorities, which included displays of affection between the pair after the discovery of Kercher’s body. During intense and harsh interrogations, they gave conflicting accounts of their whereabouts on the evening of November 1. Out of desperation, Knox falsely implicated her boss Patrick Lumumba, though he was later released after he established an alibi for the night of the murder. Rudy Guede, already known to authorities, came under suspicion when evidence was discovered that placed him at the crime scene. Knox, Sollecito, and Guede were charged with Kercher’s murder.

The fact that Knox initially implicated Lumumba, her behavior immediately before and after the discovery of Kercher’s body, statements she and Sollecito made under the duress of interrogation, and circumstantial evidence were key elements leading to Knox’s arrest. But on their own, these facts would probably not have led to the frenetic media storm that erupted around Knox. The crucial component of the case against Knox was Knox herself: She was a young, attractive, sexually active woman.

Knox’s sexuality was central to the narrative put forth by the prosecution and became the focal point of extensive and lurid media coverage of the trial. Details of her sexual past were made public when a diary she kept in prison was leaked to the press. Nick Pisa, a tabloid reporter who covered the story and is interviewed for the documentary, popularized the nickname “Foxy Knoxy.”

Giuliano Mignini, who prosecuted the case and is also interviewed for the film, argued that Knox enticed Raffaele Sollecito and Rudy Guede, the only one of the three implicated by substantial DNA evidence, to assist her in the rape and murder of Kercher. Mignini arrived at this outlandish (and unsubstantiated) version of events through highly speculative interpretations of the crime scene and Knox’s behavior. Knox and Sollecito were ultimately exonerated after a lengthy appeals process that saw them convicted and acquitted twice. Guede remains in prison for the crime.

As pointed out by Willa Paskin in an insightful -article for Slate.com, the documentary is part of a trend in the true-crime genre exemplified by Serial, Making a Murderer, and both fictional and nonfictional representations of the O.J. Simpson trial, which examine not just crimes themselves but the context in which crimes are committed, investigated, and prosecuted. Paskin hints that as we watch Amanda Knox, we might consider how our appetite for these kinds of stories is connected to the media frenzy that helped result in Knox’s wrongful conviction in the first place.

But Knox’s experience also contributes to an evolving public understanding of how cultural biases affect judicial systems and outcomes. Just as the examples Paskin points to illustrate the role of race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status in their respective cases, Amanda Knox illustrates the role that gender played in Knox’s case.

Mignini’s theory of Kercher’s murder hinged on the dichotomy he saw between Knox and Kercher. In the documentary, he paints Knox as a young woman animated by a lack of inhibition, diametrically opposed to the chaste and serious Kercher. Mignini does not provide much of a justification for this characterization of Knox in the documentary, yet it is central to how he views her. His fixation seems to suggest a belief that Knox’s sexuality is not only the catalyst for the events that led to the murder, it is proof positive that she is capable of such a crime.

The connection between unbridled female sexuality and death or disaster is typified by the literary archetype known as the femme fatale, another nickname given to Knox by the press. It is in many ways at the root of Western conceptions of women, tracing its origins all the way back to the story of Adam and Eve.

A hallmark of the femme fatale is that she leads men to their doom, just as Eve led Adam to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, leading to the fall of man. And though her roots are ancient, the femme fatale is still a powerful part of our culture. Her modern representations are more nuanced: think of Eva Green’s character in the television series Penny Dreadful or Jemima Kirke’s character in Girls. The characters are complex, not caricatures, yet their romantic attachments lead inevitably to calamity. That calamity is rooted in their sexuality, just as Mignini saw Kercher’s murder as rooted in Knox’s. Mignini saw her as the mastermind behind his fantasy of a crime fueled by lust.

Had Knox not been sexually active, behavior would likely have been interpreted differently. What came to be seen as the sinister manipulations of a dangerous seductress might have been seen instead for what they were: The understandable reactions of a scared young woman. Knox was not afforded a presumption of such innocence. For the prosecution, her sexuality was proof that she did not have it.

It’s worth considering for a moment the stark contrast between Knox’s case and the Brock Turner case. Whereas Knox’s sexual conduct was not criminal, it was used to indict her character as inherently deviant. Turner, whose sexual conduct was actually criminal, was given a lenient sentence by a judge who apparently saw Turner as basically a good kid who had made a mistake. The cases differ in many particulars, of course, but the disparity in how the sexuality of the defendants was viewed is startling.

Knox herself appears in the documentary. She speaks intelligently and at length about how she has was perceived during the trial and in its aftermath. In one of the more poignant moments of the documentary, Knox suggests what made her so polarizing as a figure:

“If I’m guilty, it means that I am the ultimate figure to fear because I’m not the obvious one. But on the other hand, if I’m innocent, it means everyone’s vulnerable… Either I’m a psychopath in sheep’s clothing, or I am you.”

The documentary leaves no doubt as to Knox’s innocence. Amanda Knox is not about its title character’s guilt or innocence. It is about the conflict Knox herself identifies: The fact that her innocence means that what happened to her could happen to anyone. And perhaps not just anyone, but specifically any female with a sexual past. This point is implicit in the understated documentary; Netflix leaves it up the viewer to connect the dots.

After their initial convictions were overturned on appeal, Knox and Sollecito were reconvicted largely on the basis of circumstantial evidence. As the validity of physical evidence became suspect, the prosecution’s case relied increasingly on its ability to create an air of deviancy around Knox’s character. The documentary gives the impression that at some point the case against Knox was no longer concerned with determining whether she had anything to do with Kercher’s murder.

The prosecution seemed to be making a case that even she had not, perhaps she deserved to be punished anyway.

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This column is informed by the belief that an honest and brave conversation about what it means to be a woman is vital to understanding what it means to be a human. Its scope is temporal but its ambition is to discern the essential. Above all, it seeks to connect Milk readers to each other and the world around them.

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