Amanda Knox's crime was to be young, pretty, and female

Knox had the bad luck to be a photogenic young woman who had once bought condoms – so it was easy to portray her as a sex-crazed killer.

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Did she do it? It’s the question Amanda Knox knows will hang over her for the rest of her life. Since her flatmate Meredith Kercher was found dead in Perugia, Italy, in 2007, Knox has been found guilty, not guilty, guilty and finally not guilty of the murder. Her boyfriend at the time, the Italian Raffaele Sollecito, went through a similar purgatory. Meanwhile, another man, Rudy Guede – whose DNA was found all over the room – was convicted in a separate trial. He is in prison.

Netflix’s documentary on the case, which interviews Knox and Sollecito at length, makes a compelling case that the pair were the victims of two forces. The first is religious conservatism: the chief prosecutor, Giuliano Mignini, maintains that as the 20-year-old Knox had several sexual partners, it is no stretch to imagine her masterminding the orgiastic killing of Kercher, together with two men she had recently met.

It also becomes clear that the local police force is overwhelmed by the media attention and determined not to be embarrassed in front of the world. I kept being reminded of other cases: the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in Portugal and the death of Lucie Blackman in Tokyo. In those, too, wounded national pride infected the search for the perpetrator.

In Perugia, besieged by reporters, the police decide that suspects have to be found, and quickly. Knox and Sollecito are browbeaten into coming out with mildly inconsistent stories, and then the police make the embarrassing discovery that Kercher’s room is covered in Guede’s DNA. No one has the courage to admit that they might have been mistaken, so they insist instead that the evidence now points to three killers.

There is a case here both for and against forensic science: to this day, Mignini insists that Knox’s reactions were not normal (she was seen kissing Sollecito by the house, though the footage reveals it was reassuring pecks rather than tongue-deep snogging). He also asserts that only a woman would have covered the body with a blanket.

This is exactly the kind of cod-psychology that science was supposed to supplant, but the scientific method is only as good as the people wielding it. DNA evidence is often treated as a divine arbiter of guilt in modern trials, but here it appears to have been contaminated in the lab. The tiny amount of Kercher’s DNA found on the tip of a knife in Sollecito’s kitchen should never have been enough to convict him. (Never mind the implausibility of a killer taking away the murder weapon from the crime scene – and then, instead of disposing of it, returning it to his cutlery drawer.)

In both of the trials that delivered guilty verdicts, the prosecution relied heavily on insinuations about Knox’s behaviour. And that’s what elevates this beyond a run-of-the-mill story of police error. The authorities were helped in their case by the narrative that wound itself around “Foxy Knoxy”, a young woman who had the bad luck to be photogenic, white and American – someone whom readers could identify with, even as they were supposed to be horrified by her promiscuity.

If you ever want a case study in the simultaneous fear and prurient titillation inspired by female sexuality, look at the treatment of Amanda Knox. She had a vibrator! She bought condoms for her trip to Italy! She had three one-night stands in a month! She . . . oh wait, that’s pretty much it. That was enough to make a portrait of her as a sex-crazed killer stick. Imagine if she’d had a pair of fluffy handcuffs in her bag from some long-ago hen night.

Then comes the business of Knox having the “wrong” reactions. She was not grief-stricken enough: send her down. But people in mourning and shock don’t always respond how we expect them to, or seem to demand they do, crying 24 hours a day and unable to function. Again, I was reminded of the Lucie Blackman case, where – as Richard Lloyd Parry records in his excellent book People Who Eat Darkness – the victim’s father, Tim, repels the travelling press pack with his “determination, at times resembling a kind of excitement”. They wonder if something is amiss in the family, although her murderer is eventually shown to be a playboy businessman called Joji Obara.

Remember, too, that the McCanns were attacked for not seeming upset enough in the days after their daughter went missing – and indeed the way Madeleine’s disappearance turned into a moralising referendum on their parenting skills. Even now, obsessive “truthers” stalk the internet to reproach the McCanns for leaving Madeleine alone in their apartment that night, as if her disappearance wasn’t punishment enough.

Above all, these cases should make UK and US media rethink how they cover the murder or abduction of fellow citizens abroad. Far from their news desks, stringers working on the McCann story began to file any old nonsense briefed to them by Portuguese police. The same happened in Perugia.

The breakout character from the Netflix documentary is not Knox, who seems traumatised but composed, but the journalist Nick Pisa. Getting a front page was a thrill, “like having sex”, he tells us. A story with a half-naked girl with her throat cut? “What more could you want?” he wonders aloud. Pisa ends by excusing the press, and himself, from culpability, explaining that a journalist’s job is “reporting what we are being told”. “It’s not as if I can say, ‘Right, hold on a minute. I just wanna double-check that myself in some other way.’” It’s a performance of stunning unselfawareness.

Knox is a woman who has been endlessly judged – not just by the courts, but by a media and public who regard female sexuality as shameful. That should concern us all. Because, as she says at the start of the Netflix documentary, “Either I’m a psychopath in sheep’s clothing – or I am you.”

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Now listen to a discussion of the Netflix Amanda Knox documentary on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

Helen Lewis is associate editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and is writing a history of feminism for Jonathan Cape

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, England’s revenge