In Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger, the narrator, Meursault, is being tried for the murder of a man he encounters at the beach. At his trial, the prosecutor makes much of Meursault’s demeanor, and the prosecutor focuses on irrelevant information like Meursault’s failure to properly show grief at his own mother’s recent funeral. I read this book back in college and did not understand what Camus was driving at. However, as a practicing criminal defense attorney, I think of this often whenever the authorities or the news media comment that the accused does not show proper remorse. I always thought it was basically understood that people grieve in individual and often unpredictable ways. When I worked as a coroner, I sometimes had the unpleasant task of having to inform people that their family members were dead. You just never knew what reaction you would get.
A prime example of unfair media coverage on grieving might be the American college student Amanda Knox on trial for murder in Italy.
The British tabloid Telegraph.co.uk alleged that after Amanda Knox found out her roommate had been murdered, she went out on a shopping spree for lingerie. See link. In fact, she had to buy new underwear because the police cordoned off her apartment, and she was not able to get in to retrieve even her personal effects. Nevertheless, the Telegraph quoted an Italian shopkeep as offering the opinion that she did not show remorse in the right way. During her trial, an Italian reporter wrote: “Amanda Knox faces life in prison if convicted of killing Meredith Kercher, a British exchange student who was her roommate in picturesque Perugia in central Italy. However, her breezy behavior in hearings over the last three months has set tongues wagging in Italy and abroad.” Well, the story was picked up by the AP and reprinted in the U.S. – see site and photo. As you can see from visiting the story Knox is indeed smiling in some of the pictures. Do people really believe that a defendant will not smile at all during a trial that lasts ten months? In the photo it is clear that court is not even in session. I do not view the photographs as inconsistent with what we know about Amanda Knox. First let’s look at the photographs everyone is talking about:
Now that we have seen the photographs, let’s talk about what we know about Amanda Knox. Amanda is young and probably like a lot of young people she is capable of being overly optimistic. Amanda Knox very likely believes that being innocent alone will suffice, and that she should just be herself. I have found that in my practice, the demographic of young/white/suburban/middle-class sometimes brings a naivete to the process. Poorer people, and sometimes ethnic minorities, will more often recall a negative experience that they or a family member have had with the justice system, i.e. they are aware of the system’s flaws. It could be that in Amanda Knox’s mind, no amount of prosecutorial misconduct, no amount of sensational news coverage, and no amount of tainted DNA evidence will lead to a break down in the truth finding process.
A second thing to remember is that in most of the pictures Amanda is smiling at the guards. Although most guards tone it down in court, guards are usually quite talkative with inmates. This surprises a lot of people, and surprised me when I was a young prosecutor. This is partly human nature when you spend over a year in close contact with a person. But additionally, a guard that gets to know the inmate is practicing good safety. A guard’s job is dangerous – developing a good read on an inmate and learning his or her baseline or normal behavior, and constantly watching for signs of shifts in mood or mental instability is simply something that is taught in corrections academy. Look again at the photographs above. I see in those six pictures what I often see in my practice as a criminal defense attorney. That is, guards skillfully watching and interacting with a woman in their charge. And oh yeah, you might notice the guards stifling their smiles a bit more when the cameras come out. They do that in the U.S. too.
I believe that there are significant cultural differences between the way Americans and Italians view their governments. Amanda Knox testified at her trial: “I am innocent and I have faith in the Italian legal system.” To many Italians, this statement (combined with a nonchalant smile in court) is iron clad proof that Amanda Knox is crazy. Italians, as a whole, are just not enough naive to say what Amanda said. But Americans often are – and sometimes we are that way about our own court system too. In this country, a view of government that is too skeptical is somehow unpatriotic.
Amanda Knox and her family both seem to have a lot faith in the jury. The best case scenario for Amanda Knox acquits her of all charges and returns her to the U.S. this month. However, will the same daughter come home that the Knox family sent off over a year ago? Amanda Knox’s demeanor is probably a comforting sign to her parents Curt Knox and Edda Mellas.
As a former prosecutor I was deeply troubled by Giuliano Mignini’s failure to produce any motive in this case. Consider the closing argument of the Italian prosecutor. He surmises that Knox wanted to get back at Kercher (the victim) for saying she was not clean and for calling her promiscuous. He argued: “Amanda had the chance to retaliate against a girl who was serious and quiet… She had harbored hatred for Meredith, and that was the time when it could explode. The time had come to take revenge on that smug girl.” See story. I really have a hard time with that. What college kid gets along with their roommate perfectly anyway? Does he really expect a jury to believe that Amanda Knox (who has no criminal history) stabbed to death her roommate because she was “smug”? While there are times in our life that we might feel tempted to slap a smug person, Amanda Knox’s record shows no propensity for violence. Stabbing someone to death is not an “entry level job”; the people who perpetrate such crimes have worked their way up to such deeds by committing school yard fights, animal cruelty, brandishing weapons, unlawful threats, etc. Giuliano Mignini described what he called “an unstoppable crescendo of frenzied violence,” “…which began with Knox and Sollecito trying to take off Kercher’s clothes and threatening her.” See story. Female on female murder is extremely rare and makes up only 2% of the homicides in this country. See source. Giuliano Mignini’s explanation as to motive is pure conjecture, and just does not have the ring of truth.
What do you think about this case? Do we have prosecutors of this caliber in the U.S.? Think of the college kids that you may know, would you expect them to act much the same way?