A sensational murder trial is under way in Italy. Defendants Amanda Knox, an American student from Seattle, and her Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, are accused of sexually assaulting and stabbing to death Knox's British roommate, Meredith Kercher.
The two defendants met only two weeks before the night of the murder.
The case has shed light on some unsavory aspects of student life in Perugia, a university town that attracts students from all over the world. It is a stunning hilltop town — with medieval towers and Renaissance palaces cropping out of Etruscan foundations. Perugia looms over olive grove valleys, with Assisi — the city of St. Francis — glittering in the distance.
Sixteen months ago, the apparent serenity of this ancient town was shattered by a brutal 21st century murder with an international cast of characters.
A media frenzy erupts at the beginning of every hearing — cameras and recorders are allowed in the courtroom only as the defendants enter. At the latest hearing, Knox, 21, was wearing jeans and a purple pullover.
The young American woman who came for a year of study abroad has bewitched the Italian media — she has been dubbed "angel face" with "icy blue eyes."
Her father, Curt Knox, can barely hold back tears when he is asked about her.
"I'll tell you, it's first of all very hurtful, the things said about her," he says. "How she is portrayed is completely opposite of who she is, if you ask anybody that's gotten to know her — she's a good kid."
Knox's co-defendant is onetime boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, 24 — a Harry Potter lookalike. His affluent family has surrounded him with high-powered lawyers.
The third person involved is not in court. Rudy Hermann Guede, 21, who was born in the Ivory Coast and reared in Italy, has already been convicted of the same charges and sentenced to 30 years in prison in a fast-track trial.
The prosecution contends that on Nov. 1, 2007, Knox, Sollecito and Guede were high on drugs and slashed the throat of British exchange student Meredith Kercher in a sex game gone awry. They then allegedly covered up the murder to make it look like a robbery had taken place.
Knox has repeatedly changed her story — at one point saying she was in the house she shared with Kercher at the time of the murder. She also tried to implicate another African man — Patrick Lumumba from Congo, a longtime Perugia resident. He is now suing her for slander.
Curt Knox says he believes the police were heavy-handed with his daughter.
"As it relates to Patrick, frankly, I think she was pressured into making certain statements," he says.
The defense wants to show that the crime scene was violated and evidence inadvertently contaminated. It's an effort to dismiss forensic tests showing boyfriend Sollecito's DNA on the victim's bra strap. The prosecution claims the murder weapon is an 8-inch knife found at Sollecito's house with DNA traces of both the murder victim and Amanda Knox.
Many Italian, British and American reporters have followed the case from Day 1.
Fiorenza Sarzanini of Corriere della Sera has even written a book, Amanda And The Others.
"I don't know if they are guilty or innocent, but it's their lies that landed them in jail," Sarzanini says. "There are so many puzzles in this story. The defendants have told so many different versions of where they were and what they were doing the night of the murder. ... It's time for them to say exactly what they did. It's completely up to them — especially Amanda — to convince the jury of their innocence."
But despite all the media frenzy, virtually no one from the public follows the trial.
At nighttime in Perugia, raucous, laughing groups of students — Italians and foreigners — sit on the cathedral steps, drinking beer or smoking something stronger. Pushers openly sell their wares at every corner. Even police acknowledge that Perugia is the drug capital of Italy.
Nevertheless, the only trial some local people want to hold is against the media for revealing the seamy side of a university town where alcohol flows and dope circulates freely.