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The Globe and Mail

She-devil or innocent abroad? The case that has captivated Italy

Defendant Amanda Knox, a 22-year-old American accused of killing her housemate, is accompanied by a penitentiary officer prior to a hearing at the court in Perugia, Italy.

LUCA BRUNO/The Globe and Mail

She is the "she-devil" in some British newspaper headlines. In the United States, the headlines are gentler; a New York Times column called her "An Innocent Abroad." The Italians, mesmerized by the allegations of sex, drugs and murderous violence, consider her a bigger personality than Carla Bruni, a poll showed.

The media treatment is not surprising. The alleged killer, Amanda Knox, 22, is an American from Seattle. The victim, Meredith Kercher, was British. The killing took place in Perugia, a medieval hill town in central Italy. Ms. Knox is famous, or infamous, in three countries and part of the daily tabloid feast in many others.

As early as tomorrow, the young woman will hit the headlines like never before, when after an 11-month trial, an Italian jury decides whether she is innocent or guilty in the gruesome death of Ms. Kercher. The prosecutors have asked for life imprisonment. Italy has no death penalty.

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"What makes this case different is the allegations of a woman-on-woman sex crime, which is rare," said Barbie Latza Nadeau, the Rome-based journalist covering the case for Newsweek and "The case also makes good TV - pretty, young people charged with doing horrible things."

While Ms. Knox is not the only defendant - her former boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, 25, from Bari in southern Italy, is also charged - the U.S., British and Italian media have focused on the American. She is attractive and, judging from her life before she landed in Italy in 2007, not the sort of girl to land in trouble.

Ms. Knox was a Jesuit-educated student when she arrived in Perugia for a term abroad from the University of Washington. Her parents had little money, so she worked hard to save for her Italian trip. She was a fine athlete. She liked reading and theatre. She shared a small villa in Perugia with several other students and worked part time at a pub. One of her villa mates was Ms. Kercher, who was 21 and went to Perugia as part of a European studies degree at Leeds University.

The fun and adventure ended when Ms. Kercher's body was discovered on Nov. 2, 2007, in her villa bedroom. She was all but naked - her top had been pulled up to her shoulders. Her throat had been punctured with a knife (or knives) and she had bled to death, though she may have choked on her own blood. There was no sign of struggle.

At first, Ms. Knox was not a suspect. She voluntarily went to the Perugia police station and was being interviewed as a potential witness. In the course of the questioning, she said she was at the scene of the crime and blamed the Congolese owner of the pub, Patrick Lumumba, for the slaying. She even described Ms. Kercher's screams.

She later retracted what she said, claiming she was "very confused," insisting instead that she had spent the night with Mr. Sollecito cooking dinner, smoking pot, watching a movie and having sex. The verbal confession was thrown out because no lawyer was present during the interrogation. As for Mr. Lumumba, it turns out he had an airtight alibi and was declared innocent. He has since filed a civil suit against Ms. Knox for defamation of character.

In the summer of 2008, after a lengthy probe by lead investigator Guiliano Mignini, Ms. Knox, Mr. Sollecito and a drifter from the Ivory Coast, Rudy Guede, were formally charged with Ms. Kercher's murder. The prosecution alleged she was killed after refusing to take part in a drug-fuelled sex game that escalated into violence. Mr. Guede, 22, whose sperm was found in her body, opted for a fast-track trial and was convicted a year ago for his role in the murder.

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Investigators found Mr. Guede's fingerprints and DNA on Ms. Kercher's body; Mr. Sollecto's DNA on the clasp of the bloodied bra that was cut away from her body that night; and Ms. Knox's DNA on the handle of a knife and what looks to be Ms. Kercher's DNA on the blade. Ms. Knox's lawyers contest this piece of evidence. They say the victim's knife DNA was so small it could not be double-tested to forensic standards and might be the result of cross-contamination.

The charges triggered a media circus and there is little doubt that Ms. Knox's behaviour did her no favours.

Shortly after Ms. Kercher's body was discovered, but before she was arrested, a security camera showed her and Mr. Sollecito buying lingerie in a Perugia store, with Ms. Knox telling him: "Afterwards I'm going to take you home so we can have wild sex together."

She did not apologize to Mr. Lumumba for falsely accusing him. She performed cartwheels at the police station while waiting to talk to investigators about the death.

When it comes, the verdict will leave as many questions as answers even if it goes against the defendants. Several authors are said to be writing books on the case but, absent a full confession, there may not be much new to say.

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