Posts Tagged ‘conspiracy theories’

News from around the Third World

July 28, 2011

We start our report in the Third World’s richest nation, Italy.

I haven’t blogged about the Sollecito-Knox Satanic ritual murder case in my local provincial capital Salem*  for some time because the case has been unravelling as predicted. The star witness turned out to be a junkie-dealer who already testified for the police in two other murder trials (so much for drug addicts spending all day in bed). And the forensic procedures and DNA ‘evidence’ have been shredded by a long report from Rome’s Sapienza University.

We are now in the end game. The prosecutor Giuliano Mignini is firing off criminal defamation suits against people who point out he is unfit for office even in Italy at a rate unprecedented even for him. After the Rome academics introduced their report in court in Perugia this week, Mignini and his pals despatched two squad cars of police to Sapienza University in the capital in what appears to be a bizarre act of attempted intimidation. (The university sent them packing.) There is no real doubt that Sollecito and Knox are going to go free. The main point of interest for Italy-watchers is to ascertain that ABSOLUTELY NOBODY is held responsible for burning witches**. That includes the prosecutors; the half-witted magistrates; the gormless, overcharging lawyers; the thoroughly incompetent and corrupt police; the lazy and self-serving journalists who leaked the official side of the investigation at every turn in contravention of the law, and every other medievally-minded member of this shameful lynch-mob***.

When nobody is held responsible, it is important that you do not think of Sollecito and Knox. A couple of years inside will for them have been an interesting life experience. Think  instead of the family of Meredith Kercher, the murdered girl. They are the real victims of this pantomime performed by adults with uniforms and titles.

*Known in dialect as Perugia
** Should read: ‘sending innocent kids to prison for life’.

*** Should read: ‘professional mafia’.

A link to another part of the Third World that I cover is provided by poor old Google. The same US internet firm which last year decided to stand up to China by refusing orders to censor its service recently got a demand via Mr Mignini to shut down an Italian blog he does not like. The China decision has cost Google much of its market share in the Middle Kingdom as the Chinese government does almost everything it can to slow down and disrupt Google’s service (pushing many users to move to the Chinese Google rip-off provider, Baidu). In Italy, Google has already been intimidated under the country’s media laws in a case that saw some of its executives sentenced to prison (they won’t actually go, because that only happens to kids and poor people). So what did Google do when Mignini came knocking? The firm immediately pulled the site Mignini does not like (without contacting the blogger), even though there is no prima facie evidence it contains anything libelous under Italian law. The firm that took on the Dragon is caving in Italy. However, the blog in question has been moved to WordPress (which I use!), and which so far seems to have the necessary cojones for our Italian adventure.

The global battle against men who live with their mums, men with comb-over hair-cuts and men and women who call themselves ‘doctor’ but don’t actually have a doctorate, goes on.

We close today on the subject of the recent, horrific high-speed rail crash in China’s Zhejiang province and the official efforts to (literally) bury the truth of what happened (with corpses still inside). Rather than more news reports that you have probably already seen, here is a translation of Han Han, China’s most famous blogger. I wonder, is there anything in these lines that rings a bell for Italians with regard to the conduct of their own ‘professional’ classes:

“The Derailed Country”

You ask, why are they acting like a bunch of lunatics?

They think they’re the picture of restraint.

You ask, why can’t they tell black from white, fact from fiction?

They think they’re straight shooters, telling it like it is.

You ask, why are they running interference for murders?

They think they’ve thrown their friends under the bus. And they’re ashamed.

You ask, why all the cover-ups?

They think they’re letting it all hang out.

You ask, why are they so irretrievably corrupt?

They think they’re hardworking and plain-living.

You ask, why are they so infuriatingly arrogant?

They think they’re the picture of humility.

You feel like you’re the victim. So do they.

They think: “During the Qing Dynasty, no one had television. Now everyone has a television. Progress!”

They think: “We’re building you all this stuff, what do you care what happens in the process? Why should you care who it’s really for, so long as you get to use it? The train from Shanghai to Beijing used to take a whole day. Now you’re there in five hours (as long as there’s no lightning). Why aren’t you grateful? What’s with all the questions?

“Every now and then, there’s an accident. The top leaders all show how worried they are. We make someone available to answer journalists’ questions. First we say we’ll give the victims 170,000 kuai apiece. Then we say we’ll give them 500,000. We fire a buddy of ours. We’ve done all that, and you still want to nitpick? How could you all be so close-minded? You’re not thinking of the big picture! Why do you want us to apologize when we haven’t done anything wrong? It’s the price of development.

“Taking care of the bodies quickly is just the way we do things. The earlier we start signing things, the more we’ll have to pay out in the end. The later we sign, the smaller the damages. Our pals in the other departments—the ones who knock down all the houses—taught us that one. Burying the train car was a bonehead move, true, but the folks upstairs told us to do it. That’s how they think: if there’s something that could give you trouble, just bury it. Anyway, the real mistake was trying to dig such a huge hole in broad daylight. And not talking it over with the Propaganda Department beforehand. And not getting a handle on all the photographers at the site. We were busy, ok? If there’s anything we’ve learned from all this, it’s that when you need to bury something, make sure you think about how big it is, and make sure you keep the whole thing quiet. We underestimated all that.”

They think that, on the whole, it was a textbook rescue operation—well planned, promptly executed, and well managed. It’s a shame public opinion’s gotten a little out of hand, but they think, “That part’s not our responsibility. We don’t do public opinion.”

They’re thinking: “Look at the big picture: We had the Olympics, we canceled the agricultural tax, and you guys still won’t cut us a break. You’re always glomming on to these piddling little details. No can-do spirit. We could be more authoritarian than North Korea. We could make this place poorer than the Sudan. We could be more evil than the Khmer Rouge. Our army’s bigger than any of theirs, but we don’t do any of that. And not only are you not thankful, but you want us to apologize! As if we’ve done something wrong?”

Society has people of means, and those without. There’s people with power, and those that have none. And they all think they’re the victim. In a country where everyone’s the victim, where the classes have started to decouple from one another, where it’s every man for himself, in this huge country whose constituent parts slide forward on inertia alone—in this country, if there’s no further reform, even tiny decouplings make the derailings hard to put right.

The country’s not moving forward because a lot of them judge themselves as if Stalin and Mao were still alive. So they’ll always feel like the victim. They’ll always feel like they’re the enlightened ones, the impartial ones, the merciful ones, the humble ones, the put-upon ones. They think the technological drumbeat of historical progress is a dream of their own making.
The more you criticize him, the more he longs for autocracy. The more you gaomao him (piss him off), the more he misses Mao.

A friend in the state apparatus told me, “You’re all too greedy. Forty years ago, writers like you would’ve been shot. So you tell me, have things gotten better, or have they gotten worse?”

I said, “No, you’re all too greedy. Ninety years ago, that kind of thinking would have gotten you laughed out of the room. So you tell me: after all that, have things gotten better, or have they gotten worse?”

Worthwhile links:

No longer on Google’s Blogger, but now at WordPress (great courtroom detail):

Long reports can also be funny when they deal with Italian police conduct:

The highlights of this report (at least those that have thus far been translated into English) are here:

  • 5 big dos and 5 big don’’ts of crime scene investigation (Ooops. In Perugia the police and their ‘scientists’ did none of dos and all of the don’ts. Guess they had a bit of an off-day…)

  • Overall conclusions that police and their ‘scientists’ ignored standard international protocols, failed to perform some tests, misinterpreted results in others, claimed to have ‘scientific’ results where they did not:

Note the discovery at Sapienza of starch (err…food) on the knife between the blade and the handle. Prosecution claimed the knife had been thoroughly cleaned by the killers, but their great forensics still uncovered (internationally-unacceptably small trace of) Kercher blood on the blade. Presence of starch residue now shows satanic ritutal murder gang cunningly cleaned off blood but not food from the knife… just like they cleaned all their fingerprints, bloodprints, DNA, etc from the room where Kercher died while leaving Rudy Guede’s evidence all over the place. I say: Burn ‘em already…

Finally, here is that YouTube video of the chief investigator on the Sollecito-Knox case again, talking about his ‘exquisitely psychological’ investigation. There have been another 2,000 hits since I first posted it. It deserves 2 million. You will not find anything funnier on a comedy programme, so settle for Italian reality and send it to your friends.

Fragrant harbour

February 1, 2011

I make it five times that Stanley Ho has changed his mind over his inheritance… in the last week. It was ‘You can have it’, ‘No you can’t’, ‘Yes you can’, ‘No you can’t’, and yesterday, 31 January 2011, ‘Oh go on, take it and just leave me alone with my dogs.’ Today, glancing at the headlines, it seems he may have changed his mind again but, frankly, I can’t be bothered.

Instead, here is a bit of commentary on the three videos that have been released on YouTube by Stan’s lawyer (I have used the link posted by David Webb). Let’s meet Stanley at home:

Video 1. Stan opens with: ‘We must get back Lanceford [the holding company he held all his big stuff through]’, speaking like and doing a great facial imitation of the bad guy at the start of an episode of Flash Gordon. Then the lawyer, more on him anon, asks Stan about some further comment for the press to which Stan replies he’s game as ‘I want to make it [the story] very big.’ Stan is already laying into Pansy, the daughter who is seen as both the most capable in business and about whom the most malicious and serious gossip circulates (perhaps these two things go naturally together). Then comes the now-famous: ‘It is something like robbery’ quote. Stanley says he wants to go ahead with legal action. Note the furnishing of Stan’s time-warp mansion on the south-side of HK island. To the left you can just catch a glimpse of a hideous mock-baroque table. The staff, family and nurses sneaking by the camera are also good value. In the foreground is the mandatory Chinese tea flask (must admit I have been caught on film with one of those myself) and a glass of hot water. ‘I want a fair division among my family,’ says Stan, before appearing to be pained by some inconvenient fact inside his head (like he never organised a fair division?).   At around three-and-a-half minutes you get a look at the always-on television, the electronic tombstone of the fading godfather. Stan’s ex partner Henry Fok was a big soccer fan, so at least with him you would get to take in the football. Another of Hong Kong’s octogenarian big boys is a closet Arsenal fan, and even has comfy sofas. Many are the mysteries of Confucianism… At the end Stan thanks the lawyer for having ‘blown up’ the whole affair in the space of a few days. The lawyer jokes about a huge fee to come. Or let’s say he laughs while talking about the huge fee to come; it may just be coincidence.

Video 2. Here Stan is trying to explain why he just withdrew legal proceedings and announced he had fired the lawyer. ‘The problem is Pansy,’ he starts. At this point I begin to become more interested in the lawyer than in Stanley. For one thing, you might argue that the lawyer is leading his client at the point at which he responds to Stanley: ‘To which I say: “So what?”’ The lawyer, Gordon Oldham, has a faded (south) Irish accent, though his profoundly undetailed official biography says only that he arrived ‘from the UK’ in Hong Kong 30 years ago. After Stan says Pansy is the problem, a woman, who for me has a stronger Irish accent, says off-camera: ‘But he [Stanley] is not afraid of her.’ What is going on here? My wildly speculative first thought is that there has long been a wee Irish mafia connected with the dogs and the horse-racing in Macau, but this is indeed wildly speculative. I must check further. The only thing I learn quickly from someone who knows Oldham quite well is that he is ‘a clever fellow’. Meanwhile in the video it is subsequently, I think, the Irish-accented woman off camera who butts in again to say to Stan: ‘Gordon will still represent you, ok?’ I think this is right, but then an ethnic Chinese woman I do not know moves across camera right to left saying ‘They made him, they made him [Stanley sign documents against his will]’. Stanley says he was forced during his television appearance to read ‘the plaque’ [cue card] organised by Pansy and Daisy. The video ends with the lawyer saying: ‘Are you telling me that I can now go ahead with filing and getting back your interests in Lanceford?’ To which Stan responds: ‘I suppose so…That’s what I want.’ The lawyer gesticulates everything to Stan as if he is an idiot. But Stan isn’t an idiot, even at the age of 89. After all, he is the one looking at the silly gweilo. Upshot of video 2. I think the lawyer has definitely got some questions to answer. I find it creepy the way he refers to Stan as Dr. Ho, using the title he never earned. Stan’s slaves, like Henry Fok’s (‘Dr. Ho’s office’, ‘Dr. Fok’s office’!) have long done this, but a self-respecting lawyer does not need to. I would also like to see the written consent from Stan to post this stuff to YouTube; it should have been put up with the postings.

Video 3. Roll on to January 30. Stan says Pansy says he can have his shares back, but it is ‘only words’. Third ‘wife’ Ina, who’s got a bunch of stock, doesn’t want to meet. (Ina was the ailing first wife’s nurse when Stanley got the hots for her. If you have ever seen the UK sit-com Are You Being Served you’ll have a picture in your head at this point.) Note that Stan here is saying he wants to get all the share scrip back and ‘then decide what to do’; do you remember the fair division promised in video 1, Stanley? Not much of interest here. It ends with Stan pointing out what a stand-up guy he has been.

Video 4. (Not yet released). Stan sits in his favourite cardigan looking into a full-length mirror intoning the mantra: ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who has shagged the most among us all?’ From a pair of old speakers the voice of Michael Jackson responds: ‘You have Stanley, you have’, followed by a trademark yelp. At length Stanely picks up a hand-held mirror and quizzes it: ‘Mirror mirror in my hand, who’s the foxiest in the land?’. From another pair of speakers, the double-deep voice of Errol Brown (per his legendary BabyCham add)  replies: ‘You da one, you da one Stan…’ This continues indefinitely.

A note on the lawyer, February 2:

The verdict from various people who know Gordon Oldham, personally and professionally, is that he is by no means the most amoral lawyer in Hong Kong (a warm breeze wafts across the Big Lychee as Ron Arculli, Stephen Cheong, Charles Lee and pals breathe a collective sigh of relief). Perhaps the mid-point of the opinions is one that calls him ‘aggressive and innovative and he doesn’t give a fuck about anything’. The others range from ‘decent guy’ to ‘slipperier than a donkey’s dick’ (the last, I would stress, is from a journalist who has only seen Oldham’s press performances). Anyhow, there does seem to be some consensus that posting Stan to YouTube without publishing his written consent and a full explanation of what is being done begs various question; as — and several people have said this pointedly — does the posting of edited interviews. You will notice there are plenty of cuts in the tapes. Can we have the full tapes please?

Mr Oldham has not responded to an email to the contact address given on his firm’s site yesterday. I will send another one.

Other points of interest: it seems that Oldham has not acted for Stan on other cases (at least ones I know about). Of course Stan, being a godfather, has almost as many lawyers as girlfriends, and so this is hardly surprising. But it does maintain one’s interest in knowing how Oldham got on the roster for this job. Finally, one who knows Oldham claims the accent is northern Irish, tho it sounded poshed up southern to me.

As to Stan’s choice of lawyer, I think it is good. There is an illustrious history of godfathers using gweilos to front for them when they need to do something very public. Remember all KS Li’s public relations problems at Hutchison in the 80s when he paid himelf a huge special dividend he had said he would not take? That was when he hired Simon Murray. Isn’t it great that everyone trusts white people? I think it’s fan-bloody-tastic.

150 years of not quite growing up

January 20, 2011

This year, 2011, is the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy. Expect a lot of excuses. The most obvious and already well-used is: ‘We are a young country.’ Up north, where the Germans are presently pondering whether to bail Italy and more junior members of the Olive Belt back into the Euro, voters might be forgiven for wondering: ‘But wasn’t our unification 10 years after Italy’s?’ Truth be told, Italy today is one of the hardest countries in the world to defend: rich, established, and perennially juvenile. It is like your school friend who never grew up. When we were 15, the guy seemed like an interesting maverick. Today he’s just a bit of a tit, and one who still lives with his mother.

It may also be that 2011, this great anniversary, heaps an unprecedented level of bad publicity on Italy. There is likely to be a general election — which Berlusconi will win. What can you say? ‘Aging, plastic-surgery deformed teen-worrier romps home as housewives make lunch with increaingly limited resources.’? Meanwhile, it is ever more likely that the murder case in Perugia, about which I have blogged repeatedly (look under the Italy to Avoid tab), will fall apart in a manner that exposes Italy’s nastiest demons. No one comes up smiling from this one. The police, the magistrates, the press: all, I suspect, are set to be exposed for a congenital lack of professionalism. I am as happy as the next man if mamma makes good pasta, but if your pasta enjoyment bites into your professional life such that you are willing to see two innocent kids go down for 25 years, then the retrogusto is just not good.

The first appeal of Knox and Sollecito has started on a different footing to the original trial. After the cringe-making final statement to the court made by Knox first time around, in which she thanked ‘the system’ for its hard work (I gave my verdict here), she was sent out by a new legal team to deliver a dose of reality just before Christmas. The Guardian reported that the [what pass in this system for] jurors were ‘riveted’ when reminded by Knox in a 14-minute set-piece speech that their country is not among the G8’s leaders in institutional standards and efficiency. The new tone, for me, is the right one: show a hopeful respect to the court, but at the same time remind it that the world is watching. This is an uncomfortable position to be in for anyone who believes in the rule of law, but in an institutionally deficient country I have yet to see a better approach. Certainly it is an approach that everyone I know in China who deals with the monstrous Chinese justice system agrees on. In Perugia, Knox and Sollecito have been granted a review of DNA evidence by the appeal judge.

Apart from being white, reasonably attractive and middle-class, Knox and Sollecito are also beginning to enjoy other kinds of luck. Early reports in the past couple of weeks said that a key witness who placed them, rather weakly, at the scene of the crime on the day of the murder, had been arrested for drug dealing. I figured a bit of marijuana and wondered how this could really undermine the (albeit marginal) testimony. Now a report in the UK tabloid Daily Mirror claims heroin dealing and that Curatolo has ‘testified’ in two other murder cases. One awaits more concrete information than you find in a Red Top, but the discrediting of this witiness, given the weakness of the other evidence, would have the potential to carry the case quickly into the arena of farce. At least for those who don’t think it is there already.

The great revelation for me in recent weeks has been the oped in The Independent written by a British doctor who now lives in Umbria and who was formerly caught up in a great miscarriage of justice in England. David C. Anderson likens that 35-year-old story to what is going on in Italy today. I remember the case myself, not least because it occurred close to where I was born. Anderson recalls how police sent down Stefan Ivan Kiszko for the murder of an 11-year-old child. A future Conservative Home Secretary of the 1980s (and capital punishment supporter), David Waddington was the defending barrister. A future Lord Chief Justice was the prosecuting barrister. The police and the justice system, seeking a swift reckoning for a brutal killing, decided Kiszko was the guilty party and fabricated evidence to make sure he was condemned. They were grotesquely unprofessional. Kiszko spent 16 years in prison and then died 6 months after the miscarriage of justice was acknowledged. He was one of the reasons behind the 1985 Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) which meant the police finally had to do things like tape record interviews.

That was the 1970s and Kiszko was a fat unmarried man in possession of a few pornographic magazines who had been falsely accused by teenage girls of exposing himself. In cases which I dealt with as a young journalist in 1990, the falsely convicted ‘IRA bombers’ known as the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six had been working class Irish men with Nationalist sympathies when they were jailed in the 1970s. But here, in Italy, today, in 2011, 26 years after the PACE was passed into law in the UK, they are still locking up middle-class white kids for murder on the basis that they were acting a bit weird and so might be part of a ritual Satanistic plot. It’s like a cross between The Crucible and Mediaset. No, it is a cross between The Crucible and Mediaset.

Anderson’s oped in The Independent also contains a hypothetical suggestion that seems to me explosive. Since the beginning of this case I have had no doubt about the professional incompetence of the police, the forensics team and the magistrates (though I would stress that I do not regard this as universal, merely common, in Italy). But I have always been troubled as to why Knox named the black bar owner Patrick Lumumba in her illegally extracted testimony during an all-night interrogation by 12 police officers without a lawyer. I can see the police brutality, the girl’s fear, and so on. But what I could not see is how a black bar owner would be offered up as the murderer by some liberal, west coast American girl with a vibrator. Anderson offers a potential explanation: he says that the police, conducting their illegal interview of Knox five days after the murder, must have already known that a black man was involved. It seems to me this would mean they had some early lead from the forensic investigation (Ivorian-born Rudy Guede’s blood, semen, DNA and more were all over the crime scene). So the police would have heard from the ‘scientists‘ that there was a black man involved, at the same time as what they had in their hand was two young whities they believed were behaving strangely. By leaning on Knox in the middle of the night, they could connect up the dots via a story about a black bar owner who Amanda Knox knew well. Knox, Sollecito and Lumumba end up together in a motiveless ritual Satanic murder plot. Except that then the police realised that what they really had was hard forensic evidence on Rudy Guede. So the prosecuting team needed to switch to Knox, Sollecito and Guede in a motiveless ritual Satanic murder plot. Anything else would require the capacity to say you were wrong. This is of course a hypothesis. But unlike Mr Mignini’s, it is plausible.

Separately, after much to-ing and fro-ing with lawyers and libel specialists, I will soon be able to bring you the full and bizarre story of my own legal entanglements in Italy. Although the accusations are frivolous by Perugia standards, you will note a striking pattern of behaviour by police and magistrates. This, for me, is the most important good thing that can come out of the Knox-Sollecito miscarriage of justice: that people accept that there is a systemic pattern of failure in Italian justice. It is not about the people, it is about the structure they are using.

Meanwhile, look at these:

The chief investigator boasts on television that physical evidence was unnecessary in the Perugia investigation because the Italian police’s psychological interrogation techniques are so advanced. You really could not make this stuff up. Please send it viral. There are 5,000 hits so far.

This site I had not seen before. It looks, at first blush, to be carefully and sensibly done, though it places, for me, too much emphasis on Mignini and too little on the systemic failings of the Italian justice apparatus.

They have translated a small amount of the above site into Italian, though I have not yet had time to look:

Professor Plum and Miss Scarlett, in the bedroom, with big daggers and no motive …

December 8, 2009

The conviction of Raffaele Sollecito and Amanda Knox for, amongst other things, murder, in Perugia highlights a simple, cultural question: how do you like your theories – straight-up conspiracy, or otherwise? Because, it seems to me, you need to be a conspiracy junky to go for this one.

Despite a trial of 11 months, the basic issues of this case do not appear to be hugely complicated. First up, remember that the trial took 11 months largely because it only sat for, at most, two half days a week, and that the whole thing was stopped for two months because it was, err, the summer. If the court had concentrated full-time, Monday to Friday, on this case, and not skipped off to the seaside or wherever, a rough calculation suggests it would have been done in around 10 weeks. One point of view I completely disagree with is this, quoted from one Michele Ainis, who is cited as an expert in Italian constitutional law in The New York Times: ‘It’s true that the longer the trial,’ he says, ‘the longer the pain, but it also means that there can be an in-depth analysis of the facts.’ This conflates the kind of time wasting and dicking around that goes on in the Italian court system with a higher form of investigation. The truth, surely, is that this case reminds us of just how dangerous the Italian ‘part-time’ approach to legal cases may be.

So to the basic issues. There is a crime scene, the location of which – to my knowledge – no one disputes. It is the room of the murdered student Meredith Kercher, where her dead body was found. One person is tied to the crime scene by heavy forensic evidence – finger-prints, a bloody hand-print, and DNA. This is Rudy Guede, already sentenced to 30 years for Kercher’s murder in an earlier trial. There was no conspiracy theory about Guede. He was found because his prints and DNA were at the scene, and the police located him in their database (he already had a police record). When they went looking for Guede a couple of weeks after the murder, they discovered that he had fled from Italy to Germany.

Sollecito and Knox were not brought into the case because police found clear forensic evidence and then went looking for them. They were brought into the case because police and the investigating magistrate became suspicious of them, and then went looking for evidence. Perhaps critically, the authorities decided that Sollecito and Knox were involved before it was clear that prints and DNA at the scene belonged to Guede. Subsequently, the prosecution case became that all three persons were responsible for the murder.

So what evidence is there that Sollecito and Knox were present at the crime scene? There was no forensic evidence presented in the case to show that Knox had been in the room – no prints, no DNA, nothing. With respect to Sollecito, the prosecution said that traces of his DNA were found on a bra clasp belonging to Kercher which police bagged on a return visit to the crime scene 46 days after the murder. There was no other Sollecito DNA found in the room, including on the rest of the bra, and no prints. Despite this lack of forensic evidence, the prosecution made a case that Kercher was killed at the end of a violent sex game involving Guede, Sollecito and Knox. Perhaps you see now what I mean about one’s propensity for conspiracy theories. In order for this to be possible, Sollecito and Knox must have been present at the crime scene in such as way as to leave Guede’s forensic detritus all over the place and yet remove all of their own prints and DNA except for a bit of Sollecito’s on a bra clasp. How? The two explanations I can think of are a) that Sollecito and Knox took part in a sex game dressed in some kind of protective forensive overalls while Guede didn’t, or b) that afterwards Sollecito and Knox selectively cleaned up only evidence of themselves, leaving Guede’s intact, using some kind of finger print and DNA differentiator machine they happened to have about their persons.

This is not terribly compelling. Apart from the bra clasp (whose belated discovery points most obviously to shocking standards of police work), only two other bits of forensic evidence were presented against Sollecito and Knox. In a communal bathroom, where some drops of Kercher’s blood were found, there was Knox’s DNA. Given that Knox says she took a shower in the room the morning after the murder and noticed the blood, this hardly seems damning. Finally there is a tiny trace of what prosecutors claim is Kercher’s DNA on a knife at Sollecito’s apartment. This would be of real interest, except that the trace is so minute that independent experts say that it cannot be relied on (and indeed would not be admitted in many jurisdictions). Moreover, this knife is a possible fit for only one of three major wounds on Kercher’s body.

Given the paucity of forensic evidence against Sollecito and Knox, as opposed to the very substantial amount against Guede, most people, I suspect, would want to hear a compelling case for the motivation of the first two. After the chief prosecutor’s intimations of a cult killing (oh yes), about which I blogged back in February 2009, were knocked back, the prosecution had nothing more substantive to offer. The prosecutiing team switched, without any hard evidence, to an argument that Knox, orchestrating the murder, was driven by hatred of Kercher. As this line was pursued, the presiding judge, Giancarlo Massei, allowed both hearsay and subjective assessment to be offered in court. Chief prosecutor Mignini, for instance, told the court (referencing some missing money): ‘We do not know with certainty what intentions they [Guede, Sollecito, Knox, at the onset of their alleged murderous sex game] may have had. But it is possible that there was an argument, which then degenerated, between Mez [Meredith] and Amanda over the money that disappeared. Or perhaps the British student was upset by Guede’s presence.’

It is possible that horoscopes are based in scientific fact, that farting in Denmark can cause earthquakes in Japan, and that my dog can sing in Welsh. Nonetheless, such claims are not normally admissible in court without a demonstrable basis in fact. Here, for the record, are Mignini’s above remarks in the original Italian: ‘Non sappiamo con certezza [I suspect a logician or a philosopher might translate this as: ‘We have no clue’] che intenzioni avessero, ma è possibile che ci sia stata una discussione, poi degenerata, tra Mez e Amanda per i soldi scomparsi. O forse la studentessa inglese era contrariata per la presenza di Guede.’ Whatever the intention, said Mignini, group leader Knox, ‘voleva vendicarsi di quella smorfiosa troppo seria e morigerata per i suoi gusti’. So Knox led Sollecito, whom she had known for six days, and Guede, whom she barely knew, in a violent sex game which left no trace of her presence at the crime scene and ended in Kercher’s murder.

The question one asks next is how could a jury convict based on the evidence presented? We do not know and we should not speculate. Within 90 days the presiding judge will publish some kind of explanation. For now, however, it may be worth reflecting on what I understand to have been the methodology behind the jury’s decision.

In a British court, a judge provides direction to jurors (about things that must be considered, things which may not be considered), before they retire to consider their verdict. Moreover, jurors are ‘sequestered’, which means that they should not have been reading newspapers, watching television news, discussing the case with members of the public, and so on; they are supposed to concentrate exclusively on the case, which runs each working day until it ends.

A British judge’s direction to jurors is important and is frequently shown to have played a role in miscarriages of justice. The direction, however, is given in front of the court and the public. In a case such as that of Sollecito and Knox in Italy – as I understand it – it is two ‘professional’ jurors (i.e. members of the legal establishment) who sum up the evidence, and provide guidance as to what is most important, to six lay jurors in camera. Personally, I am at a loss as to what jurisprudential benefit this can offer. It means there is no clear public record of the direction that is provided. And it means that the lay jurors never escape from the paternal oversight of the court apparatus. This seems to me another example of the deference to the supposed expert with which Italy is plagued — rule by what in previous blogs I have termed a ‘bureaucratic aristocracy’. Myself, I would be much happier placing more trust in ordinary people. That is not the Italian way, despite – in my view – the daily evidence that it is this country’s professional classes that represent not its greatest asset but its biggest problem.

This brings us to the family of the murdered girl. After the verdicts, Kercher family members gave a press conference and made two points. The first is that in a situation like this you have to trust ‘the system’; the second is that they now have a decision and hence some kind of closure. Although I sympathise profoundly, I disagree with both these points. On the first, I know of no legal system in the world that has not produced miscarriages of justice; in the UK I followed some of these, professionally, in the distant past as a journalist. Given (for a rich country) the extreme institutional weakness of Italy, there is no case for blindly trusting the system here. The system can work in Italy, but it is reasonable to be more sceptical that it will than in most other OECD countries. On the second point, I suspect that within days of the verdicts (if not already) the Kerchers will realise these verdicts bring no closure, because the Italian justice system does not really do closure. Appeals are granted almost automatically. Moreover, as defence lawyers have been quick to note, the verdicts in this case of themselves demand appeals. With the conspiracy theory accepted, Guede is not alleged to have delivered the fatal blows, and yet has gone down for 30 years. Sollecito and Knox (the latter deemed to have delivered the mortal blow) have been given sentences of 25 and 26 years respectively. These are not the life (ergastolo) terms that the alleged crime would warrant. The sentences are inconsistent, almost made to be appealed. Indeed they look to some observers like ‘get me out of here and make this somebody else’s problem’ sentences on the part of the jury. And that is exactly what will happen in a process as likely to prolong as to curtail the suffering of Meredith Kercher’s family and friends.

On this question, here is something that I read in the Corriere della Sera: ‘Per la giuria popolare [i.e. the lay jurors] non è stata una decisione facile: condannare due ragazzi di 25 e 22 anni all’ergastolo sarebbe stato distruggere per sempre la loro vita; assolverli avrebbe significato sconfessare non solo l’intera inchiesta ma anche i giudici che prima di loro si sono espressi. Ed è arrivata una condanna a metà.’ Well, you said it, not me. If you don’t read Italian, what the newspaper appears to be suggesting is that Sollecito and Knox’s sentences were a compromise between embarrassing the court and the prosecution, and condemning the two to life in prison, which would be consistent with Guede’s term.

Separately, it is notable how upleasantly politicised this trial has become at the international level. This can only get worse. Knox is American, and various Americans are alleging anti-Americanism. I cannot see the evidence for this. Sollecito is Italian and he has gone down too. What is at issue here is the institutional weaknesses of Italian justice and the particular facts of the Perugia trial, not some assault on Uncle Sam. Moreover, Americans need to be a little careful about getting on their high horse over Italian justice. Theirs, after all, is the first country I am aware of to imprison fully one percent of its population, in an approach to law and order that most Europeans find despicable. This failure is not generally one of institutional shortcomings, but instead of a tolerance for levels of inequality and general ‘unfairness’ in society that are not present in Europe. Nonetheless, miscarriages of justice, as I said earlier, occur in all jurisdictions. The last case I paid any attention to before this one was OJ Simpson…

Those sceptical of the verdicts that have been handed down in Perugia need to remain closely focused. At the same time, I think Knox’s family is absolutely right to attract as much publicity as possible to the case. When confronted with institutional failure, as I have seen again and again in developing countries in Asia, it is essential to maintain the glare of public attention. This is the main way in which institutionally weak societies are compelled to confront their failings. The international noise needs to be loud, but not shrill.

Finally, finally, here is my reminder of the ways to create the kind of mess that this case represents: 1. lousy police work; the handling of the forensics in Perugia has been shoddy and yet the outcome of the case has rested largely on forensic evidence 2. A ‘professional’ class which sets its example by not following the rules. This is a society where policemen don’t wear seatbelts, park how they like, etc. In this case we have seen the judicial equivalent: despite rules which say that the findings of police investigations are secret until prosecutors ask for an indictment, in Perugia (as in almost all high-profile cases in Italy) there have been relentless leaks to the press from the outset. If the police and the magistracy leak information in contravention of basic rules of procedure, what reasonable expectation can there be for other people’s behaviour? Italian primary school teachers (thankfully) seem to understand that their job is about setting the right example, but not the rest of the Italian professional class. 

Links of interest:

A New York Times op-ed lets rip (but forgets about all those incarcerated Americans) before the verdicts are announced. 

From the Guardian’s generally excellent John Hooper, first a timeline for the murder and a guide to how weak forensic and circumstantial evidence might suggest that Sollecito and Knox were involved. 

Then Hooper’s review of questions raised about the Italian legal system and a discussion of questions of ‘face’ in Italy (something familiar to any student of China). Note that this story is filed after the one above and Hooper’s view, given more time for reflection, seems much more sceptical of the court’s decision. (I raise this point merely to remind readers of the pressures that serious journalists face, writing about complex issues to deadline.) 


Final statements to court. Personally, I am not convinced these statements reflect the greatest legal advice. Sollecito reads a rather anodyne prepared statement, with just a few (presumably huge) words on each page, and looks stilted.  Knox attempts some kind of sucking up to the court, thanking jurors and prosecution for doing their job. If I had been subject to the kind of investigation, detention and character assassination witnessed in this trial, I would not have been thanking anyone.

Another day, another local trial for Satanic ritual murder…

February 5, 2009

To be honest, I haven’t followed a single report about the Meredith Kercher murder case, where trial resumes today, assuming it to be a dull and brutal story that is much over-cooked by Italy’s lazy and sub-professional media.


It is. The bigger ‘Italian’ story surrounding the murder case however — a couple of hours’ reading reveals — is much more interesting. You will recall that Rudy Guede, an African-Italian against whom substantive evidence was presented (he also fled the country), was already sentenced to 30 years’ for the Kercher murder last October. Now, two Perugia-based students who barely knew Guede are being tried as co-parties to the murder. In the pre-trial phase the prosecutor suggested the whole thing was a ritual Satanist killing scheduled for Halloween, except that it had to be delayed 24 hours because of a competing dinner party. It has been suggested that the prosecutor knew this not merely because of tawdry ‘evidence’, but because his Roman blogger friend who gets messages from a dead priest told him so; she had an intuition that a Masonic sect called the Order of the Red Rose mandated the whole thing. One of my favourite journalists from the heyday of The Independent in the late 1980s, Peter Popham, explains in some detail. One wonders if Popham is aware that the prosecutor, Giuliano Mignini, occasionally imprisons journalists who annoy him, as this letter from the Committee to Protect Journalists makes clear. 


So the Kercher case is much more interesting than assumed. It highlights the leading role that conspiracy theory plays in Italian life. It points to police conduct that too often oscillates between the sinister (one current defendant’s ‘confession’ has been struck out because it was signed after 14 hours’ detention without access to a lawyer, or indeed anything to eat) and the incompetent (the forensic investigation featured one cock-up after another). And it also points to the curiosities of local public and professional opinion. Prosecutor Mignini might look like Jonny Bonkers (or perhaps Gianni Bonkers) to you or me, but he is a popular figure in Perugia, especially among the legal fraternity. Another very good journalist, The Grauniad’s John Hooper (formerly in Madrid, now Rome) gives his take here.


Still, we must always look on the bright side. Having impugned the Italian police (note I do not specify which of the 10 or so different Italian police forces I think are better and worse; a few are actually rather good) it is only fair to highlight the upside of the Italian approach to law and order. Three anecdotal points are offered: 1. Where else will the local head of the paramilitary police – the Caribinieri — join you in a consortium to import a truck-load of cut-price Milanese red wine and prosecco? 2. Where else do local traffic police only stop people they do not know, waving through seat belt-less, speeding residents? 3. Where else can you leave your car in the middle of a dual carriageway and come back next morning to find nothing more than a police ‘warning’ that this is not such a good place to park? (Admittedly, have not done the last one for a few years and they are reputed to have tightened up.) As to the Italian legal fraternity, I haven’t yet worked out what its redeeming qualities are.



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