Amanda Knox is driven to court at midnight Dec. 5, 2009, to hear the sentence in her murder trial. Knox and her former Italian boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito were convicted of the murder of British student Meredith Kercher.(Photo: File photo by Franco Origlia, Getty Images)
by Susan Page, USA Today
- In a five-hour interview, she details lessons she's learned
- An ABC special on her case airs at 10 ET Tuesday
- In worst-case scenario, Italy could seek her extradition and force her to finish her 26-year prison term there
SEATTLE - As always, waiting was the hardest part.
Amanda Knox was waiting last month to hear the verdict from Italy's highest court on her case, the sensational murder charges that had put the American exchange student in prison for four years before an appeals court reversed her conviction. Now back home, too anxious to stay in her small downtown apartment, she went to her mother's house with her boyfriend and best friend. Her father and stepmother stopped over.
They decided to pass the time by watching a movie, settling on The Hunger Games.
Watching the story of a post-apocalyptic world didn't exactly calm her nerves, "but it definitely was distracting, at the very least," Knox says ruefully. The science-fiction film was forgotten when her lawyer called from Rome at 2 a.m. with news all too real. The Court of Cassation had ruled she would have to stand trial again for the 2007 murder of her British roommate, Meredith Kercher.
"It had gone as we had not foreseen and exactly as we had hoped against," Knox said quietly in an exclusive interview with USA TODAY about her new book, Waiting to Be Heard, released today by HarperCollins. "It's just this thing that's laying so heavy on my heart right now."
It was the first sit-down, face-to-face interview Knox had done with a reporter, followed by other interviews about her book with People magazine and ABC News' Diane Sawyer. An ABC special, Murder. Mystery. Amanda KnoxSpeaks, airs at 10 ET tonight.
Her dream, however distant, of having Kercher's parents take her to visit Meredith's grave are on hold. Instead, she ruminates about returning to Italy for the new trial - her presence isn't required - as a statement of what is at stake for her. The coming courtroom battles in Florence and Rome and, potentially, the United States may well stretch into years.
"I thought there was an end to the field of barbed wire, and it's like it was just the hill," she says, fighting back tears. She had reached "a crest" only to see more peril ahead before she finally might clear her name, reclaim her life and move on.
The decision to order a new trial came as Knox has returned to school at the University of Washington, started a long-term relationship with a musician boyfriend, eased the panic attacks she suffered in prison and afterward, and finished a book detailing her experiences and what she learned from them about perseverance and public identity.
WISH LIST: What Amanda Knox wrote in her journal
BOOK LIST: Various takes on the Amanda Knox case
INTERVIEW: Excerpts from Amanda Knox's interview with USA TODAY
COURTS: Legal case against Amanda Knox not closed
The 463-page book chronicles her version of a story that has transfixed tabloid newspapers and cable TV on two continents. Italian prosecutors portrayed her as a manipulative, promiscuous "Foxy Knoxy" who helped kill her roommate when a sex-and-drug game went awry. She has become instantly recognizable and notorious, lumped in a skit on Saturday Night Live two weeks ago with the Unabomber and the Menendez brothers.
She portrays herself as a naive kid far from home who found herself enmeshed in a spiraling nightmare, the victim of an errant prosecution. Independent analysts have concluded that the microscopic DNA that helped convict her and her former Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, was mishandled and unreliable. She blames herself for misjudgments and missteps, especially for signing a statement indicating she was at the scene during the murder and implicating an innocent man. She says she did so only after a long and abusive interrogation and quickly recanted it.
After an interview in her hometown that stretches for five hours, it is hard to reconcile the prosecutors' picture of a depraved murderer with the lithe, earnest 25-year-old trying to regain her footing. She had left Seattle in 2007 as a college junior eager for adventure and determined to learn a new language at the University for Foreigners in Perugia, Italy. Four years later, she returned graver, warier and fluent in the Italian she ended up perfecting in prison.
She didn't cancel the long-scheduled session with USA TODAY despite the unexpected bad news from the Italian court five days earlier.
"This is my way of speaking up for myself," she says. Doing the interview is a chore to be endured, she says, but after the travails of the past few years, "I don't dread a whole heck of a lot. The only thing that I could really say is similar to dread is this waiting, and this not knowing what's going to happen. Waiting was always the hardest part."
AN IMPISH SIDE
Her quirky manner and delicate beauty was one reason Amanda Knox initially drew the suspicion of Italian law-enforcement officials. Her photogenic face, catnip for the paparazzi, helped ignite feverish coverage of her arrest and trial. The author of one of the dozen books about her case wrote that she bore "an uncanny resemblance to Perugia's Madonna." Shoulder-length brown hair frames her oval face. She has blue eyes and a wide grin, though she flashes it less often than she once did.
An impish side still occasionally breaks through. During a photo-taking session at a local park, she tries to loosen her staged pose using advice a photographer friend once gave her. "Squirm!" she shouts at herself, jumping and wiggling, then settling with a smile at the camera.
During an extended sit-down interview, though, she is contained, serious and still. She pauses to ponder questions and audibly exhales in relief when she finishes an answer. She responds directly even at times when her lawyers (who weren't present) might have preferred a dodge.
Will she return to Italy for her retrial?
"My lawyers have said that I don't have to and that I don't need to. I'm still considering it, to be honest," she replies. She has been turning it over in her mind since the court decision. "It's scary, the thought. But it's also important for me to say, 'This is not just happening far away from and doesn't matter to me.' So, somehow, I feel it's important for me to convey that. And if my presence is what is necessary to convey that, then I'll go."
She added that she wanted to understand the legal risks before making a decision. Now her lawyer, Carlo Dalla Vedova, has announced that Knox won't return to Italy for it.
Her legal future is full of uncertainty. The Italian high court has another two months before it's required to release a decision explaining its ruling. The justices' reasoning will help shape the retrial at an appeals court in Florence. That verdict, for conviction or acquittal, could be appealed again to the high court.
In her worst-case scenario - if the appeals court convicts her, and the high court upholds that conviction - Italy could seek her extradition from the United States to finish her 26-year prison term, set by the trial court in 2009.
The negotiations over that might become a diplomatic and legal showdown that breaks ground in transnational law. "National boundaries are counting much less today as we travel more, so we're going to see more of this," Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz says. "But we haven't seen a case like this" before.
For Knox, concerns about a conviction are, naturally, more personal.
"There's always a possibility, is my understanding of the way it works, just because there are human failings in a justice system," she says. "I would hope that, should that ever happen - and I don't think it will - people would still believe in me no matter what a legal system says when it's wrong. That would be my hope. I don't know if it would mean they would take me back to prison. I don't know." She pauses.
"I sincerely hope not, and I have a life that I want to live, I want to have the right to live. And I guess the one thing that I can say is, I've already confronted in my mind the thought that I would never leave prison."
MAKING TO-DO LISTS
The night before her initial conviction was overturned by an appeals court, Knox drew a line down a page in her journal. She wrote side-by-side lists of what she would do under the possible outcomes: if she was acquitted, if her 26-year sentence was affirmed, and if she was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
If she could return home to Seattle right away, she put eight items on a wish list, from getting an apartment with her best friend - done - to repaying her parents and grandmother for the loans and mortgages they took out to pay her legal fees. (The $3.8 million advance she got for her book has gone a long way toward fulfilling that.) Now, a year and a half later, she has completed or at least taken some steps toward each item on the list. She has been in a relationship with her musician boyfriend, James Terrano, for more than a year.
If she had to complete her sentence, with the prospect of getting out of prison when she was in her 40s, she listed eight other goals, from graduating long-distance from the University of Washington - "even possible?" she wrote to the side - to getting a better job in prison.
She added three more items if she was sentenced to life imprisonment with no possibility of parole. She would stop writing letters home, she wrote, and she put question marks after two others. "Ask family and friends to forget me?" And: "Suicide?"
Other prisoners had attempted suicide while she was there, some successfully and others not. She knew the most reliable way to try, using a plastic bag. "I have a great amount of respect for life and I always think that no matter how bad situations get, you can always make something out of it," she says in the interview. But it is possible to get to the point of being "so sad that you don't even want to try."
"That is the thing that I was scared of - that I would know intellectually that there's something to glean out of life, but that I would be so broken that I wouldn't care. I just wouldn't want to fight anymore."
The next day, the appeals court set her free, prompting cheers from some in the courtroom and boos from others. Experts appointed by the appeals court had concluded that the DNA samples found on the purported murder weapon and a bra clasp - the most important physical evidence against Knox and Sollecito - were too small to be conclusively matched to anyone. Some of the evidence had been mishandled and potentially tainted by investigators.
(Other DNA evidence helped convict Rudy Guede, now 26, of the murder; the Ivory Coast drifter and petty criminal is now serving a 16-year sentence. Prosecutors argue Knox and Sollecito acted in concert with him; the defense argues he acted alone.)
Knox was rushed back to the prison for her things. Guards returned the passport they had seized four years earlier. "I didn't recognize my passport photo," she writes in her book, seeing a picture of a "younger me" ready to set off for Italy. "I felt sad to see her. I wanted to say, 'You have no idea what's going to happen to you.'"
'WHAT DO YOU DO?'
These days, one of Knox's favorite hangouts is a tea house near her apartment in the funky International District in downtown Seattle, on the ground floor of the historic Panama Hotel, opened in 1910. On this afternoon, the proprietor, Jan Johnson, has brought out some snapshots that show the empty space before it had been converted into a brick-lined retreat for tea and espresso.
Knox is admiring the pictures when Johnson notices the reporter and photographer trailing her. "What do you do?" she asks with friendly curiosity. Knox, accustomed to encountering strangers who know altogether too much about her, seems surprised at the anonymity. "I'm a writer," she finally replies, smiling.
At the same time, though, teenagers at a table are elbowing one another and pointing at Knox. A girl snaps a photo on her cellphone, then shows her friends, giggling.
Knox often wears glasses, in part because she became increasingly nearsighted in prison and in part because it makes her less recognizable. When she returned to classes at the University of Washington, to her discomfort some students would take her picture in class and post it on Twitter; that rarely happens anymore. In her creative-writing class, she sometimes writes on themes drawn from her days in prison, and it is no longer such a big deal to anyone, she says.
When she first arrived in Seattle, she suffered nightmares and panic attacks. Her family worried that she might have post-traumatic stress disorder. She reluctantly agreed to see a counselor, who urged her to talk about whatever she liked.
"I started talking about the here-and-now, about the things that I went through, just the things that I was struggling with - like I was disappointing the people I loved because I wasn't the same person anymore," she recalls. "And I worried and I feared that I was disappointing them by not coming back quite the same."
Suddenly she found herself weeping uncontrollably and feeling trapped. She called her boyfriend, who picked her up. She never went back.
HOPING FOR CLOSURE
Knox insists she had no involvement in this grisly crime against a roommate she describes as a friend. She felt a natural kinship with her 21-year-old British roommate, she says, both adventurous young women with divorced parents. She disputes accounts that they didn't like one another. She says she was shocked and shaken when Meredith's body, her throat slit and her partially nude body covered with a duvet, was found in the cottage they shared with two young Italian women.
At the time of the murder, she says, she and Sollecito were at his apartment, watching a movie and smoking a joint. ("Marijuana was as common as pasta" for her and her friends in Italy, she writes.)
In her book, Knox walks through each step of her interrogation and piece of evidence for her view of what it means and, in some cases, how she says it was skewed by Italian law-enforcement officials. Police and prosecutors devised a bizarre theory of the murder and refused to be swayed, even in the face of contradictory evidence, she says. At times she blames herself for failing to understand what was happening - for not being as mature, as smart or as strong as the situation demanded.
She hopes her book "shows the growing-up-ness" of the experience, she says. She struggled to stay calm and sane while held in the Capanne prison, fighting for her freedom and leaning on the prison's Catholic chaplain, Don Saulo Scarabattoli. She rebuffed sexual overtures from guards, she says, and avoided provocation from aggressive and unpredictable fellow prisoners.
She knows there are those who will never believe she is innocent, possibly including Kercher's family. Of perhaps two dozen books published about her case, she has read only a few, including Meredith, written by father John Kercher and published last spring. In it, Kercher, a British journalist, describes Knox's conviction as hard-won justice.
"It matters to me what Meredith's family thinks," Knox says. "It does affect me - me, and the peace that I have inside." Tears well in her eyes again. "I would hope, like, I really hope that the Kerchers read my book, and they don't have to believe me. I have no right to demand anything of anyone. But I hope they try."
She has hesitated to contact them. "I've always been afraid of just upsetting them, and I feel like as long as there's question of my involvement in Meredith's death, I don't want to impose myself on them." She had thought that reaching out might be possible once Italy's highest court had affirmed her acquittal.
Instead, their decision for a retrial has become one more barrier. She will have to convince another court of her innocence before the case could be closed. "It's this, this, this field of barbed wire that I'm having to crawl through so I can finally get to the side where, OK, we're finally on the same side" as the Kercher family.
"The ideal situation in my mind is that they could show me Meredith's grave. Because it was like, I wasn't allowed to grieve, either, and that would mean a lot to me." An hour later, she raises the same prospect again when asked whether this episode of her life would ever truly be over.
"I really want to go see her grave," she says. "And right now I don't feel like I have the right to without her family's permission. So that's something that I want to work toward to get closure."
She is wearing a small gold necklace of a dove. The chaplain gave it to her the night she was waiting for the appeals-court decision that, it turned out, reversed her conviction.
"He gave it to me to remind me I am free, no matter where I am," she says, touching it like a talisman. "I don't wear it always, but I wear it on important occasions, and when I need to remind myself of that."