It’s a story that seems handcrafted for media consumption and obsession: a pretty, young American student, swept up in a whirlwind romance while studying abroad, is accused, jailed and — just this past weekend – convicted of killing her British roommate. The ongoing trial has thrust both the Italian judicial system and what some are calling its anti-American sentiments into the international spotlight.
In a fairly conservative country rooted in a fairly conservative religion (Catholicism), it’s unsurprising that soon the press was sparking a puritanical witch hunt that painted the carefree Knox as “Foxy Knoxy,” a “she-devil” who had harnessed her sexual powers to manipulate the two young men into sexually assaulting and eventually killing her prim, studious roommate. Once this narrative had been unleashed on the press and public, forensic evidence found afterward that implicated Rudy Guede–a man with little connection to Knox or Sollecito–could not dismantle the harsh criticisms lobbed at her. Instead of acquitting Knox and backtracking on their initial condemnation of her, the prosecutors scored a 30-year sentence for Guede in a fast track trial, and got to work trying to fit Knox and Sollecito into the crime along with Guede.
It’s understandable that prosecutors would initially believe Knox was involved–if she’s innocent, which I believe she is, she couldn’t have acted guiltier. But the circumstantial evidence against her does not make up for the lack of forensic data and motive that are integral to proving “beyond a reasonable doubt” that she is guilty. Unfortunately, it seems Italian courts work the opposite way: a suspect is guilty until proven innocent.
I’ve been following the news that continues to surface in the trial’s aftermath with more than the usual dose of morbid fascination. There is something compelling about its incongruous pieces, but there is one particular thing that haunts me: while in prison awaiting trial, Knox was told she was HIV positive and asked to give a list of names of her sexual partners. This list of seven men was then used as evidence against her in court, evidence that she was wild and uncouth and slutty. Evidence that she was unconscionably manipulative, a man-eater who sleeps around and is incapable of understanding remorse. This kind of slut shaming would never stand in an American court, but in Italy it worked: the narrative the press had run with about her coquettish behavior seemed to be confirmed by this “long” list of sexual partners. And of course, as it turns out, she was never HIV positive.
By all accounts, Knox seems to fit a very typical narrative of the American student abroad. She encompasses a very distinct feeling that emerges when you are young studying in a foreign country: above all things, nothing you do abroad seems to count. It’s as if you’re living a life that’s not your own. It’s part of what makes going abroad such an incredible experience for students, and such a nightmare for the locals whose towns are consistently swarmed with drunk Americans.
For me, this case seems to boil down to an age-old culture clash. The fact that Knox never cried in public could very easily be viewed as the behavior of a troubled and terrified young woman struggling to find an appropriate way to grieve. Her sexual experiences are not particularly different from your average young American woman. But in a place where premarital sex is largely frowned uponand emotions run high, it was all too easy for Knox to be punished for the simple fact that she was young, careless, and in the wrong place at the wrong time. While her lack of respect in the face of her roommate’s murder is troubling and even callous, it should take a lot more than medieval moral outrage to convict her.