Powerful assessment of a tragic crime and its disastrous aftermath.
The 2007 murder of British student Meredith Kercher in the university town of Perugia, Italy, at first seemed scandalously comprehensible: The victim’s amoral American housemate, Amanda Knox, bewitched two Italian men into a “sex game” gone bad. Journalist and Elle contributing editor Burleigh (Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed, and Forgery in the Holy Land, 2008, etc.) argues that Knox and her equally naive boyfriend became unwitting scapegoats to a fumbled investigation and a volatile mix of Italian gender issues and local mores (she adeptly portrays Perugia as a gritty, conservative region with a tangled history). Although authorities quickly convicted Rudy Guede, a troubled local, they then successfully prosecuted Knox despite a near-total lack of credible evidence, other than her strange outbursts and writings. “The scenario presented by the prosecution was not very plausible,” writes the author. “The two students did not behave like guilty people…[but] were guilty of callous, blithe, and stupid behavior.” It was this that damned them from the Italian perspective, but Burleigh establishes that Knox’s adolescent self-indulgence was both typically American and reactive to a seamy European hedonism that is both moralistically condemned and economically tolerated. The author writes in a colorful, amped-up style that’s also thoughtful and detail-oriented, capturing how this cross-cultural milieu spawned a murder case in which all involved—the Italian authorities, the feckless youngsters, the media—look awful. Burleigh establishes much background information, allowing her to plausibly indict a “labyrinthine judicial bureaucracy lacking any official public face or any rules of transparency.” She notes that in Italy, the police often sue defendants for slander, and “defense witnesses…are not sworn in, and they are presumed to be lying.” Ultimately, she argues, Knox simply made a more fascinating villain than Guede, despite his burglaries and damning forensic evidence. Her devastating conclusion shows how actual physical evidence supports Knox’s alibi and suggests that the disturbed Guede acted alone.
Burleigh’s propulsive narrative and the many unsettling aspects of the case make this a standout among recent true-crime titles.