Monday, October 17, 2011

Trial and error: Interview with Carlo Dalla Vedova, Amanda Knox's Italian-Irish lawyer

Carlo Dalla Vedova, the Italian-Irish defence lawyer who represented Amanda Knox in her sensational murder case, believes that fundamental errors by the Italian police led to her original conviction

By Jennifer O'Connell

Last weekend, after four years, Carlo Dalla Vedova finally got the phone call for which he’d been waiting.

‘‘Ciao Carlo," the voice on the other end of the line said. ‘‘It’s Amanda."

‘‘She was walking in the forest near her home, and she just called to say she was fine," Dalla Vedova says.

‘‘Do you know that was the first time we ever talked on the phone? Every other time we’ve spoken, it’s been in the jail in Perugia or in the courtroom. So it was good to get the first call. I felt a particular emotion, getting that phone call."

It’s hardly surprising that the emotion is still evident in the soft-spoken, Italian-Irish lawyer’s voice. When we speak, it is exactly a week since Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito were acquitted of the murder of 21-year-old British student Meredith Kercher.

Whatever you thought of her before - and everyone had a view on the woman the media had always called ‘Foxy Knoxy’, a nickname her friends and family say she got for her footballing skills - it was difficult to remain unmoved by the intensely emotional scenes in the courtroom that day.

As the acquittal was read out, Knox seemed almost to collapse in on herself, her shoulders heaving as she buried her face in her hands.

It was left to Dalla Vedova, who was seated beside her, and his colleague, Maria del Grosso, to prop her up.

Only a brief smile over his shoulder at Amanda’s family betrayed any emotion on Dalla Vedova’s part.

When the cameras panned back on the sparse courtroom, which had erupted into cheers and chaos as Knox and Sollecito were led out, Dalla Vedova cut a serene figure in the centre of the maelstrom: standing in front of the bench where he had just pulled off the most high-profile acquittal of his career, he calmly removed and folded his collar and robes.

‘‘We were all tired," he says. ‘‘She was very fragile by the end of that week – it was a very difficult week. It went on until 7, half past 7, in court every day, and the outcome was never certain.

Amanda was very scared. She wasn’t sure that the court was going to dismiss the case against her, so she was frightened."

The path to freedom for his client was a long and at times a very uncertain one - though Dalla Vedova says that he never doubted Knox’s innocence or that she would ultimately be acquitted.

‘‘I never had any doubts," he says. ‘‘It was a mistake from the beginning, a case that should never have come to trial. I am happy that Amanda is home and happy that the mistake has been rectified. What happened [on October 3] was the correct application of a principle of law. Justice has superseded a terrible mistake."

Just two days after handing down the acquittal verdict, Judge Claudio Pratillo Hellmann was reported in Italian newspapers as saying that: ‘‘This will remain an unsolved truth. No one can say how things went." It was an odd statement for a judge to make of two people he had just acquitted of murder.

But it may well be the case that the ‘real truth’ of what happened that November night in 2007 in the house on Perugia’s Pergola Road, events which culminated in the brutal murder of Meredith Kercher, will never be known.

And Dalla Vedova, for one, is not about to start speculating. However, he is adamant about one thing: his client was not there.

‘‘I’m a defence lawyer and I defend my clients. That is my job. My job is not to point to the guilt of other parties," he says emphatically, when asked about the judge’s suggestion that Rudy Guede, who is serving a 16-year sentence for Meredith’s death, did not act alone. ‘‘You will not find one word in the transcripts of this trial on Rudy Guede."

However, later in our conversation, he refers to the case as a ‘‘single person murder’’.

I ask him about revelations during the trial that a number of fingerprints had been found in the house, which had never been assigned to anyone.

‘‘There were a number of fingerprints that have been described as ‘not attributed’, but that’s not necessarily significant," Dalla Vedova says. ‘‘There were people coming in and out all the time - four people were living there, remember. So maybe they were there because there were friends and parties going on in the house. They were students, so people were coming and going."

He believes the damming criticisms made during the appeal of the way evidence was collected and handled could be extended to other, more fundamental errors in the investigation and to two in particular.

‘‘I always knew from the beginning, from the day we were appointed, that Amanda was innocent," Dalla Vedova says. ‘‘She was always clear that she had spent that night with Raffaele. ‘‘The problems started during the activity at the criminal phase of the investigation – Amanda was questioned for 55 hours in five days, and during that time she had no legal representation. The authorities identified Amanda as a possible suspect, and then they set about amassing evidence. The decision was taken too quickly - that was the first mistake."

The second mistake, he says, was in the failure of the investigators to recognise the first one.

‘‘Mistakes sometimes are difficult to admit, especially when there were so many people involved. The order of arrest of Amanda was signed by 36 people - that means 36 police officers and prosecutors signed it.

‘‘At 3 o’clock on the day of the arrest, they held a press conference and announced that the case was closed - that was four days after Meredith’s death. Four days," he says, still incredulous.

‘‘Then they looked for evidence to connect Amanda to the scene. There was no evidence in the room where Meredith died, but they found Amanda’s DNA in a drop of blood in the bidet in the bathroom. They found nothing at the crime scene, and of course there would be her DNA in the house - she was living there."

Then there was a further twist. All the evidence in Meredith’s bedroom pointed to an as-yet unknown person, rather than to Knox or Sollecito.

Investigators quickly announced that they had another suspect, a west African drifter and small-time crook, Rudy Guede, who had been arrested on several previous occasions for breaking and entering in possession of a knife, and repeatedly released. He was hauled back from Germany, where he had fled after the murder, and arrested on arrival in Italy.

His trial was fast-tracked when he admitted being in the house, and he is serving a 16-year sentence for Meredith’s murder.

‘‘When they found the handprint, the bloody handprint on a pillow case that was under Meredith’s body - they should have realised immediately that this murder was a single-person murder," Dalla Vedova says. ‘‘They released Patrick Lumumba (the Congolese bar owner, whom Knox had implicated during initial questioning - under duress, she would later say), but they kept Sollecito and Knox in the picture. This was the second mistake."

Once they had decided on the American’s guilt, and that of her Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, the prosecutors set about finding a motive – what Dalla Vedova would call during his summing up as ‘‘fantasy and hypothesis’’.

Prosecutor Giuliano Mignini offered the jury an elaborate story in which Knox wanted to scare her housemate in a sex game, but Knox got stoned, a knife was introduced, and the game went too far. Knox was portrayed as a temptress who would lead the two men on what would later be called ‘an unstoppable crescendo of violence’’, partly to get revenge on Meredith Kercher, because she had criticised her promiscuity and hygiene.

Lumumba’s lawyer, meanwhile, described Knox as ‘‘a diabolical, satanic, demonic she-devil’’ who ‘‘likes alcohol, drugs and hot, wild sex’’.

Dalla Vedova says the suggestion that there was ever conflict between Knox and her housemate is a fallacy.

‘‘Amanda was always friends with Meredith," he says. ‘‘She always said that from day one - they were friends. The day before the murder was Halloween and they were in touch with each other on SMS, trying to meet up. Plus there’s a number of pictures of them together. So that was another big mistake made by the prosecution, to imply that they were not friends. Amanda was a friend of Meredith, and I think Meredith’s mother knows that, despite what has been said in the media."

But of all the mistakes made, the most serious - and ultimately the most fatal - related to the manner in which evidence was collected.

Much was made of the discovery of traces of Sollecito’s DNA on Kercher’s bra clasp. But videos shown in court portrayed the investigators picking the clasp up, passing it from hand to hand, dropping it again and then picking it back up, before finally taking it away in a plastic bag, to be tested six weeks later. Further testing was inconclusive, and the clasp has now rusted so cannot be retested.

The other key piece of prosecution evidence was a knife found in Sollecito’s apartment, which, investigators claimed, had traces of Kercher’s blood on the blade, Knox’s fingerprints on the handle, and had been washed in bleach.

The independent forensic experts appointed by the court to review the case during the appeal found that the knife had not been cleaned with bleach, and if it had any traces of Kercher’s blood, they were far too small to test.

In fact, other experts have claimed, it had nothing more incriminating on it than potato starch. As Dalla Vedova pointed out in court, its blade didn’t match the wounds on Kercher’s body.

‘‘They should have realised that as soon as there was a new person that the decision to announce ‘case closed’ was premature - all the evidence pointed to Guede, he admitted to being there, there was evidence connected to him in the house, in the room, even inside the body. What more do you need?" Dalla Vedova says.

What they now needed, it seems, was to save face - ‘la faccia’, as it’s known in Italy.

Once the ‘caso chiuso’ announcement had been made, it was difficult to row back on. His reputation - the reputation of the entire Italian police force - was on the line.

A sustained media assault, fuelled by police leaks, was launched on Knox. In his summing up to the jury, Dalla Vedova described her as ‘‘crucified’’ and ‘‘impaled’’ by the media reports.

However, despite everything that his client suffered, Dalla Vedova does not believe the Italian legal system has been damaged and points out that the process was ultimately vindicated.

‘‘I don’t think there’s any damage to the Italian justice system," he says. ‘‘Italian justice has been proved to be fair: a terrible mistake was made, and that terrible mistake has been rectified.

‘‘There are a number of legal systems that do not provide the right of appeal. But the appeal has been introduced by our legislature to act as a check against mistakes. Our legal system gives that guarantee to the individual that they can appeal if they believe a verdict is unfair. It could have been faster, it could certainly be criticised for being slow, but it was fair."

The Amanda Knox who appeared in court for the verdict on her appeal was a different woman to the baby-faced 20-year-old, who thoughtlessly kissed her boyfriend outside the house where her flatmate had been brutally murdered, and callously performed cartwheels and did splits while she was waiting to be questioned by the police.

‘‘Oh yes she has matured," her lawyer says. ‘‘She was a naive girl at the beginning, she was only 20. Even one day in jail will change you and she was there for four years. She has grown."

Media reports from Seattle last week suggested that she was slowly reclaiming the pieces of her old life: the only time she has been seen out in public was during a trip to the supermarket to buy toothpaste and a Hershey bar.

What are Dalla Vedova’s hopes for her for the future? He pauses, as though he’s hardly had time to consider anything beyond the acquittal. ‘‘My hopes for Amanda? I don’t know - I hope she goes back to study, I hope she can find a new balance in her life, and some happiness. I would like her to be happy."

Dalla Vedova laughs when I wonder if he’s off on a long holiday now - though he is planning a short trip to Dublin soon which he says will be for ‘‘family and business’’ reasons.

His mother, Lolly Maguire, was brought up in Brighton Square in the south Dublin suburb of Rathgar. She married an Italian lawyer, Carlo’s father, Riccardo Dalla Vedova, and moved with him to Rome, where they raised their family. Carlo and his brother have both joined the family law practice.

The 48-year-old remains in frequent contact with his family here.

‘‘My mother is Irish, I am Irish, and my children are Irish," he says.

So who did he support in the Rugby World Cup? He laughs. ‘‘I was sorry about Italy, but we will look forward to the Six Nations," he says.

In the meantime, his thoughts have turned to the next phase in the process of clearing Knox’s name.

Mignini has already said he is confident the Court of Cassation, Italy’s highest appeals tribunal, ‘‘will deliver justice’’, although this court is only able to review evidence, and observers believe it’s unlikely Knox would ever be extradited from the US now.

‘‘For now, the next thing we have to wait for is the publication of the motivation," Dalla Vedova says. ‘‘This is the judge’s reason behind the decision, and it must be filed within 90 days, so by January 3. At that stage, there will be a possibility to appeal to the Supreme Court.

‘‘I’m a bit surprised that it has been announced so widely before the document was published that the prosecution intends to appeal. I’m sure this is premature."

But he insists he is ready to carry the fight on for as long as it takes.

‘‘We are not worried," he says. ‘‘We are ready to fight again - if there will be a new appeal opposing this decision, then we will be ready."

This interview was first published in The Sunday Business Post on October 16, 2011


  1. Bravo Carlo! You are a magnificent lawyer and a very fine man.

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