Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Death in Perugia

I'd tried to stay away from the Amanda Knox/Rafael Sollecito appeal because it pushed all of the media's buttons about sex and death, and because I seemed almost alone in genuinely having no particular view on whether the two were innocent or guilty. The US media, playing along to an expert PR campaign by the Knox family, had made up their minds, and I found the media onslaught very offputting, but also completely understandable from the Knox family's point of view. In some cases, it's just such family pressure that can bring results. In the Lucie Blackman case, in Japan, the Blackman family media campaign got Tony Blair to raise the issue with the Japanese PM when progress appeared to be slow, and certainly pushed the Japanese investigation along faster than it would otherwise have gone.

But what we see through the media is only ever a superficial glimpse, and it's easy to get hold of the wrong end of the stick. I recently finished reading People Who Eat Darkness, about the Lucie Blackman case, and written by Richard Lloyd Parry, who was the Tokyo-based Asia correspondent for the Indie and later the Times, and who had a ringside view of the whole thing. While working on it, Parry became obsessed by the case, and while the book isn't quite Truman Capote's 'In Cold Blood', it is a fascinating look at all of the things we never got to see, and compelling about all kinds of things, from Japanese police/legal procedure, the seamy underside of Japan's generally pretty squeaky clean society, and the inevitable culture clashes when people from different parts of the world end up entangled. Thinking back to my own recollections of and preconceptions about the case, what struck me most of all was that - contrary to the received opinion back in the UK at the time - the Japanese police were actually pretty efficient and did a fairly good job. Most of the delay was after they had identified the chief suspect but before they had enough evidence to charge him, and so were mounting quite a comprehensive surveillance operation, and in the meantime refused to tell the family anything so as not to jeopardise the progress they had made, precisely because the family were forever giving press conferences. There was also a strong element of very Japanese over-caution and deliberateness. This set up the UK-Japanese culture clash that eventually went to the very top, when Blair raised the case with PM Junichiro Koizumi at a G8 meeting.

I was thinking about this while pondering the ins and outs of the Meredith Kircher case. At times like this, when there is a complex story involving a US suspect, a British victim and an Italian investigation, the press tends to drop consciously or even unconsciously into national stereotypes. The US media automatically assume a US citizen accused abroad is innocent, the Italian media automatically assume an accused foreigner is guilty. The British media did the same thing over the Louise Woodward case, even though she was certainly guilty of causing the child's death. The Kircher case is much more complicated, and Knox and Sollecito have deliberately muddied the waters with their rubbish alibi and confusing changes of statement about what happened, and clumsy attempt to frame the bar owner. I don't buy the prosecution's 'sex game' theory, but there is evidently much more than meets the eye to the case. But complex Italian internal politics, some slightly slipshod forensic work, and a media blitz such as only the US can manage have turned the whole thing into a circus. Maybe the truth will eventually emerge, but right now there are too many people with too great a stake in one particular version of the story for that to happen. In the meantime, I have to regard the verdict not as 'not guiilty', but as the Scots have it: 'not proven'.

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