American student Amanda Knox looks at photographers during the recent appeal hearing in Perugia, Italy on July 25.
By Keith Miller, NBC News Correspondent
PERUGIA, Italy – You reach the ancient hill top town of Perugia by a series of winding roads through the rolling hills of Umbria, traveling past huge poplar trees planted like giant windbreaks. To call it picture-perfect would be an injustice. This is what every American exchange student probably imagines Italy to be like.
The favorable impression is reinforced by the warm-colored and weathered stones that make up the walls surrounding the town.
But those walls also envelop a place where history has on many occasions been cruel. And its modern judicial system is giving those ancient injustices a new twist, embodied in the form of American student Amanda Knox, who has done even more to put Perugia on the map than the local chocolate factory, Perugina, known for its silver wrapped “Baci” (kisses).
There is little affection here for Knox, who has created a far greater stir than the annual international chocolate festival.
Portrayed in the Italian press as a spoiled and sexually promiscuous man eater, Knox, her former Italian boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito and Rudy Guede, an Ivorian resident of Perugia, were convicted and jailed in 2009 for the 2007 murder of Meredith Kercher, a British student and Knox’s roommate. Judges concluded that the killing came during a frenzied sex game that spiraled out of control.
People often ask if I think Knox is guilty of the murder she was convicted of committing. After three years of reporting on the crime, Knox’s trial and her punishment for the TODAY show, the answer is always the same: "I don't know if she is guilty, but I do know that the prosecution didn't prove it in court."
You can put that down to the inordinately inept Italian court system. As I responded when a reputable Italian newspaper reporter recently asked me my opinion on the proceedings: “I would rather be on trial in Cuba."
Add to that a plethora of lawyers, often working at cross-purposes. In this case, four legal teams, representing four different parties, were all taking a swing at Knox. On a given day the prosecutors’ table during the trial was more crowded than a popular pizza parlor
There were lawyers for the state, the victim’s family, an attorney representing a man accusing Knox of slander and an attorney for the convicted murderer Guede. Each had his say, and what they mostly said was conjuncture punctuated by sexual innuendo that would make Mae West blush.
And I must not leave out the chief prosecutor in the case, Giuliano Mignini, a great barrel of a man with a full head of gray hair swept back in the fashionable style of the Italian middle aged male. He cut a formidable figure in court. But as he was prosecuting Knox for murder, he himself was on trial in Florence for abuse of prosecutorial power in a previous murder trial.
As Knox was writing in her journal to pass the time in prison, Mignini was shuttling back and forth to Florence to defend himself in court. He was found guilty and given a suspended sentence.
This blatant breech of ethics was greeted by silence in Perugia. Mignini carried on his prosecution of Knox with the zeal of an evangelical preacher.
A sex game gone wrong?
Throughout the case, this prosecution was all about sex. Mignini formed a motive for the murder of 21-year-old Kercher early and stayed with it till the end. It was, he said, "a satanic ritualistic sex orgy that led to murder."
The Italian and British tabloids went positively feverish. They went straight to Knox’s Facebook page, uncovering the lurid that supposedly simmered in the fresh-faced girl. And the nickname she was given at the age of 8, when she played a crafty game of soccer. “Foxy Knoxy” just about sealed her fate.
On air I reduced the prosecution’s claim to "a sex game gone wrong." But at no time during the trial were there any facts presented to back up the claim.
Despite the complete lack of evidence to support his theory, Mignini conducted an imaginary dialogue between Knox and the victim as part of his closing arguments. Speaking for Knox, he imagined her saying to Kercher, "You’re behaving like a little saint. Now we will show you, now we will make you have sex."
The trial judge dismissing the sex game theory came up with his own motive suggesting Knox and her former boyfriend joined in attacking Kercher after they heard her screams as she was being molested by Guede. Not sex, but jealousy guided Knox, he said.
There was no evidence backing up this theory and no rationale, either. In the history of criminal prosecution, I doubt there is a single case where a person jumped at the chance to help a relatively unknown intruder in the dark of night, sexually assault and then stab a roommate to death. Never mind that the testimony delivered in court painted the relationship between Knox and Kercher as friendly.
So the trial in the absence of a rational motive came down to the DNA
Imagine for a moment a murder scene in a cramped student’s bedroom. A body on the floor, blood everywhere. There were bloodied hand prints on the headboard, cupboard and bloody foot prints on the floor.
All connected back to the man first convicted of the crime: Rudy Guede.
Holes in DNA evidence
There was not a single piece of DNA from Knox or her former boyfriend found at the crime scene. The prosecution claimed they cleaned up any trace of being there, but were clever enough to leave behind the clues leading to Guede.
Two 20-somethings, admittedly stoned from marijuana, buzzed from too much booze and in the grip of a supposed sadistic sexual fever decided, "Oh dear, let's mop up the blood, extract the hairs and wipe away any bodily fluids before we make our getaway."
I don't buy it. Never did.
Then this week the prosecution’s case took a hit.
Independent forensic experts appointed by the court took the stand on Monday and attacked key pieces of the evidence used to convict them.
The two court-appointed experts presented findings from a 145-page report they wrote after studying the DNA evidence.
The experts testified that a series of police blunders like not wearing protective caps and masks and allowing people to tramp in and out of the crime scene contaminated potential DNA evidence.
They also raised questions about evidence concerning the murder weapon, a large, black-handled kitchen knife found at Knox's boyfriend’s apartment. Prosecutors had insisted that Knox’s DNA was found on the handle of the knife and that Kercher’s DNA material was found on the blade. The forensic experts testified Knox’s DNA was found on the handle of the knife, but said there was no DNA from the victim.
Another crucial piece of evidence – a bloody bra clasp belonging to the victim that allegedly had DNA from Knox's boyfriend on it – was so badly handled that it was impossible to test, according to the forensic experts.
Knox's mother Edda Mellas, a school teacher from Seattle, was in tears at the conclusion of testimony. The legal fees and cost of maintaining a transatlantic connection to her daughter has nearly bankrupted the family, but they stand by Knox's insistence that she is innocent.
Appealing a murder conviction in Italy can be tricky. The judge could impose an even harsher sentence, but Knox has two things going for her. When the appeals judge agreed to examine the evidence presented in the first trial, it was an admission that the evidence could be flawed.
It wouldn't be the first time. Around 50 percent of appeals in major criminal cases in Italy end with the conviction being over turned.
The next hearing is scheduled for Saturday when the experts face cross-examination. Stay tuned….