The Red Zone is a faded disco club a dozen kilometers from Perugia, Italy’s city center. It is a wildly popular spot for the local university crowd, which fills the dance floors after midnight. The main hall is adorned with pulsating red neon palm trees and a giant discoball. Heart’s ‘80s hit “Barracuda” screams from the sound system.
It is perhaps no coincidence that Valter Biscotti is celebrating his 50th birthday here, playing guitar in a band that covers songs like “Smoke on the Water” and “We Will Rock You.” Biscotti is better known as the lead attorney for Rudy Guede, who was convicted last October for his part in the sexual assault and murder of British student Meredith Kercher. And this surreal club has frequently figured in the crime investigation. Guede, who is appealing his conviction, was a regular at The Red Zone. And it was here, jurors have been told, that Kercher first kissed her Italian boyfriend, Giacomo, on the same night that her American roommate, Amanda Knox, hooked up with Giacomo’s pal—one of several sexual liaisons she'd had since arriving in Perugia three months earlier.
Forensic evidence ties all three suspects to the scene of the murder. The defense claims it could have ended up there through bungled police work.
The theme of Biscotti’s birthday bash, according to the invitation, was the Oasis hit “Don’t Look Back in Anger.” But hours earlier in the Perugia courtroom, the theme was simply “don’t look.” The testimony on Thursday focused heavily on forensic methods. And when one witness showed a video of the crime scene, including Kercher’s bloodied foot and her face—eyes open—Knox looked away and hid her head in her hands. Raffaele Sollecito, who is standing trial with Knox for their alleged role in Kercher’s murder, didn’t flinch. “The video is very upsetting,” Amanda’s father Curt Knox said after the 10-hour hearing. “That was her friend that was murdered. It’s not something you want to look at.”
The troubling video could be a decisive element in this case because the defense claims that the crime scene was badly compromised during the collection of evidence. Alberto Intini, head of Italy’s national forensic team, disagrees. On the stand, he defended the forensics work and stressed that the crime scene had not been contaminated, especially under cross examination when the defense lawyers tried and failed to prove otherwise. "DNA does not fly around like pollen," he said, adding that he could prove it by the fact that his investigators left no traces during their work. “Not one fingerprint, footprint, genetic profile, or any nonidentifiable marks were found during the lab work which could be traced to any of the investigators on the scene."
Potential contamination of the crime scene is a crucial point of contention in this case because forensic evidence ties all three suspects to the scene of Kercher’s murder. The defense claims it could have ended up there through bungled police work. While Intini says that his team follows the protocols of the European Network of Forensic Science Institutes, everyone agrees that some mistakes were made. The key piece of evidence against Sollecito is his DNA on the clasp of Kercher’s bloodied bra, but the tiny clasp was only collected on December 18, 2007, more than 40 days after the murder. The jury also heard that of 108 fingerprints collected from the house, only 47 were viable. Of those only one, found on a glass in the kitchen, was attributable to Knox even though she admitted to being in the house on the morning of November 2, 2007, when Kercher’s body was discovered.
Other traces of Knox’s DNA have been found in the house, including her DNA mixed with Kercher’s blood in the bathroom where Knox says she showered the morning after the murder. But the lack of fingerprints has raised eyebrows. Those who believe Knox is guilty say this points to a cleanup. Those who defend her, including her attorney Carlo dalla Vedova, say that the police weren’t doing their jobs. He asked one of the investigators why fingerprints were not taken from other objects in the house, such as her books and guitar. “It is me and the officer responsible for the inspection who decides what should be analyzed,” testified Antonino Francaviglia. “We decide based on our investigative experience."
Last week, the jury spent several hours surveying the crime scene, focusing much of their time on Kercher’s small bedroom in the back of the house, where the brutal murder took place. In the courtroom earlier, as a preview to the tour, they heard testimony that Kercher endured “nonconsensual” sex in that room before being murdered, and that the most likely scenario was that not one but two knives were used to taunt, torture, and then kill her.
The idea of a second knife was a minor bombshell for those who follow the case. So far, all the attention has been on the one knife found in Sollecito’s apartment that prosecution witnesses say is consistent with a stab wound to Kercher’s neck. That knife has Knox’s DNA on the handle and a minute trace of DNA that could be attributed to Kercher in a groove on the blade. The second knife has never been found, but a trace outline of it was found on Kercher’s bed sheet. Testimony about the knives and a bloody footprint outside Kercher’s bedroom, which the prosecution says belongs to Knox, is expected when the trial resumes May 8. In late May, the prosecution is expected to call Knox to the stand.
Prosecutors told the court that they expect to wrap up their case by June 6. Then attorneys for the Kercher family will be allowed to call witnesses, including Kercher’s parents. After that, witnesses will be presented by attorneys for Patrick Lumumba—whose civil claim against Knox for falsely accusing him of the murder is being heard in tandem with the criminal trial.
It will likely be after an August break that Sollecito and Knox begin to mount a defense. Closing arguments are not expected before the second anniversary of Kercher’s brutal murder on November 1, 2009.
Barbie Latza Nadeau has reported from Italy for Newsweek magazine since 1997. She also writes for CNN Traveller, Budget Travel magazine and Frommer's.